4 minute read

This conversation is part of our series, Walking the talk, which explores the diversity of the UK’s charities and foundations, with perspectives from both in and outside the sector. Find the full collection here. 

The young working class people we work with at RECLAIM don’t need the stats to know the sector has a class diversity problem. They hear it most times charity leaders open their mouths.

They regularly roll their eyes when they hear “disadvantaged”, “hard to reach” and the like. Always well meaning, but always the language of weakness working class people don’t use about ourselves.

Charities do brilliant things for people on low incomes (it’s why I’ve spent most of my career in them), and they’ve been on a long journey since Victorian moralising about ‘fallen women’ and the undeserving poor.

But that journey is far from complete and it shows. Take the widely sector-endorsed and brilliantly-intentioned recent report of the UN Special Rapporteur. In his opinion, people on low incomes risk lives that are ‘nasty, brutish and short’. Growing up on a low income is hard; I know that firsthand. It’s a constant source of stress and shame. But seriously – nasty? Brutish? I wonder if he said that to anyone’s face.

This is an extreme version of ‘poshsplaining’, but the phenomenon is commonplace.

 

When I worked at Shelter a few years ago I got us to ask groups of people facing serious housing problems to review a variety of charity campaigns and fundraising materials. As suspected, they weren’t huge fans. They – with good reason – called themselves ‘strong’, ‘resilient’, ‘hardworking’ and, crucially, ‘hidden’. The charities called them the ‘most vulnerable’.

Privilege makes you stupid because its blinds you to aspects of life. You need to work hard to see past it (I’m in the foothills of being less thick on structural racism, sexism and many other things), and it’s important we do.

If you’re poshsplaining you’re not simply failing to speak to the people you are trying to help, you’re driving them away and compounding their sense of shame. This is summed up brilliantly by a food recycling charity near us who gets it: ‘We’re definitely not a poverty project. We’re an environmental project. And there’s a reason for that. Everybody’s got pride’. Right-wing populists sadly get it too and often do a better job at speaking to some working class people’s pride than many charities.

But, partly thanks to the Brexit referendum shock, there is a growing movement within the sector to ensure charities take the next modernising step to tackle their class diversity problem. We’ll know if it’s working because we’ll all sound less like a 1960s sociology professor and more human.

‘Giving a voice to the voiceless’ is old fashioned. Get people from low income backgrounds involved in co-production. Better still, employs us and give us positions on boards. 1 in 4 people are categorised as in poverty right now – the pool of talent is enormous. Start monitoring class diversity too (so much easier than you’d think). If you’re a funder, join the conversation we’ve started with the Alex Ferry Foundation to explore how class is considered in funding decisions.

The hardest thing is creating a culture where people feel comfortable talking about their experiences. The charity sector does not employ or promote enough working class talent, but it does a bit. It’s telling then how few people from low income backgrounds feel comfortable publicly bringing their experience to their work. I know, it took me until I was a senior manager.

Experiences of adversity are too often seen as a ‘case study’ (deserving of some guilty sad face) rather than vital expertise it would be crazy to be missing from a team. This is why ‘social mobility’ isn’t enough. We don’t just need people from diverse backgrounds at all levels, we need them to be able to voice the experience that comes from that diversity. How we do that on class is something RECLAIM, together with Deeds and Words, are exploring in a new programme learning from approaches developed through the HIV movement and subsequent advances in the LGBT+ and gender equality movements. Come discuss it with us. Just don’t dare call us vulnerable when you do.

Roger Harding

Roger Harding is Chief Executive of RECLAIM, the working class youth leadership charity. RECLAIM fights to ensure working class people are represented and heard wherever decisions are made that affect their lives. It does it through programmes to support a diverse new generation of young working class leaders, helping them campaign for change, and working with organisations who want to be inclusive of working class talent.  
 
After being raised by a single mum in a council house, Roger began his career fighting for social justice at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation before becoming Director of Communications, Policy and Campaigns at Shelter where he helped put the housing crisis back on the national agenda. Since 2017 he has been a Board Trustee of Victim Support, and in 2019 was selected to join the Mayor of London’s new Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Group. 

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