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The radicality of Christian social enterprise

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William Temple scholar Val Barron reflects on just how radical Christian social enterprise can be.

One thing I had never expected when I began my research journey was that it would be so exciting. The excitement came when something I had not expected began to emerge from the data. I guess archaeologists feel something similar as artefacts are slowly revealed in the dirt and begin to take form.

The aspect of my data that has particularly surprised me is that the Christian social enterprises in my research are far more radical than I had expected.

From my experience, as a community practitioner in Durham diocese, I was anticipating participants who turned to social enterprise as an alternative funding stream. This was certainly what Adam Dinham had predicted:

‘[J]aded by the never-ending cycle of struggling to find next year’s funding whilst at the same time plan for the long term […] Social Enterprise can seem like an attractive option where it promises a constant stream of income.’

(Faiths and Frontiers, p. 12)

In his book Social Enterprise for Anytown, John Pearce sets out a continuum between a radical approach and a reformist approach. The reformist social enterprise, according to Pearce, serves as an extension to the private and public sector, providing services that these sectors fail to address. They reform their practice, often adopting commercial practices to meet revenue shortages. At the other end of Pearce’s continuum sits a radical social approach. These organisations see social enterprise as an alternative way of doing things,  aiming to challenge injustice, and built upon a radical utopian vision that seeks to fundamentally change the social order.

The social enterprises I have encountered in my own work, while sitting at various points along the radical /reformist continuum, were often seeking to subvert the logic of the free market and change the relationship between money, land and people. They were established by groups of Christians who were passionate about challenging the injustices they experienced in their communities, including low wages, food poverty, food waste, educational marginalisation, and isolation.

Most social enterprises were started by listening to the lived experiences of people in their communities. As one participant told me, ‘we stumbled across social enterprise’; setting up a social enterprise had not been the starting point.

I really should not have been surprised by this finding. The Christian tradition includes many examples of using the market for radical change. Social enterprise, while still a relatively new term, can be recognised in in the historical tradition of church mission and social engagement.

I live four miles from where a group of six, Christian students in the 1970s decided that, rather than flying out aid to Bangladesh, they would import products made in their communities. Thus, Traidcraft was established and went on to become a pioneering business for the Fairtrade movement.

Similarly, the newly ordained Catholic priest Father Arizmendi was sent to Mongragon in 1941 and started door to door collections to raise funds for a technical college for excluded young people. From this act grew a co-operative that has been revered globally, made it the wealthiest region in Spain and raised a steady supply of capital for new co-operative ventures.

The small acts of listening to people’s stories, and asking how we can build capacity rather than simply respond to need, can lead to massive, radical change. Rather than adopting a reformist approach of simply shifting our ‘charity activities’ to become more income generating, we should re-engage with the radical history of social enterprise.

In their book Getting Beyond Better, Roger Martin and Sally Osburg define the transformative role of social entrepreneurs:

‘Social Entrepreneurs […] can be contrasted with both social service providers and social advocates in that social entrepreneurs both take direct action and seek to transform the existing system. They seek to go beyond better, to bring about a transformed, stable new system that is fundamentally different than the world that preceded it.’

(Getting Beyond Better, pp. 9-10)

Referring to this quotation, a research participant stated:

‘That, for me, is a pretty good definition of the kingdom of God. Jesus’s mission in terms of the kingdom of God is actually trying to transform the current system.’

As we begin to emerge, battered and bruised, from the devastating impact of the pandemic, many of our existing services will either have disappeared or be searching for new ways of functioning. In this void, social enterprises can provide spaces of radical receptivity, rapprochement and hope—if we start by asking the right questions. Hilary Cottam also encourages us to explore radical solutions by asking different questions:

‘The question is not how can we fix these services but rather, as I stand beside you, how can I support you create change. The search is for the root causes: what is causing this problem and how can we address this underlying issue.’

(Radical Help, p. 3)
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A deeper solidarity

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Following Living Wage Week 2020, Val Barron makes the case for a deeper solidarity with all our co-workers.

My research interest in social enterprise stems from the belief that businesses can provide a place for people to feel valued and to flourish—and thus have a place in the Church’s social action. However, as I was reminded at the beginning of my research in an interview with a Christian social entrepreneur, the Church can be reluctant to engage in the world of business:

‘They automatically presume charity—good, business—bad. That is a very common church narrative… Charity is a fabulous thing if it’s done in the right way, at the right time, for the right purpose. And the same is true for business: it can be fabulous if it’s done in the right way, at the right time, for the right purpose.’

Yet we also know that businesses can be places where employees are exploited and undervalued. The last nine months has only made this exploitation more visible. The number of people earning below the minimum wage has risen fivefold to 2 million since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s probably worth reiterating that fact: 2 million people now earn below the minimum wage.

For the last three years I have been a member of Tyne and Wear Citizens Living Wage Action Team and every year we hold a celebration during Living Wage Week. While the North East is the region with the lowest number of accredited employers nationally, we have seen a rise from 30 to 133 over the last three years. Preparing for this year’s celebrations felt very different, and not just because we held the event online. It has felt more personal, more emotional and closer to home; there is a deeper solidarity.

Earlier this year we heard from a young carer who worked in a local nursing home. Since she was under 18 she only received £4.35 an hour; she had to buy her own uniform; and she often worked twelve-hour shifts. We were told how she regularly worked without appropriate PPE, and fear of losing her job prevented her from complaining or taking time off if she felt poorly. Her experience tallies with the claim that three quarters of care workers in England are paid less that the real living wage; this is a staggering 82% in the North East. During the first lockdown, as we all gathered on doorsteps to applaud our NHS, I struggled to clap knowing the deep injustices suffered by some of our most valuable workers.

