Our publication, Insights for A Better Way, is dedicated to the late Jane Slowey, a founder member of A Better Way whose Advantaged Thinking is an inspiration to us all and vividly illustrates our proposition, 'Building on strengths is better than focusing on weaknesses'. Colin explains how it came about.
Jane believed that charity should inspire action through the stories it amplifies. Back in 2004, when Jane joined youth housing charity Foyer Federation, the narrative about young people was predominately negative. Too often, we knew more about what young people couldn’t do than what they could. We talked about the need to help people cope, without always understanding or caring that people also need to thrive. Jane wanted to invest in a different, more honest story. Where to begin?
'To start living again, to have a good life'
My mind returns to a reception at Foyles bookshop for a Foyer Federation poetry competition. It was summer 2006 and Jane was 18 months into her new CEO role. One of the poems that night expressed young people’s belief ‘to start living again, to have a good life’. Jane was instantly attracted to this as an idea: if we knew the ingredients for a good life, shouldn’t we ensure they formed part of the deal for everyone to access? Jane and I reflected that the origin of Foyer in France was rooted in the question of transition – how to build an alternative induction into the shifting life of adulthood. ‘Why don’t we do that?’ Jane suggested. It was our step into asset-based thinking: look towards a positive transition; begin with the opportunity.
The fruits of Jane’s early success in leading more transition-focused programme design led to a research trip to the States in 2007. I explored services using ‘developmental asset’ models and returned home to express these through a social action employability programme funded by the Housing Corporation, a ‘better youth offer’ inquiry funded by Paul Hamlyn Foundation, and a ‘healthy transitions’ programme funded by the Big Lottery.
It was not until 2009, though, that our interest in asset-based thinking found a distinctive identity. With ideas flourishing in multiple directions, Jane instructed me to write a coherent frame for our work. A post-Wimbledon article on the demise of British tennis offered an unlikely analogy to the state of youth provision. Yet, within it, I glimpsed our first blueprint for a more personalised approach to spot, coach, and promote people’s talents. I remember my trepidation as I handed over a draft manifesto outlining the purpose for youth services to ‘Open Talent’. Jane’s response was swift: ‘I stopped correcting your phrasing after page two because I was too excited by the content.’ What excited Jane was not just a clearer vision for the next strategic plan - it was the wider call for systems change, in which everyone had a voice and role to play.
Open Talent embraced strengths-based practice, the assed based community development model, the sustainable livelihoods approach, and the ethics of good youth work that underpinned the original holistic ethos of Foyers, fusing these together into an exciting hybrid. Funding soon followed from Virgin Unite, Esmee Fairbairn and others, supporting national pilots that freed up local innovation. But Open talent was not always an easy sale at a time when ‘poverty porn’ and deficit-based provision still went largely unquestioned. It was in an attempt to answer the doubters that we stumbled on the concepts of ‘disadvantaged’ and ‘advantaged’ thinking. We were trying to characterise the differences between problem-focused programmes seeking funding for an easy fix to disadvantage, and those willing to risk exploring the ‘advantages’ more likely to generate real capability for people and communities to shape their own solutions. This became the theme for a TEDx speech that I delivered in Greece in April 2011.
‘We wanted to rebrand the narrative of ‘disadvantage’'
Actually, Jane had been invited to talk, but she sent me instead because she believed I would get more from the opportunity. That was always her brilliance as a leader, to harness the abilities of others. Using TEDx as a platform, we launched an Advantaged Thinking adventure to find the ‘people, places, opportunities, deal and campaign’ to develop young people’s talents. We wanted to rebrand the narrative of ‘disadvantage’. For Jane, that meant creating space for people and organisations to work together in changing the story.
The approach found an ally through Foyer Foundation Australia and partner organisations such as Brotherhood of St Laurence (BSL). I was first dispatched to Australia in November 2011, with a speech illustrating how the end of youth homelessness could only be found in knowing how to shape the beginnings of youth talent. Years later, it is Australia leading the way. BSL is the first organisation to work with me to recast Advantaged Thinking into resources that will help embed a sustainable asset-based DNA across different communities of practice. Their spirit of collaboration has made me feel alive again.
What a journey. The words we heard at Foyles ended up touching the other side of the world. Now, they reverberate back in greater strength and meaning. ‘That’, Jane would have smiled, ‘is Advantaged Thinking. What do you think?’
Colin Falconer is Director of Inspirechilli, an innovation consultancy that harnesses asset-based approaches for organisations across the UK to Australia. Colin has worked in various education, employment and quality assurance initiatives, including 14 years as Director of Innovation at Foyer Federation where he introduced the concept of ‘Advantaged Thinking’.