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February 25, 2015

Support the frontline

When working at the grass roots and dealing with a world that seems incessantly top down, there’s a constant tension that never quite gets resolved. From this perspective, many community workers take the view that a disproportionate amount of resource is getting sucked into what is often seen as the ‘poverty industry’, diverting much needed funding from the coal face. Many believe that frontline services should be the last to be cut rather than being viewed, as they are at present, as low hanging fruit.  This voice from the Gorbals gives vent to some of that frustration.



Darren McGarvey, Bella Caledonia

This is an edited version of an article from Bella Caledonia

As the low evening sun dips behind the high rise flats of Norfolk Court – tower blocks once pitched as New York style sky scrapers – now waiting to be condemned – a long shadow is cast on the strip of derelict land where her structural sibling, Stirlingfauld Place – now demolished – once stood.  There is something futile about the two remaining towers as they leer, like two middle fingers, in stubborn isolation from the surrounding scenery.  The post-modern buildings growing up around them, with their confident, trend ridden facades, seem perfectly normal by day.  But like everything else in the Gorbals, they take on a new, shifty character depending on which way the dwindling day light hits them.

Gathered neatly on the tarmac in the foreground, a group of around 15 children wait patiently outside a local community centre.  They seem cheerful for a Monday evening. As they rub their hands together, one may assume it’s to ward off the creeping winter chill, but it’s far more likely in anticipation of the imminent arrival of the youth workers who will soon open the doors of The Barn.

“Coming to The Barn geez me peace as it gets me oot the hoose” says Benji, with a precocious self-awareness unbefitting of a working class 12-year-old.

As the doors swing open and young people pour inside, a youth worker smiles before saying:  “They’re at the door all the time.  They come here right after school. But we don’t have the staff to keep the place open.”

Life in the Gorbals is in state of consistent transition.  But unlike other parts of Glasgow, where progress occurs more incrementally – if at all – here on the quiet south bank of the River Clyde, change is far more palpable and dramatic.  Here, regeneration has become a by-word for business and represents a ceaseless and lucrative commercial enterprise over which local people have very little authentic influence.

Like the shrill birds that hover above, scouting the area while shitting from a high height, before flying off with whatever scraps they can find; decision-making in the Gorbals is also a messy business.  And one all too often conducted well over the heads of the people who live here.

In the Gorbals it’s created a fertile bed of resentment from which cynicism and apathy have grown.

Outsiders interpret that anger as self-defeating and futile; insiders DO NOT GIVE A FUCK what outsiders think.

The interior of The Barn is brightly lit and colourfully decorated.  Life affirming slogans adorn the walls.  One reads:  “Don’t aim for success if you want it; just do what you love and believe in, and it will come naturally.”  Situated in the middle on the main hall are brightly coloured couches where teenagers – who recently constituted their own youth committee –  chat while the younger kids dart around between air hockey, table tennis, pool, snooker, baking, football and even a sectioned off computer room for X Box enthusiasts and soon to be social recluses.

In The Barn, local young people of all ages and abilities learn how to play, share and express themselves in a safe and affirming environment where being yourself is more than enough.  But even something as simple and vital as this needs to be paid for.  Which means all this good will and joy needs to be quantified, measured and justified every 12 months or it may become subject to ‘efficiency savings’.

Joe McConnell, the democratically recognised leader (not manager) of The Barn, is unusually frank in his assessment of the various interests operating in the area.  According to him, top-down, micro-managed, target orientated, community economics can lead to potentially life changing work falling out of sync with grassroots needs and aspirations.

He believes the opportunity for meaningful and lasting progress is often hindered – and even undermined – by the very organisations and institutions financed to empower deprived communities.

On the day-to-day hustle of cultivating personal self-esteem and a sense of community spirit in this ever-changing urban expanse, Joe said:  “It can have a profound and positive effect on young people and it is a challenging and hugely rewarding job. But I think we are a long way from this being understood or accepted by a fairly large element of funding bodies and the public sector.”

The third sector – or at least the cross-section of the sector which is regulated – is comprised of over 45,000 voluntary organisations, employing 138,000 people while drawing on the altruism of over 1.3 million unpaid volunteers.  Volunteers I’d be happy to guess, somewhat hazardously, likely reside in the area in where these services are being provided.

In short, the only labour many people have to offer their community is the act of helping other paid managers and employees deliver services.  But, in many cases, volunteers have no real influence over the projects themselves.

Joe and his team are just one of hundreds of groups operating across Glasgow, in extremely challenging circumstances, who attempt to tackle social issues fundamentally by forming meaningful relationships with the young people over a long period of time, before behavioural problems develop.

Glasgow City Council’s budget for the voluntary sector – a public document, buried in torturous managerial speak, details every organisations core budget and the ‘variances’ and ‘efficiency savings’ – cuts to you and me – over the next 3 years.  The Barn, with historical roots in the Gorbals for over 30 years, has received a 30% cut in its budget over the last 6 years.

The total ‘efficiency savings’ made by Glasgow City Council for the next 3 years total just over £1.4 million.  This was achieved by shaving relatively small amounts of funding from relatively small groups, which by definition, find the cuts harder to absorb than larger organisations.

There is very little scrutiny of the sector beyond its own internal evaluations, making it relatively unaccountable to the communities it purports to serve.  The dependency on funding approval leads to a self-censorship where criticism is concerned however, at The Barn they don’t seem afflicted by this structural apathy.

Within the Third Sector, a managerial-consultancy class seems empowers itself merely by talking vaguely in the language of ‘Social Justice’.  The term itself is so subjective and like other common buzz words, such as, Social Capital, illustrate how corporate terminology has slowly permeated almost every aspect of our lives.

A ballooning poverty industry booms on the backs of the poor..

The Third Sector should act as a check and balance to Government oversight, however, the sector is mainly funded with public money.  The sector publishes its own in-house paper which gives a clue as to how they seem themselves from the inside.  There are no ulterior motives or dodgy intentions, simply a structural assumption they know what others need and that only they, in their educated wisdom can deliver it.  Therefore, rocking the boat conflicts with self-interest; leaving vulnerable communities without any authentic representation.

Barry McLaughlin, a 25-year-old youth worker, employed at The Barn until last year, feels improving community self-esteem, and not simply employability, is key to authentic empowerment.

Refreshingly unguarded, Barry said:  “The most important thing for us is the positive relationships you build up with the young people.  If you don’t have trust then nothing can be achieved.”

He continued:

“There’s a sense of apathy due to decisions being made in the Gorbals without consulting the people that live here.  The Gorbals has a negative narrative that says ‘were no good enough’.  We’re trying to change that by saying the Gorbals is an amazing place.  The tools to fix the place are already here rather than parachuting government initiatives in who don’t understand the area.  They want us to do work that looks good and sounds good; but isn’t always good.”

Barry, visibly concerned he may be neglecting the young people, merely by talking to me, said:  “Impact is something we are asked about a lot by funders but it’s difficult to quantify.  You can see it as soon as you walk in the door.”

He sighs, as if resigned to some immovable truth before smiling, hopefully: “In an ideal world we would get funded for building trusting relationships with young people.”