Meanwhile, redundancies have hit record rates and unemployment levels continue to rise, with the North East seeing the highest rates of unemployment in the UK at 6.7%. Very few households have not been impacted by the reality or the fear of low pay and insecure work.

Joerg Rieger adopts the term ‘deep solidarity’ to describe the situation where the 99% of us who have to work for a living (including people who are excluded from the job market) realise that they have this in common. Deep solidarity recognises that the system works for the few rather than for the many and that nothing will change unless more of the many come together. Deep solidarity allows us to work for common causes, dealing with our differences constructively, and developing what Angus Ritchie describes as a practice of inclusive populism that welcomes religious and secular perspectives as well as other diverse views.

But what does this have to do with my Christian faith? How does this affect the Church with its inclination to focus on otherworldly or private affairs as opposed to tangible working conditions? Unfortunately, many faith communities are unaware of the ties between religion and the everyday life of working people. But Rieger reminds us that the Abrahamic traditions have their beginnings in the struggle for the liberation of the Hebrew slaves.

Never in my lifetime has there been a more important time for faith communities to re-engage with the fact that they are communities of working people whose tradition is one of liberation, and whose task is to develop a deep solidarity for the common good. John Artherton reminded us that a market economy ‘offers one of the greatest challenges to Christianity just as Christianity in its own turn challenges that context by its refusal to be fully integrated into it’ (Christianity and the Market, p. 21).

Now is our time to re-integrate into the world of business, in deep solidarity with our co-workers to ensure it is a place for all to flourish.

Image: “Ritzy Living Wage Striking Workers” from Wikimedia Commons is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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Hunger and COVID-19: stories of two responses

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William Temple Scholar Val Barron offers a frank report on those who are going hungry as a result of the current crisis, and introduces some of the work that is being done in response.

The day before coronavirus lockdown was announced, I was working in a community supermarket in a small town in County Durham. As well as generating income through the shop and take-away, there are several community shelves aimed at customers who are experiencing food poverty. Schools in the town—like the rest of the country—were shut, and the shelves were full of brown paper bags containing the packed lunches for the 211 children who were entitled to free school meals that day. One mum came in to pick up five packed lunches and we began to chat about the current situation. She shared her concerns about the next few weeks, not only having to homeschool five children on her own, but also finding the money for food; she was already struggling. This was day one. Our context has changed immeasurably since that day, almost four weeks ago, and my challenge as a community development worker is to navigate how to respond; and quickly.

Over the last three weeks I have been engaged in two responses, one charitable, the other community organising; both are equally important in these tumultuous times.

The primary charitable response has been food aid. Informal local networks and charities have stepped up to bridge the gap between public services and community need. Local foodbanks have started to deliver food parcels and churches—unable to hold their drop-ins, lunch clubs, and toddler groups—have shifted focus to distributing food aid. Local social enterprises have shifted their focus from income generation to social impact and have also provided food.

While this work is to be applauded, much of it is not sustainable. Despite the announcement of £100 million in loans, reductions in food donations and the exhaustion of volunteers and staff are both taking their toll. Academics from York University claim that the current situation is magnifying the inequalities in the food system and the fragility of the food aid that is provided by the charity sector (that is being asked to respond to a growing demand with reduced resources). They call for policy change to protect households:

‘Millions of households were in poverty before the pandemic, and millions more will be so unless the government continues to protect household incomes through policy change.’

This is where the networks and processes of a community organising response become so important. The government has proposed a raft of new policies over the last four weeks, but with little time for the usual scrutiny and testing it is important we listen and organise in response to the impact of these.

One of the policies announced on 18th March aimed at providing children entitled to free school meals continued support while schools were closed. While supporting the move,  Tyne and Wear Citizens recognised that the proposals would still see children falling through the net. A process of rapid listening was initiated, using the relationships we had developed in the north east during our Just Change Campaign last year. The findings were distilled down into several ‘asks’, which were checked with institutions and chapters across the country, and again amended.

In his book Inclusive Populism, Angus Ritchie describes broad-based community organising as: ‘an approach to politics rooted in agency and the diverse convictions of citizens experiencing social injustice, from recent migrants to people in long established working-class communities’. Until four weeks ago, the process of listening and bringing diverse groups together for change had been at the core of my organising in Sunderland, but this is a lengthy process and for now we need to respond quickly in an organised way.

The church can be key to listening in communities, even without face-to-face conversations. By simply asking the question ‘what is putting pressure on you and your family?’, we will begin to build up a picture of grassroots issues, some of which we will be able to influence, others that we won’t.

We are also starting to hear about the impact of being furloughed on a minimum wage, employee rights being removed, and issues with the benefit systems. Policy makers, whether locally or centrally, need to be aware of the impact of their decisions on the ground. But by gathering stories and feeding back to local councillors, MPs and other strategic partners we can influence change.

Over the next few weeks and months we need to serve our communities not only through acts of charity but by gathering stories and working with institutions for a just response to this crisis.

More details about the Tyne and Wear Just Change Campaign can be found here.

More blogs on religion and public life…

Where is our vaccine? A plea for a renewed public understanding of science by Tim Howles

Existential risk and the sabbath of the land by Greg Smith

The Plague Doctors: Imagining the pandemics of the future by Karen Lord

Liberty and response-ability in the time of coronavirus by Tina Hearn

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