Talking the talk and walking the walk

Why do so many charities talk confidently about radical change, but so few really try to achieve it?

Alex Fox OBE shares his thoughts on radical change as he takes on his new role of CEO at Mayday Trust.

I’ve spent over ten years working with people who are brave and radical in their own lives. Our members at Shared Lives Plus share their own homes and family lives with people to offer and seek support. Over 15,000 people now live good lives as a result, instead of risking being lost within a social care and health system that does not always feel human, caring and respectful. We have built a UK network and organisation which thinks like they do, demonstrating the kind of social change we call for in the way that we work, and in who gets to do that work.

Over the years, I’ve admired Mayday’s work and heard Pat McArdle speak about the radical path that Mayday has taken. Now that Pat has retired from Mayday, I know that I won’t be able to replace or replicate her unique vision and inspirational style, but I hope to have learned from it.

Mayday is an organisation that changed radically because it listened to what people were saying about what Mayday and other organisations were doing, and was prepared to hear some very uncomfortable messages. The support that people were getting when they went through tough times like being homeless, trying to recover from substance misuse, or leaving prison, wasn’t working for lots of people, and it may even have been inadvertently keeping them locked into those tough times and the services and systems built around them. I wrote a book about some of the things I’ve learned from the people involved in Shared Lives, Homeshare and now Family by Family, with the subtitle ‘Escaping the invisible asylum’, because I believe that even though we talk about ‘community’ services, ‘empowerment’, focusing on ‘outcomes’ and so on, the culture and thought-processes which led us to build asylums, workhouses and other institutions is still deeply ingrained in many of our public services.

In Pat’s final blog for Mayday, she writes that there has not been the radical ‘revolution’ in homelessness support she once dreamed of. But there has been change, and there is no doubt in my mind that Mayday has played a role in that change. Not just dreaming of doing things differently, if only there was enough time, enough money or any of the other things we’ll never have enough of, but showing how to do things differently despite those multiple challenges. In other words, putting the idea of a person-led and strength-based response,  which is at the heart of Mayday’s mission, into the way the whole organisation works. Through the New System Alliance, Mayday and its partners are just starting to model that person-led response to drive change and inform an entirely new system. Like many of the people it supports, the organisation has had to come so far already, just in order to take the first step on a brand new journey towards being the hugely impactful organisation and movement for change that I know we can be.

Pat also says something in her final blog which resonates with me deeply: “My time at Mayday has taught me that my view is one of many and the direction to challenge the failing homeless system needs to be led by people who are experiencing it, who are often trapped within it and who want to act.” One challenge for us in the journey to come will be to be as ambitious as allies, as we are as leaders. If we can realise the ambition to impact thousands of lives, with the humility to stay led by people, we will have achieved something truly radical.