Thursday, 21 May 2009

Queen's Letter

Today was the opening day of the Church of Scotland's General Assembly. The Church of Scotland is one of the partners behind the Poverty Truth Commission and the Commission was given a special mention in the Queen's Letter to the Assembly. In lots of different places, this work is getting noticed.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

"Put Yourself In My Shoes..."

Poverty Truth Commission
Glasgow City Chambers
21 March 2009

By Paul Chapman, Coordinator

The Poverty Truth Commission was a special event that took place on Saturday afternoon (21 March 2009) at Glasgow’s City Chambers at which time twelve competent people, representing many others, described the harsh realities of living in poverty in this prosperous land. Listening to these stories was an audience of 400 people, including fourteen especially-invited leaders from politics, the media, academia and several faith traditions.

The Poverty Truth Commission is part of a process, with antecedents in the 1996 Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and since then in twenty other countries – a process that looks at deep and violent divisions within society and takes steps to overcome them.

Violence may seem a strong word for the effects of economic divisions in Scotland; yet, statistics demonstrate that in many ways, poverty destroys human life. As one of the Testifiers said eloquently, “Life expectancy for white men in Calton is 54 years and in Lenzie it is 84 years. In all Scotland it is 74 years. Poverty kills.”

Testifying to the ways in which they were suffering from the effects of poverty required considerable courage for the Testifiers, some of whom had never spoken out publicly before. They described how, again and again, they had been objectified and humiliated by welfare officers and housing officials, that they were constantly treated as objects with little or no regard for their uniqueness or opinions or competence.

It became clear in the afternoon that poverty is not only a question of food, but it is about dignity as well. Beaten down by economic and system failures, the Testifiers affirmed how difficult it is to maintain their confidence.

The Poverty Truth Commission demonstrated clearly that the people who suffer the hardships and indignities of poverty are the real experts. To regard them as objects of charity or regeneration projects will continue to perpetuate the very poverty that the society seeks to eradicate. As one Testifier said before the afternoon began. “This is not Victorian England in which the upper class claims it knows what is best for us.”

And then she referred to one of the constant themes of the people struggling against poverty in South Africa, “Nothing about us without us is for us.”

People from the grass roots must be seen as actors, as principle actors, in the anti-poverty movement. Until they are participants at every stage of the decision-making process these policies will ultimately fail.

On Saturday afternoon, after a word of welcome from Glasgow’s Lord Provost, Bob Winter, and an introduction by David Lunan, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Tricia McConalogue, Chairwoman of the Poverty Truth Commission, set the theme for the day, and outlined the program.

“Poverty is neither inevitable nor is it acceptable. Where do we as a society put our values? Today, in the midst of a recession it can often seem that the more money you earn, the more important you are and the more you will be respected and rewarded. Footballers are a prime example of this, earning phenomenal amounts of money. I was disgusted this weekend to learn that a Scottish football club would be paying £100.000 to each player if they won all three major trophies, whilst at the same time the organization was cutting back on their domestic staff. Where are our values in today’s society?”


Jamie-Lee Smart, William Barrowcliffe, Donna Barrowcliffe,

Three people from Ruchazie presented the first of nine testimonies, beginning with a graceful modern dance by 16-year-old Jamie-Lee Smart, demonstrating that life in Ruchazie is not just about struggle, but includes the creativity and joyful expression of life lived to the fullest. No one mentioned that shortly before her compelling performance a young man from Ruchazie had held a knife to her throat because she was walking in “his territory.” The issue of territorialism was spelled out later in a conversation between Darren McGarvey and William Barrowcliffe, who said, “There is a kid I know who wants to go to university and is smart enough, but it’s too dangerous in Ruchazie for him to walk from his house to Smithycroft Secondary to get the preparation he needs. So he stays at home wasting his life because the neighbourhood is so dangerous.” He further said that is was a trip to Malawi, sponsored by ‘Together for a Change’ that opened his eyes. He could freely walk anywhere and wherever he went people greeted him warmly and with head held high, despite their destitution. So different from Ruchazie where people often don’t dare look each other in the eye , and where certain areas are off-limits.

This was followed by Donna Barrowcliffe from Ruchazie, in conversation with Jamie Lee, talking about the immense stress afflicting people in her neighbourhood, often leading to depression and a lack of self-confidence. She strongly objected to people being judged by the postcode they came from rather than by their character and ability. Supporting each other in the struggle gives strength and hope.

Darren ‘Loki’ McGarvey

Loki grew up in a troubled family and found himself as a teenager living on the streets and a prisoner of the drug and alcohol culture, but using music as his inspiration and guide was able to move beyond this life, and is now dedicating his life to helping other young people also find their humanity His rap represents the struggle that many young people face:

Childhood leaves a million minds engulfed in abuse
I'm not an artist on the fine line between fine lines of substance abuse or any other misuse
Far from recluse
Just privately unravelling while others peruse the daily news
And the horrors ensure
I’m trying to see around corners for the unspoken warning I’m assured will ensue
Psychological spew
To many viewed as a nuisance
Too honest for your crew

Ghazala Hakeem

The situation of Muslim women, often immigrants from lands of other languages, was articulated by Ghazala Hakeem of Govanhill. Speaking personally, she talked about the deprivations that she and her 8-year-old daughter must endure because she was born into poverty. “Poverty ensured that my daughter wasn’t able to get a birthday party with all the trimmings in a children’s play area like her peers... Poverty ensures that I cannot take my daughter away on holiday... Poverty ensures I cannot buy my daughter the toys she desires or the appropriate school uniform instead of a version that is merely the same colour... One of her friends didn’t go on a school trip as the mother couldn’t afford the £3.00 fee.”

