Doing it ourselves

Getting people together to change things might not be as complicated as you think, says Mark Brown. Additional Reporting: Laurie Penny, David Warrington

How many times have you thought ‘why don’t people do something about that?’ Every day we come across issues and situations about which we feel passionate. They might be issues in our local community or gaps that we see in the services we are offered. We might want to change things or make things better.

It can be easy to think that only extraordinary people change things and that there is an invisible barrier that divides those that try to do things and those that don’t. When we read about people who have started their own projects, run their own support groups or who have brought people together to try to change things, it always seems like they arrived fully formed and ready to take on the world.

In reality, everyone starts small and everyone starts with a single first step – an idea. Then, slowly and carefully, they work out how to make that idea happen.

Sometimes that means starting things from scratch and other times it means finding out the ways in which people are already changing things and getting involved. All it takes is realising that there isn’t a special kind of person who makes change happen. All you need is plenty of enthusiasm, a touch of self-belief and lots and lots of common sense.

The idea

“What started the Survivor History project was that someone found an old video in an attic of a presentation made by patients at a Glasgow asylum in 1984,” says Andrew Roberts of the Survivor History Group, a small circle of people trying to piece together an archive and history of people’s experiences of mental health services. Roberts says things like this had a big influence on national mental heath charitys: “It was the first time that service users had ever collectively addressed a Mind conference – they raised the money to come down from Scotland and they really stunned the audience. They wanted to put their view of the services they’d received in a very personal way and that was one of the things that gave Mind a push towards being more focused on service user initiatives.”

Roberts is a veteran of self-organised groups, having been involved in the 1970s with the Mental Patients Union (MPU), one of many groups organised by people with mental health difficulties which helped to bring about changes in the way people using mental health services were treated. “We chose the name ‘Mental Patients’ Union’ because it was up in your face,” he remembers. “You couldn’t escape from it – we were making no pretence about who we were and what we were. Although we were all very different – there were people involved who were completing degrees and people who’d been in hospital for years – what we had in common was that we were mental patients and we decided to present a united front on that basis.”

By bringing people together around a common purpose, it became possible to make a difference. “We did actually change perceptions,” says Roberts proudly. “In our area of London, for example, you could no longer say that all mental patients needed people to look after them after our self-help communities had been running for a while.”

Both the Survivor History Group and the MPU began from a strong central idea and a clear notion of what they wanted to achieve. “One of the things we learned was that the smaller and more specific your group’s ambitions, the more likely you are to be successful. What we did back then was heroically stupid, really – there was no precedent and we had to learn by trial and error. It’s easier for people now because it’s been tried and tested.”

Getting involved and making a difference

Leroy Simpson is involved intimately with Outside In, a scheme where clients of homelessness organisation, St Mungo’s, are trained as peer facilitators. They meet with its directors and board members every six weeks to put forward their concerns and help to set the agenda for future developments. “We represent the clients,” he says. “We go to clients, go to their hostels, chair meetings, open debates and find out what’s going on with them. We go back to the office, report back to each other, and if three or four of us say the same thing we flag that up and say ‘that is not a personal problem, that is a St Mungo’s problem’.”

Outside In works like an independent organisation representing homeless people using services in much the same way as a self-created group would. Sometimes the best way to bring about change can be to work from within the service that you want to change. “It’s great to have client involvement,” says Simpson, “but it’s got to be when the sheet of paper is blank. It needs to be something that’s done right at the beginning.”

Outside In, as a group run by people rather than professionals, has had a significant impact: “We spoke to Iain Wright, parliamentary under secretary of state in the Department for Communities and Local Government. We told him one of the problems was training and he gave St Mungo’s £180,000 to purchase a new training centre. So rather than have the little Mickey Mouse training, there are computers, everything is there, new training staff, top of the market stuff all there. That wouldn’t have been there if Outside In didn’t have a meeting”, says Simpson.

Setting up a group or project

Setting up a group or project of your own is far easier than most people realise. If you avoid certain mistakes early on and keep a clear and focused eye on what you want to achieve you’ll soon see that there really wasn’t anything stopping you doing something like this earlier.

Set your sights – The first step is identifying what you want to do. Think hard about exactly what you would like to achieve. Many large charities began life as small groups that did one specific thing. Once they got good at that thing they began to grow and diversify what they were doing. In recent history, some of the most successful community-based groups have focused very closely on one activity or issue. Having a clear idea of what you want to happen makes it easier to work out how you might achieve it and makes it easier for you to find others to help.

Check that other people aren’t doing the same thing – Many people feel upset about similar issues, or identify similar things that should be changed. Before trying to set up a group or project of your own, try to find out if anyone else is doing a similar thing. There is a lot to be said for joining an existing group or project if one already exists.

Get people involved – Once you know what your group is going to do you will need to find others to help you. Always be clear with people about what they are getting involved in. Whilst leading and inspiring people is key, it is more important for everyone to feel that their time is being well used.

Sort out how you will operate – At the beginning you will probably be what is called an informal association. You should create a short constitution or documents setting out certain things about your group. These include your objectives, who will be responsible for running your group (e.g. chair, secretary and treasurer), how decisions are taken,   how often meetings will take place, who can attend and what will happen in the event of the organisation being wound up or ended.

Don’t build empires – It is important to avoid over-complicating what you are doing. People often feel like they need to become a charity or a company before they are ready to achieve anything or be in a position to get money or funding. Remember that sometimes the most powerful outcomes can be achieved by a group of people who like and respect each other and who just agree to get on with achieving something. While things might grow and progress, it’s better to be successful before trying to grow.

Share responsibilities – Many groups are founded by a small number of people and grow to depend on those people to continue. As soon as you can, you should make sure that you are making plans so that your group can continue if one of the main people falls ill or leaves. Depending on what your group does, this might be through keeping good notes, meeting regularly or by keeping in touch via email or newsletter. Remember though, when people volunteer their time, they want to be doing something that feels worthwhile. A big mistake is spending too much time meeting and planning and involving people in running the group and not enough time in actually doing the things that will help you to achieve your aims. For example, if your group is involved in renovating derelict properties, people who volunteer will probably want to do work with bricks, paint and mortar. They might not be so keen to spend hours meeting with the local council or trying to raise funds.

Be realistic and stay positive – Successful groups and projects strongly believe in what they are trying to achieve but are realistic about how they might achieve it and how long it might take. Changing things or setting things up takes time, patience and persistence. Make sure that you and the people that you draw together realise this and are prepared to try different approaches in achieving your goals.

What do I get out of it?

Choosing to spend your time making a change brings its own rewards. In 2007, Jonathan Naess, a corporate financier, founded Stand to Reason, an organisation that seeks to challenge the ideas that people have about people with mental health difficulties. It has been involved in a number of high profile reports and conferences, taking the issue of mental health to the government and to the heights of industry, with a possibility of it achieving a real change of attitude.

Naess, who experiences mental health difficulties, feels that working on a project that brings people together has been a great turning point in his life and one that has given him a feeling of coming to terms with his condition: “It’s been a fantastic experience – the best thing I’ve ever done, far better than working in the City,” he says. “Because mental illness doesn’t discriminate, it affects all people in society and so I’ve met people from all walks of life. It’s definitely helped me with my own recovery, and it’s still helping me because recovery is ongoing. It’s helped me deal with my own self-stigma and sense of shame. It’s very empowering to connect with people and share your expertise.”

This article first appeared in the Summer 2009 edition of One in Four magazine

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