Marmalade and brain injury – why I’m glad to be a trustee of Headway East London

140201 Headway marmalade

Imagine not being to tell where your arm is without looking. Imagine not being able to judge what it’s appropriate to say out loud and what thoughts you should keep to yourself. Imagine having to reconstruct your life around the fact that your personality has been reshaped. These thoughts are terrifying, and are part of the reason why I’ve recently become a trustee at Headway East London.

Headway is a charity that exists to support people who have been affected by brain injury. At its centre on the Kingsland Road, dozens of people who have brain injuries come in every day to get help in living their lives around the fact that their brains have been irreversibly changed. They receive occupational and physical therapy. They get counselling and advice on benefits. They also get a chance to do things they enjoy, like making art, cooking and working on writing projects, alongside staff and volunteers.

It’s not a glamorous cause – it isn’t ill children or sad donkeys, so fundraising is hard. Many Headway members have been badly affected by changes to benefits for disabled people. And it’s not a uniform problem, either, making it difficult to raise public awareness. Brain injuries manifest themselves in different ways for everyone – brains are so beautifully complex that damage in one place will have very different effects than another, so there’s no single easy message to give the public about what the problem is.

Headway could easily be a depressing place – none of the members are going to get better, as such. Your brain can’t heal itself the way that bones and muscles can. But the centre has a purposeful and cheerful feel. When you walk in, you almost always get offered a cup of tea. And it’s not usually obvious whether the person who is welcoming you and putting the kettle on is a member, a volunteer or a member of staff. When you pop in, there’s usually jam or craft work for sale – at our trustees’ meeting last week, I bought the jar of marmalade made by members, pictured above. If I visit at lunchtime, I buy a hot meal, cooked by members alongside a couple of staff-members, and everyone who’s at the centre that day eats together at round tables. Eating together isn’t compulsory, but the food is tasty, cheap and healthy, and so almost everyone does.

I wanted to get involved with the charity because of that feeling – the sense that, against the odds, staff and members were working together to make the best of things. I also like the resourceful and entrepreneurial approach the organisation takes to making projects happen and raising money – I thought I might be able to make myself helpful with those things, given my experiences elsewhere. And, because I ride a bike every day, and because I know people who have suffered brain injuries from doing so, I felt a personal link to the problem.

I’d recommend being a trustee of a charity to anyone. It’s a good way to make a difference – it’s crucial for charities to have a mix of people, with different experience and skills, to oversee decisions that are being made and to steer the organisation’s direction. I think almost anyone, from any background, could find a role where they could make themselves really useful. And as a trustee, I find it extremely interesting to be able to use my professional skills in a different context from normal, and to be involved in the discussion around all the issues a medium-sized organsation faces.

I’d also recommend supporting Headway East London in particular. They’re doing fantastic work on a minimal budget, for people who really need it. Without the centre to come to, many members would barely leave their houses, and the meal they have at the centre is often the best one they get all week. Like Headway on Facebook or follow on Twitter, and you’ll hear about chances to get involved.  Or go along and ask if you can buy a jar of marmalade.  It’s delicious, and there still a few jars left.

Neighbourliness, benefits, the housing crisis and Dot Dot Dot

I wrote this blog post for Participle, a social enterprise set up by Hilary Cottam to reshape the welfare system for the 21st century.  I was really glad to be asked to do it – I’m a huge admirer of Hilary’s work – her thinking on the principles that should underlie a modern benefits system make sense to me, and Participle has set up successful organisations, such as Circles and Backr, which demonstrate how these principles can work in practice.  And more than that, it seems to me that her combination of thinking and doing is a very effective way to achieve change.  

“The antidote to despair”: relational housing
Posted on January 9, 2014 by Relational Welfare

Can creating opportunities for neighbourliness soften the blow of the housing crisis? Katharine Hibbert shows how to put two problems together to come up with a solution.