She referred to the campaign of the government to get people off benefits into paid employment, and the many problems of living on a minimum wage job – child care costs, transportation, the end of benefits, more Council Tax and most important, the loss of quality time with her daughter and time for volunteer work to which she is deeply committed.

Nicola Boland

The testimony of a former gang member came next. Being in a gang was just a way to make friends and have fun until James Thompson, one of the gang members, was murdered – a tragic event for the whole community. And that forced Nicola Boland from Blackhill to reassess the meaning of life and how she would live. “You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back or you can do what James would have wanted, open your eyes, love and go on.”

After each testimony, a slide appeared on the screen with an appeal to the audience, and especially the Commissioners, to work with the Testifiers to make a difference. Nicola’s plea was to call for more effective resources to end the need for gangs, especially for greater resources to support young people – resources that will help young people fulfil their potential, encourage community and develop leaders.

Marie Shankley

Among other issues Marie Shankley who volunteers at Bridging the Gap in the Gorbals, dramatized her search for employment. She wants a job, she has talents that she wants to use to the benefit of society but in this economic climate there are few leads and the job centre is not helping. “They send me off to training courses for skills where there are no jobs. And then they send me off to a job site just to get me out of their system. They know I can’t get this job. And I don’t get the job because I don’t have any experience. And how would I get the experience without a job?... They should look at the pressure they put you under, at what they do to people.”

Jessie Harvey, Jean Forrester

One of the most stirring testimonies came from Jessie Harvey and Jean Forrester, members a network of organizations called Kinship Carers, with branches throughout the city. They came to the platform with thirty other women, some in their 60’s and 70’s, who are raising their weans. These are grannies and other relatives who are looking after the children of parents who are unable to do right by the children because of drugs, other addictions and mental illness. In many cases, the grandmothers are called to take these children by the welfare department, but the grannies are often poor and the government provides no financial support. A lot of these children are damaged by the circumstances of their birth. Some are born addicted. They have behavioural problems and early intervention is badly needed. As Jessie Harvey testified to a mostly sympathetic audience, help us to take care for these kids now when we can make a difference, or you will have to be taking care of them for the rest of their lives. She called for improved support services. “I mean psychologists, GPs, nursery teachers, healthcare and respite workers, Kinship Carers all getting around the table to make the future better for these children.”

Jean Forrester, the founder of Kinship Carers, stressed the need for money. “I am here today to talk about financial struggle. Family members have taken these children on to care because the children are at risk. In many cases the social work department has asked family members to take over the complete care of these children until the parents show signs of recovery... It takes a weight off the social work department to know that these kids have been placed in a safe environment. But there is no financial support.

“It is very hard for carers with kinship children as most are on very low income. To try and buy nappies, milk and eventually school uniforms out of your very low income is a struggle. Some Kinship Carers have had to quit full time jobs in order to raise these children....”

Later in the day the Commissioners agreed with the Carers that finding money for Kinship Carers is immensely important, but a huge bureaucratic tangle must be overcome to succeed. However, it is certainly wrong that the Carers and their grandchildren must suffer because of the bureaucracy, and the Commissioners, vowed to work to cut through the tangle.

Carol McMasters

Carol made an animation to illustrate the autobiographical poem that is printed below. In her introduction to the animation she said, “You have to fight to get yourself out of poverty and sometimes the fight is within yourself.”

Put yourself in my shoes...
I am eight years old.
I am hungry
I go round to my friend’s back door and eat the bread put out for the birds.

Put yourself in my shoes...
I am twelve.
I feel so ashamed of the holes in my old shoes.
It’s a constant worry.
I can feel the grit in between my toes during PE.
I wish I had a pair of nice white sand shoes.

Put yourself in my shoes...
I am a teen ager needing my first bra.
Nobody notices;
I have to steal one from someone else’s drawer.

Put yourself in my shoes.
I am 21 years old.
A young bride, hoping the future will be different,
But he will give me my first black eye three weeks later.

Put yourself in my shoes...
I am 26
With three young children and three more to come.
He has just told me that Myra Hindley would make a better mother than me.

Put yourself in my shoes...
I am 32.
Another wedding, the same man.
Another borrowed dress, no shoes, bare feet.

Put yourself in my shoes...
I am 40.
I have paid a heavy price to break free and am on my own now.
I am reduced to tears by the bullying behaviour of staff at the Benefits Agency.

Put yourself in my shoes...
I am 45.
It’s taken a long time, but
Despite everything, I believe in myself.
I am finally able to buy myself a new pair of shoes.

