Recently I attended the Strive Together conference in Chicago: a convening of Cradle to Career (C2C) non-profits from across the US. It was enlightening to learn about the systems change work that other organisations are doing, which is so similar to what we do in the Feltham Convening Partnership (FCP) but in such vastly different contexts. One thing which has stuck with me is an overwhelming gratitude that gun violence is not something we have to worry about in our community.
Despite the literal ocean between our communities, it was interesting and reassuring to learn that we face a lot of the same challenges in our work. For example: how do we ensure that the language we use when referring to our community is asset based? How do we meaningfully and authentically listen to young people? How do we act upon their concerns whilst ensuring they are safe and not being tokenised? How do we capture, record and measure the impact that convening is having on our community?
The reassuring element comes from the fact that compared to some of the partner organisations at the convening, FCP is just a baby (being only 2 years into the work) yet we held our own in terms of being on the right track, asking the right questions and not cutting any corners on the work.
The interesting aspect comes from the fact that universally, systems change is hard work. This is often what I struggle with the most, that niggling question of “nothing is going to change so what is the point.” My American maternal grandfather dedicated so much of his life to protesting for change. As a Unitarian religious leader during the civil rights movement in the 60s, he used his position as a community leader to campaign for change and was not afraid to speak out. I read two of his sermons from that time, and whilst I am proud that he was not just committed to the cause of ending racial inequality but actively campaigning against it, I was also downhearted that I can read his sermons in today's context and too much of it still rings true. What did my grandfather dedicate so much of his life to if in fact these systemic racial issues are still present in society today?
I think this is why I keep coming back to one of the keynote speeches from the Strive Together conference from poet and academic Clint Smith III. He spoke on the transition from American states using the labour of enslaved people to the labour of imprisoned people and how the fight for freedom for Black Americans has shifted from plantations to prisons. The image he used which really stood out to me was that of activism being like someone chipping away at a wall. We don’t know if that wall is 6 inches thick or 6 miles thick but we need to keep on chipping away without knowing how long that will take. He gave the example of enslaved people who fought for freedoms they themselves would never experience - that their children would never experience, that potentially not even their children’s children would experience - but they continued to fight anyway for the chance that one day their people, their community, their descendants would be free.
That image of chipping away at a wall is what systems change work is like; we may not tangibly see the benefits of the work we are doing for years and years to come, but in order to improve outcomes for children and young people in Feltham we need to keep on chipping away at the systems which create inequitable barriers in our young people's chances to succeed.