Every week my social enterprise, Dot Dot Dot, hears from scores of young people at the sharp end of the housing crisis. For them, the possibility that they could be denied housing benefit in future, floated again this week by George Osborne, is only the latest in a long list of worries, alongside record private-sector rents, unaffordable house prices and unavailable social housing.

It’s a grim situation. But the people who walk through our door are keen to find ways to deal with their own problems without relying on the state, and to reach out and help others too. They are the best possible antidote to despair. At Dot Dot Dot, we house people who want to do voluntary work in homes that would otherwise be empty. Everyone who comes to us is willing to give at least 16 hours a month to good causes, and most of them do far more. In return, we house them for between £35 and £70 a week – between a quarter and a third of what they’d pay to rent an equivalent property privately. They are property guardians, which means their role is to take care of the buildings they’re living in, keeping them safe on the landlord’s behalf. Some will have to move house again in a matter of months, but many are able to stay in one of our properties for a year or more.

Of course our guardians come to us first and foremost because they want to save money. The housing we offer isn’t ideal – it’s temporary, they don’t have much choice about where it is, and they often need to paint and furnish it before it’s homely. In a perfect world, where everyone had access to secure, decent, affordable homes, they wouldn’t need us.

But we’re not the only organisation offering equivalent accommodation. Big commercial property guardian companies have a less rigorous selection process than we do, and charge their guardians only slightly more. Our guardians choose us because they want to be supported to do more voluntary work, to link up with others who share similar motivations, and to be treated like the reliable, responsible adults they are by my team.

Once they’re living in our properties, we hear again and again that they love living in the mutually-supportive environment we try to encourage, and which they build for themselves. Many have stayed with us even once they could afford to live in a nicer building elsewhere because they’d miss living in an environment where, just for the asking, someone will lend them a spanner or show them how to fix a puncture on their bike. Where a neighbour sets up a shared wormery for composting, or suggests a trip to the pub. Where, when someone breaks a leg or gets burgled, others drop by to make sure they’re OK.

And our guardians extend their neighbourliness to the rest of the community – on their own initiative, guardians have set up weekly litter picking sessions, and non-guardian neighbours have started joining in with these too. Guardians dig over elderly or disabled neighbours’ gardens, and in return are given coffee and cake, or tea and daal. This is alongside the formal volunteering they do – helping homeless people, mentoring kids, answering phones for the Samaritans, manning the RNLI lifeboat on the Thames.

Our guardians consider themselves lucky to have such cheap housing, and they understand our expectation that they give something back in return. This sense of community and reciprocity is lacking from the lives of many of our guardians before they join us – and their housing situation is a big part of the problem. If you’re shelling out a large proportion of your pay to cover the rent, and especially if you’re part of the cohort who has had to pay for your own university education, to carry out unpaid internships to get a foot in the door in your chosen career, and whose entitlement to benefits is being stripped away, why should you do anything other than look after number one by using your time and resources to rake in whatever cash you can? Why should you help more vulnerable members of society, when society has not helped you when you needed it?

I hope that the experience of being part of Dot Dot Dot leaves our guardians feeling rewarded for doing the right thing, and makes them want to carry on being the kinds of people who pick up crisp packets that are blowing around in the street, and reaching out to those living around them, for the rest of their lives. But we can’t be a whole solution to the housing crisis. Cutting housing benefits to under-25s, or any other group, will make their lives even more miserable and will do nothing about the underlying problems. What we need instead is a determination to build the additional housing the UK desperately needs, and, on top of the bricks and mortar, to build the sense of community, trust and reciprocity that makes people feel happy and safe.



Rude stuff on Sitex doors…

140107 graffiti

One of the guardians who lives in a flat managed by Dot Dot Dot just sent us the above photo – a Sitex door on an empty flat near her, graffitied with a massive ejaculating cock.

The instinct to draw willies on things is beyond me (though psychoanalyst Philippa Perry has something to say about boys’ obsessions with it) but I guess if you’re going to do it somewhere, then why not on a metal door, since that is the clearest possible sign that no one cares about a building.