My name is Carol.
Put yourself in my shoes.

Stephen Lynch

Stephen Lynch of Hamilton told the story of several people who struggle with their budget day by day – not having enough to eat, unable to pay bus fare, even to go to a job interview, unable to open a bank account and having to clothe children with charity shop hand-me-downs.

“Let me tell you about Aggie. When she was a child she was always encouraged to drink her milk because it helped make you grow. It helped your bones, it helped your teeth. Then she had her own children and took all the advice and made sure her boys had plenty of milk to drink. Over the past few months the price of milk has soared. So much so that things in her house have changed. Her sons’ freedom of drinking milk by the glass has been taken away now and is limited. They are now drinking cheap fizzy drinks”.

Blair Green

Blair Green was the final testifier. His was the story of a working dad who is constantly on the edge financially. Growing up extremely poor he vowed to make a better life for himself and his family. But again and again his efforts have been thwarted – beginning with a car that he bought on good faith but began to fall apart at once. And then a house where he was suddenly assessed an extra £400 a month for renovations – payments he could not meet which led eventually to losing the house. He had to move into a decrepit city-funded flat in a building of drug dealers and users. Working up to 70 hours a week he has now managed to find a new flat and stabilize his finances, And now in this uncertain economy, “you’re constantly working under the pressure that your job might be next, your company might be next.”

And despite the stress, he has been concerned about others suffering a similar fate. “I want things to change. I want to make a change for myself and for others. And I’m not stopping until things change.”


The Testimonies had gone on for an hour and a half. It was time to a break. The Commissioners went off to a City Chambers Committee Room to discuss what they had heard and to prepare their response. While the Jiggery Pokery Ceilidh Band played familiar Scottish tunes, the audience filled out pledge cards that they had received when they arrived, completing the statement, “As a result of what I have heard today, I will___. In a few weeks these cards will be mailed back to folk to remind them of their commitment. Large sheets of chart paper had been placed on tables in adjoining rooms and people were invited to write their impressions of what they had thought and felt during the testimonies.

Typical of the hundred or more comments was this: “We’ve been tellt ! – well and truly – can’t say ‘we didn’t know’ any longer. Feel I’ve been hit really hard – what to do? Thanks for the courage and true humanity of those who ‘told their stories’ – was at one pint reduced to tears ! Hope the testifiers are truly listened to not just by those with the power, ‘the decision makers’ but by all of us becoming decision makers. !! The problem of riches...a live issue even at a time of ‘financial depression.’”

For half an hour the audience wrote, walked about and chatted, reflecting on what they had heard. They were summoned back to their seats when some of the audience started singing freedom songs from America and Africa. “Oh freedom, freedom over me. Before I’ll be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.”

Four Commissioners were chosen by their group to represent them all – Archbishop Mario Conti of the Archdiocese of Glasgow, Glasgow’s Lord Provost, Bob Winter, Chief Detective John Carnochan of the Strathclyde Police’s Violence Reduction Unit, and Janette Harkess, Deputy Editor of The Herald. Each spoke very briefly, voicing appreciation to the Testifiers for being so clear and forthright in representing the issues.

Archbishop Conti described a conference of academics that he had organised several years ago, also held at the City Chambers – an important event that reviewed statistics of poverty in Scotland, at the end of which one conferee remarked on the lack of representation of people from poor communities at the event, saying, “Without these groups bringing forth solutions from within these communities, it would be unlikely that appropriate solutions would emerge.”

Glasgow’s Lord Provost praised the testifiers, calling them competent, capable people with talent and courage, and vowed to work especially to overcome the bureaucratic barriers that prevent Kinship Carers to get governmental help.

Detective John Carnochan said, “We need to make sure that children are nurtured where there is no violence. If you bring children up in a was one you make warriors and that’s what we have...No one is safe until we are all safe.” Then referring to the afternoon’s presentation and discussion he added, “What is happening here today is the right thing to do.”

Janette Harkess said, “These are hard stories to listen to, but not stories of gloom. They re stories of hope.” She ended with reference to the statement of Margaret Thatcher that there is no such thing as society. And added emphatically, “Keep proving her wrong.”

Next, Martin Johnstone, the leader of Faith in Community Scotland that sponsored the afternoon event, reported on the discussion that had taken place when the Commissioners met. They began by acknowledging that they should be meeting with the Testifiers and that they needed to find a way to make that happen. Perhaps the Poverty Truth Commission will become an ongoing organization made up of both the Commissioners and the Testifiers tackling together some of the major issues that the Testifiers raised. The Commissioners fully understood that the full participation of people struggling with poverty is essential to any effective restructuring of society. Top down policies do not work.

This was perhaps the most positive result of the afternoon. Stay tuned.

Friday, 15 May 2009

hello world

Welcome to the blog of the Poverty Truth Commission. Over the next 18 months we will be looking at how we can tackle the causes and symptoms of poverty in Scotland today.
The Poverty Truth Commission was launched in Glasgow City Chambers on the 21st March 2009 in front of an audience of 400 people. At its heart lies the beief that in order to overcome the scandal of poverty, people with direct experience of it must be involved.