Five key things we learnt from Hilary Cottam
On the 25th of November 2020, globally-acclaimed social reformer, Hilary Cottam, shared her vision and methods with an Australian audience at the Sydney Policy Lab’s 2020 annual event.
Hilary was joined by Jon Owen, CEO and Pastor at The Wayside Chapel; Sophie Stewart, Campaign Coordinator at Social Reinvest WA; Dean Mosquito, Director and Youth Engagement Night Officer at Olabud Doogethu; Malcolm Edwards, Shire President of Shire of Halls Creek in WA; and Marc Stears, Director of the Sydney Policy Lab.
The big question Hilary asked was: how can we seize the once in a lifetime opportunity the COVID-19 pandemic provides to build a society in which everyone can find the support and care they need to flourish?
Echoing her book Radical Help: How We Can Remake the Relationships Between Us & Revolutionise the Welfare State (available here) Hilary said “our current systems whether financial, social, political, ecological, are actually beyond reform and we are in a moment of paradigms change, and I don’t use that word lightly”.
But what does that look like? And, how can we each play our part in making it a reality?
Watch the event
Here are the 5 key things we learnt from Hilary Cottam
Today’s world looks inherently different to when our systems were designed in the mid 20th century – and so do people’s lives. Responding to continuous and rapid societal changes in a fast-paced, networked and technologically interconnected world, is changing how we sleep, parent, work, travel, relax, connect, and care.
This means the services, systems and ways of thinking we have inherited fail to cope with today’s challenges because they weren’t set up to do so in the first place. The same goes for huge crises facing us such as climate change, migration, or the increase of life-long chronic conditions and deep-seated crisis of mental health. As Hilary writes “from loneliness to ageing, education to modern work, our systems are out of kilter and beyond re-organization.” They leave too many people at the mercy either of the competitive market or unresponsive government bureaucracies.
Equally, ‘how’ change happens also looks very different to the mid 20th century. The big problems we face today can’t be solved with one-size fits-all policies implemented from the top. As Hilary explained:
“Instead of ‘leader makes a policy, commands change, change happens’ we now need millions of actions by millions of people moving in a similar direction. To make deep-seated social change, we need or to work in a different way. We need different systems that impress us and allow us to take part, rather than hold us at an arm’s-length like our current systems do.”
Building systems that invite people to take part starts with supporting people’s capabilities instead of fixing their problems – what they can do, want to do and might achieve, rather than their needs or perceived shortcomings. In Hilary’s words:
“A lot of my work is actually about inversions, simply turning things on their head (…), and this is the core inversion for me: (…) We need to stop these attempts to fix people once they have gone wrong. We have to move from what would be a needs-based approach to one rooted in capability (…) which asks this deceptively simple question of ‘what can I really be or do?’”
Building on work by Nobel prize-winning Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, Hilary says this simple question contains multitudes. It is as much about our feelings and internal realities – about how we have been told who we are and what we might be able to do, or our knowledge and skills, as it is about the concrete external realities of our lives – where we live, whether we have access to public space or good and decent work, or can connect with people around us. And, perhaps most important, it’s about power – about understanding the systems we are in, who has designed them, and who telling us what we can do and should aspire to.
Speaking about how Social Reinvestment WA and Olabud Doogethu are changing a broken system by working for healthy families, smart justice and safe communities in the heart of the Kimberly, Campaign Coordinator Sophie Stewart said:
“In Halls Creek communities that are empowered and leading change themselves are the most sustainable form of real change. If you listen to their solutions, you’ve set up leaders for life.”
In her book, Hilary argues there are four capabilities that matter most: learning, health, community and relationships. At its very essence a capability approach assumes agency: “a capability cannot be done to you (…) It’s about asking, ‘what support do you need to grow the capabilities you need to flourish?’.
At the heart of this new way of working, Hilary insists, is the power of relationships. She writes:
“We can remove a couple of life’s building blocks and still stand tall, but if we withdraw the relationships that underpin us, we topple over. Relationships – the simple bonds between us – are the foundation of good lives.”
When people feel supported by strong and healthy relationships, people feel stronger through the people they know and how they relate to them. Without them, Hilary writes “very few of us can feel fulfilled, or even function. Building on relationships enables the growth of further capability supporting us to learn, contributing to good health and vibrant communities.”
Over the last decades relationality has been stripped out of our systems. A focus on streamlining, efficiency delivery of inputs and outcomes, and management and control has “trapped us in the cultures and mechanisms of transaction and limiting human connection”. Hilary said:
“Poverty today is about money but just as much about relationships. (…) It’s who you know that will affect the course of your life, it’s who you know that will affect what work you get, who will take care of you, how well you can access healthcare systems, what kind of old age you will have. Yet the lenses on policy and wealth that we have inherited from the last Industrial Revolution are very technocratic and simply unable to see relationships, so that is an enormous challenge.”
So rather than tinkering around the edges, we will have to design new systems and services. When we do that in ways that make us feel it’s easy to connect and collaborate, that nurture human relationships for their own sake, that design relationships into every human interaction, people will want to join in. That’s how real, transformative change can occur.
Jon Owen, pastor and CEO at The Wayside Chapel in Sydney’s Kings Cross and Bondi Beach, shared how Wayside has been providing unconditional love, care and support for people on and around the streets since 1964. He said:
“The ten scariest words in the English language are: ‘I am a social worker and I’m here to help’ – and I trained as a social worker! We are so mired in a system that is outdated that it is more harmful than helpful. In a desperate attempt to be seen as a hard science, we sold ourselves to the system. Poverty is a lack of connection – a lack of having the right people in your corner that can help you see that life can be different. And the whole system we have set up unfortunately reinforces that isolation. You walk into somewhere, usually on the worst day of your life, seeking support and you are presented with a program or a pamphlet or a pill, and you walk out feeling just as lonely and isolated as when you walked in the door. At Wayside, no one is a problem to be solved. They are a person to be met and our whole mission is to create community.”
Hilary quotes Audrey Lorde to explain that we need new ways of working and new tools and techniques that help us build relationships, collaborate deeply, and create, test and grow our ideas in real-life settings outside of conventional approaches:
“[The] master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
This reinvigorated commitment to developing the craft of these relational ways of working has only recently started taking flight anew. As Hilary writes, “Radical as they may sound, they are not new. They cost less money, but they are on the margins, working in spite of our post-war institutions.”
Hilary emphasises that her design process is one she has assembled over many years – borrowing and adapting from people she collaborated with in the barrios of Latin America, compounds of Southern Africa, and in places in the UK such as London, Swindon and Suffolk. Testing in different settings, involving hundreds of people from different backgrounds or with different perspectives, and encouraging people to ask questions, step into each other’s shoes, see and analyse. She writes:
“It is hard to understand the realities of each other’s lives. And this gap in understanding becomes a gulf when we are in positions of power or authority and try to help others. (…) We have to get to know each other if we really want to understand realities that are not our own, and to make change. We need to find ways to truly listen and to see things differently, we need tools that help us get underneath the common sense we accept but might not tell us the full story.”
Equally important to the process itself is in whose hands the process is. Hilary warns that many big consultancies may use her approach, but the process would look different. She says: