Change the language of poverty

07 November 2018

Topic: REACH, Stigma
Author: Chris Small

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On the 25th Anniversary of Children in Scotland, Chris Small explains how and why tackling stigma on poverty led the organisation’s new campaign for action to improve children’s lives.

“…This is our story. We do not gloss over the struggles, but they do not define us. By having our story told in this way we are affirmed and people’s expectations and stereotypes are changed.”

Earlier this year I was part of an event that Children in Scotland conceived in partnership with the Church of Scotland’s Martin Johnstone. For me, I felt it was unusual because for once funders, charities and young people were all in the same room, talking supportively and with bracing honesty about a topic that receives far too little attention.

The subject was the effect stigmatising language and attitudes about poverty can have on young people’s sense of themselves and their communities. Staff from Inspiring Scotland, Poverty Alliance and the Child Poverty Action Group were among the expert voices.

But the most important contributors were the young people there Rebecca, Josh, Somer and Divine – no less expert, if not more so I might say - supported by the GK Experience and PEEK. They talked powerfully about how damaging negative narratives about poverty could be and told us that, although their communities weren’t perfect, they loved them and they valued the people who lived alongside them.

Part of what was refreshing about the event was the opportunity it provided funders and charities to be upfront about their own mis-steps, and to learn how to do things better. One example of this is our own Food, Families, Futures project, which works in partnership to provide meals and activities for families who may face difficulties when free school meal provision ends.

Some of the language we used initially to communicate the project was too emotive and too sweeping. We know that because people we work with in the communities where Food, Families, Futures runs told us, and we’ve changed how the project is now articulated as a result. This was a message that was echoed and confirmed by what young people from PEEK and GK said.

We don’t have the monopoly on understanding this complex issue, but we do know it deserves more exposure, scrutiny and public understanding. So, following the meeting, we invited Martin and his colleague Andrew Tomlinson to facilitate a further conversation with the young people to draw out their views and give them a platform in our anniversary campaign, 25 Calls. The campaign proposes a range of changes in policy, legislation, views and practice that we believe would result in children in Scotland experiencing greater equality and enjoying their rights.

As a result was our number one campaign call was formed: Change the language of poverty: Young people deserve dignity, not stigma and discrimination. Together this is what the Rebecca and Josh (PEEK) and Somer and Divine (the GK Experience) said to explain the call:

“I live in Possilpark in a two-bedroom flat with my five brothers and my mum. We are close. Despite some struggles I’m doing well at school, I have lots of friends and there’s lots going on in my community. I play football, a musical instrument and have lots of opportunities to volunteer. My community has struggles but folk are welcoming and it is wonderfully diverse, with lots of opportunities to explore and play.

“This is our story. We do not gloss over the struggles, but they do not define us. By having our story told in this way we are affirmed and people’s expectations and stereotypes are changed.

“We need you, everyone in society, to think about how you use our story. We know this is not always easy. The media want to highlight the challenges, charities need to justify the great work that they do, and funders want to know that they are reaching those in need.

“But we want you to focus more on the achievements and difference that can be made rather than the problems we face. Look for our strengths amidst the troubles rather than just the troubles. And where possible, allow us to tell our own story.

“We know it is not always easy, but we believe another way is possible. We believe this is a better way.”

Rebecca and Josh spoke at the launch of 25 Calls launch, why their call is important and what it felt like to be on the receiving end of prejudice because of where you live.

Following the event Rebecca told us, “My experience at the 25 Calls launch was phenomenal, even having to do a last-minute speech. Getting invited to an event like that is an honour but it was an ever more of a privilege to be asked to speak. I'm so pleased that our opinion and our voices count. We may not be able to vote but through sharing our thoughts and ideas with you, you can turn them into reality and help make our futures brighter. Thank you so much… for teaching me our voices will be heard and will count. Power to all young people!”

Rebecca, Josh, Divine and Somer have made clear their views about the impact of stigma on their lived experiences. Let’s all now try to make a contribution to changing attitudes by learning from and acting on what they’ve told us.

Chris Small is Communications Manager for Children in Scotland.


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author/s and may not represent the views or opinions of CELCIS or our funders.

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