That photo to me sums up the damage empty homes do to neighbourhoods.  Families and individuals front doors don’t get graffitied – or if they do, it’s almost certainly a specific, bullying attack against a specific home.  Taggers tend to focus on property that is clearly neglected or ignored– railway sidings, building site hoardings, subways.   Painting onto someone’s home would be so invasive, so clearly upsetting to them, that no one casually passing the time with a spray can would do it.

So it’s telling that empty homes are such a common target for tagging.  Once metal shutters are put over doors and windows, it’s obvious to any passer-by that the building isn’t a home to anyone, and even if the owner cares about it as an asset, they don’t care about it as a comfy place to get home to after work.  Similarly, gardens get filled up with litter, bricks go through windows for fun.

In fact, this door was installed with the cock-decoration already on it by the security company responsible for it – they simply hadn’t bothered to clean it off.  After all, it works just as well as a security device with or without the spray paint, but it has been placed in a corridor where families are living.  Pretty depressing.  And also, once something has one graffito on it, it’ll almost certainly get more.  Another way in which one boarded up empty home starts dragging down a whole area.

Luckily, if the building caretaker won’t clean it off, then our guardian is going to have a go.  And at least it’s another prod to keep going with doing everything possible to stop homes from sitting empty unless absolutely necessary.

Why you’re doing something matters

Dot Dot Dot exists to deal with three things that bother me: the lack of affordable housing in London, the swathes of empty homes, and the need to cultivate a sense of community in the city.  I came set it up after spending a couple of years polemicizing about those issues, in print, on the radio, on TV and in real life.  I had done all the talking I saw as being useful, and I had spent long enough thinking about the problems – and being on the sharp end of them myself – to have come up with some ideas about how to actually do something.

Publicity 2012 (16)That sense of mission helped in lots of ways.  Wanting to make an impact on issues I care about kept me going through the hard early stages of getting Dot Dot Dot off the ground.  And the fact that other people and organisations agreed that those problems deserved to be addressed earned Dot Dot Dot some fantastic support from individuals like David Ireland and organisations like Nesta and the Bromley-by-Bow Centre.

But those two benefits could still have existed even if the mission had just been making a tonne of money.  Perhaps the prospect of a pile of cash would sustain some people through the pain and anxiety of getting something started, and would attract supporters and investors just as Dot Dot Dot’s mission did.

But there are two reasons why I don’t think moneymaking alone could be a good motive to set something up.  First, when you start something, you’re making decisions constantly.  Everything has your fingerprints all over it, from tiny questions about what to say on Twitter through to who you recruit and how you treat them.  How do you arrange the desks in your office?  Who makes the tea?  Pensions, bonuses or both? The list is endless, for every domain of the business.  If I hadn’t cared about the problems I was trying to solve and understood them from the inside, I don’t think I could have cared about those tiny decisions enough to give them the attention they needed, and I don’t think I would have had such a clear sense of what the eventual solution to that problem needed to feel like.

And secondly, it’s not only me who has to make decisions constantly about how to do things and how to behave.  As Dot Dot Dot has grown, the shape it takes has been moulded by the rest of the team.  I very much hope that my colleagues work at Dot Dot Dot because they are proud to do so, because being in the office is reasonably enjoyable most days and because they can feel a sense of achievement as our impact on the problems we are trying to deal with grows.  Obviously, they also come in because they want to earn money.  But they do a brilliant job, and I don’t think it would be possible – in practice or even in theory – to pay them enough to persuade them to work as carefully and thoughtfully as they do if they didn’t also care about what we were trying to do and the means by which we are doing it.

That doesn’t mean that all businesses should be social enterprises, although I’m proud that Dot Dot Dot is one.  All businesses exist to solve a problem – customers buy what they sell in an attempt to make their life better.  Unless you believe what you’re selling really is going to improve things, you – and probably all of your staff – would be doing some kind of awful double-think to get into the mind-frame of the people you’re trying to flog your stuff to.  And mental gymnastics of that sort is very hard to get right.  Ironically, caring about some purpose other than making money might even help you to make more cash in the end by helping you craft a product that will really satisfy your customers by solving a problem that bothers you.

You don’t notice how heavy something is until you put it down

Lots of things about starting Dot Dot Dot have been very difficult.  When you run something mostly on your own, you have to gain a basic understanding of how to do everything that needs doing – from book-keeping to HR, data protection to marketing.  No one would ever have given me a job doing any of those things, but I had to do them all, all at the same time, and the buck stopped with me if I got them wrong.

But far harder than learning to manage the money and worrying about getting sued or fined was managing my own fear of failure.  Dot Dot Dot didn’t need a lot of cash to get started.  But I invested more than a year’s unpaid work in it before I had evidence that it would ever get off the ground.  For most of that time I worried almost constantly about what would happen if it didn’t.  It wasn’t irrational to worry that it wouldn’t get going – the majority of start-ups don’t, and had it not taken off, I knew in my rational mind that I’d find a Plan B.  But that didn’t stop me from feeling ill at the idea of admitting – to myself as much as to my friends, family and peers – that I’d really wanted to make Dot Dot Dot happen, I’d believed it was possible, I’d tried my best, but I still couldn’t do it.  Easier to create a situation where I could pretend I hadn’t really been bothered, or that I hadn’t given it my best shot, than to run the risk of having to acknowledge that I’d tried and failed, believed and been wrong.

But doing it half-heartedly would have been a good way to make sure it never came to anything.  Even if it had never worked out, I’d have learned a lot from doing it.  It might have cost me the year’s salary I didn’t earn elsewhere, but so would an MBA, even before you take the fees into account.  We were in a recession –there were few other ways to advance my career on offer.  And I’m better at being self-employed than being a member of someone else’s staff.  But however rational those arguments might have been – and I made them to myself almost every day – none of it stopped me from fretting.  The worry about what it would have meant if Dot Dot Dot hadn’t taken off took up mental energy that I couldn’t spare.

I didn’t actually notice how much I had worried about it until the worry wore off.  Today, if Dot Dot Dot crumbles, it will be because of a catastrophe, one of the things we highlight on our risk register.  We have proved that there are people out there who want to buy what we are selling, and we have proved that we can deliver it to an excellent standard.  We have money in the bank to tide us over a temporary lack of work.  We have supporters who believe in us and who want to help us to grow and succeed.  The potential problems we face these days, and the fear of the whole thing coming to nothing are completely different.  Putting those worries down was like taking off a rucksack after a long hike.  It feels great, but I wish I had found a way not to carry those worries in the first place.

Happy birthday, Dot Dot Dot!

It’s two years to the day since Dot Dot Dot Property Ltd was registered at Companies House.  I’m currently on the longest holiday I’ve taken from it since then – 10 whole days.  So today feels like a good day to write about the two biggest things I wish I’d known on 14th June 2011: what the hardest thing about getting it started would be, and why caring about the problems I was trying to solve really mattered.

Thumbs up for hitchhiking

Hitching_A13sliproad©StetArchitectureHitchhiking used to be so popular that hitchers in the ’70s would queue up to stick out their thumbs at the most popular spots.  No longer.  It’s very rare to see a hitcher on the road in Britain today.  Strangely enough, though, you still get picked up – my experience of hitching around England, Scotland and Wales is that if you’re in a pair, you get to where you’re going in about the same length of time as it would take to travel by coach.  Hitching alone as a woman, it would be hard to drive yourself to where you’re going faster than you get there by thumb – people seem to feel a sense of responsibility for leaving you by the side of the road.

In 2011, Colin Rose and I designed the Liftplaz – our idea for the first in a network of designated hitchhiking spots across the country, featuring shelter and creature comforts for hitchers, as well as cardboard dispensers for making signs, and a range of merchandise.Liftplatz-perspective(c)StetArchitecture

Our design for a shelter built from surplus road signs was Highly Commended in the RIBA Forgotten Spaces competition.  I gave a short presentation hitchhiking at Street Talks in December 2012, which you can watch here.

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