Stay radical – reflections on the Sheila McKechnie Foundation awards

Community activist and occasional academic Bob Holman has been (along with my parents) possibly the greatest influence on my professional career. When I first became a chief executive in my 20s he told me to ‘stay radical’. At the time I found it rather amusing as I was, I think it’s fair to say, a pretty gung-ho-take-no-prisoners-kind of a guy. It didn’t strike me (and still doesn’t) as particularly radical to suggest that homeless people should be part of the solution to tackling homelessness, but at that time this sort of thinking was a bit of a challenge to many housing providers.

15 years later, attending the Sheila McKechnie Foundation awards last night celebrating campaigners and campaigning, Bob’s words came back to me with renewed relevance and pertinence. The evening recognised some incredible campaigners, people who – often despite all the odds – fought to raise awareness, change laws and make the world a better place. From pursuing tax justice to reducing food waste, improve wheelchair public transport access to young people challenging alcohol advertising.

B-jK7AkIgAAytdGSo many amazing people who refuse to accept the way things ‘ought to be done’. They all honoured the spirit of Sheila McKechnie who followed Bob’s doctrine throughout her life.

Over the years, I have found myself – not deliberately – spending less time ‘on the coal face’ and though I have continued to work with some amazing campaigners, community groups and people doing amazing things, I’ve often done so in a more removed way. I still think of myself as a campaigner and an activist (indeed the Archer Academy started as a local campaign and only became a ‘school’ when we realised no one else was going to address the lack of local provision). I try and put the skills and experience I’ve gleaned from working with communities, running organisations and influencing decision-makers to good use. I believe change comes from outside and within institutions and I’ve written before about being a ‘professional disruptor’.

But I think it is easy to become too comfortable, too at ease with the bureaucracy and the ways of working that are so often part of the problem. The inaccessible language that excludes – and which can be successfully used to campaign – too readily becomes the norm, until we don’t realise it’s how we speak. In short, it’s too easy to become detached from the things that matter and the reasons why we are who we are.

It’s too easy to lose our radical zeal.

Mixing and working with people like those who were celebrated at the SMK Awards is a great way to remind ourselves of a few home truths. Lest we forget, Jack Straw was something of a radical back in the 1960s – and now look at him.

I don’t want to end up like some sad old man who used to stand for something he believed in. Hearing from the campaigners last night reminded me that I want to ‘stay radical’.

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