Before the spotlight of the Olympics arrived, the council estates and industrial wasteland of the Lea Valley might have seemed an unlikely place from which to influence national policy. But in the early 2000s the Bromley-by-Bow Centre did just that by pioneering the co-location of services like healthcare, housing and education with classes in art, food and exercise.
The model isn’t just about convenience; it’s also about meeting the full needs of a person – including friendship, creative expression and spirituality. This one local charity punched way above its weight and advanced the practices of community centres, housing associations and GP surgeries across the country. As a result, many more people’s needs are now met in compassionate and effective ways.
One of the most exciting things about Frontline is that it will give bright people the insight and tools to lead change like the Bromley-by-Bow Centre’s managers did – and just like all the best social workers, social entrepreneurs, activists and politicians do every day.
Serving on the frontline tests your mettle and challenges you to develop sophisticated communication skills and creativity. It also equips you with three qualities that I have seen to be essential for great social leadership.
First up: human-level insight. Tom Ravenscroft runs Enabling Enterprise, one of the fastest growing social enterprises in the country with huge impact in developing the employability skills of school students from low-income backgrounds. Tom knows that traditional pedagogy fails to give students an opportunity to develop soft skills and that the pressure on teachers to ‘teach to the test’ exacerbates the situation. But he didn’t learn this from a report or from desk research. He knows because he’s experienced it first hand in the classroom – as a Teach First participant. From the design of learning materials to the systems that enable a teacher to spend less time on admin and more on teaching, Tom and his team of former teachers are constantly drawing from their own personal experiences on the frontline to maximise their impact.
Secondly, empathy can fuel your drive for change. Jon Huggett is an international strategy consultant and the Chair of Khulisa, a violence-reduction charity operating in Britain and South Africa. He cites a social action scheme that placed him in prison for a week in the ’70s, and the resulting connections he formed with inmates, as the reason why he got involved in the criminal justice field and remains active today.
Finally, forming relationships with people whose realities are different to your own gives you a stake in your own society. The problems facing an isolated older person or a kid from a chaotic family background become your business, your problems. Collectively, we can dismantle the ‘them and us’ mentality that subtly pervades our conversations about society, poverty and inequality.
Insight, empathy and a sense of collective endeavour sit behind so many of the great leaps forward made in Britain – from the establishment of the welfare state in the mid-20th century to the huge improvements in inner-city school performance in the last few decades. Over time, Frontline and others will inculcate these qualities in thousands of grads who will go on to lead change from the streets of Bromley-by-Bow to the corridors of power in Westminster. We could be on the cusp of an extraordinary period of renewal and progress.
Jack Graham is the Chief Executive of Year Here, a postgraduate programme in social innovation. Follow him on twitter @jackdgraham. Applications for Year Here’s 2014 programme close on Monday 3 February.