Guest Blog: Reflecting on the last few months of lockdown

MAI Guest blog - Lisa Stephanovic A reflection on lockdown – by Lisa Stepanovic

Social Ark has been doing great work since 2015 and we’d never before launched a crowdfund asking the public for donations. It’s definitely a working-class thing. We’re proud, and there’s always been a stigma attached to asking people for donations- ‘for charity’.

We’re not ‘charity cases’, our communities are blessed to have such values-driven young people willing to use their lived experiences for good. Our young entrepreneurs don’t want handouts, they want, and I believe are entitled to a hand up – two very different things.

We champion their lived experiences as ‘advantages’, labelling them as ‘disadvantaged’ comes across as pitiful and creates hero complexes for the funders and gatekeepers holding the purse strings. Same as the term ‘hard to reach’, at Social Ark we’ve never struggled to reach young people. In fact, more apply than we can take on, and we’re constantly asked to help individuals and other organisations. The funders and gatekeepers are the ones who are ‘hard to reach’.

It’s a hard fact that our young working-class social entrepreneurs feel a way about asking the public for money- even when it is to do something good. Then there is the complete opposite, privileged ‘social entrepreneurs’ that could actually afford to fund their own social experiments, often with a real sense of entitlement will ask the public to pay for their ‘saviour projects’ without a second thought.

Inequality is everywhere, and when it comes to accessing support or funding, it gets political at every level. We’ve found it’s a case of who you know and align with rather than what you do and why. As a secular non-political organisation that lives and breathes inclusive values, it’s tough – lots of local funding is targeted to specific groups. We’ve also struggled with funding from our Local Authority.

Tower Hamlets has a long history of being investigated for the mishandling of council grants, so we didn’t hold our breath when they promised an overhaul of the grants service. We gave them the benefit of the doubt and applied, we were unsuccessful, and the grants still went to the same organisations they’ve continually funded for years. Our work is visible, it’s fresh and real. Our young people are using their lived experiences to transform their own lives and everyone around them too, they’re relatable role models bringing individuals from all backgrounds together. To all the ‘progressive funders’ out there- let’s have a conversation!

Reflecting back to when we first started in 2015, Social Ark was created because we identified a lack of relatable, hands-on support available to young entrepreneurs from under-resourced communities. Social Ark has worked to bridge that gap. We’ve tried to influence others, hoping that those in positions of power would eventually get behind us, recognising the long-term value of nurturing local leaders. This type of grassroots social entrepreneurship can’t be underestimated, we’re instilling hope and aspiration across our communities, one vision shared with local people, we’re determined to level up the playing field.

Class. There is a massive class divide, there are social entrepreneur programmes across London that attract well-meaning, educated individuals from right across the UK, all determined to fix and cure our deprived communities’ ‘toughest problems’. Our entrepreneurs constantly tell us that they don’t want or need to be ‘cured or fixed’ by people that have ‘never walked a day in their shoes’; they want the tools and support to fix themselves. We’re thankful that our young people are resilient. It’s tough having to watch privileged outsiders come into your community and supported to undertake ‘social experiments’.

Our young people watch how these individuals are fast-tracked to opportunities, housing, funding and then nominated for awards. It’s not hard to be ‘an award-winning social entrepreneur’ when everything is literally handed to you on a plate! I struggle to understand why privileged individuals with no lived experience of the inequalities they seek to change go on to take a year off work to ‘experiment’ with the ‘poor’ and are then considered the authority on the subject.

Gatekeepers are actively supporting this; their silence is a reminder of what we’re up against. They refuse any kind of dialogue with us, our invitations to open, and ‘respectful conversations’ fall on deaf ears. They look the other way while ensuring the privileged visitors are fast-tracked to subsidised housing, free travel and community grants and opportunities meant for locals. Many of these same people will wave banners and blog about inequality while literally taking the food out of local’s mouths- whether conscious or unconscious- they’re contributing to the problem and this bias must be challenged at all levels.

A conversation, that I heard first-hand will stay with me for the rest of my life. A privileged ‘visiting social entrepreneur’ with no experience of the criminal justice system, was awarded substantial local and wider funding to test an ex-offenders programme in our community. The ‘visiting social entrepreneur’ said to a local young person:

“I really do need you to be part of my project, you’ve been in prison and that’s what I need. Can you just tell me, how does one address an ex-offender?”

to which the young person responded, “You call me by my name, just like any other person.”

It goes without saying that the project in question is no longer running- the ‘visiting social entrepreneur’ up and left our community when their funding run out.

We all know that COVID disproportionately affects’ working-class families, especially those from BAME backgrounds. The Social Ark entrepreneurs are from those same backgrounds, and even though they’ve had to deal with being ‘disproportionality affected’ including having to cope with uncertainty, ill-health and family bereavements they didn’t hesitate to adapt their work and step up to supporting others. It felt like Social Ark was part of a responsive movement. In real east End comradery, we joined forces with other values-driven grassroots leaders from all races and religions. It was heart-warming to see so many usually ‘overlooked’ organisations shine while supporting the people that needed it the most.

It seemed that during COVID the once active social media accounts of the ‘visiting social entrepreneurs’ had gone unusually quiet. I wondered as we clapped every week for the working class heroes if now was the time for the gatekeepers to realise that leaders with lived experience must be at the forefront when it comes to building sustainable communities. I’m really proud of Social Ark and our brilliant young entrepreneurs, who’ve stepped up while struggling with their own COVID related barriers. As resilient working-class leaders, we’re used to working miracles on a shoestring and dealing with unexpected crises. We’ve never waited for cheques or paydays to deliver. We’re delivering, shoulder-to-shoulder with our young people, serving the very communities that we care so passionately about. We aren’t visitors. We’re locals in it for the long run – you can’t top that.

Lisa Stepanovic
Founder & CEO

Social Ark