Menai Owen-Jones, CEO of the Pituitary Foundation and trustee of Race Council Cymru and ACEVO, blogs about the role of leadership in building a different and better future for Wales and how we have choices and decisions to make that will profoundly influence what comes next.
The time is now. We can all influence our future. The choices are ours. But do we have the will and the quality of leadership to actually ‘build back better,’ or are these another set of warm words? Good slogans alone don’t change the world after all.
People can be kind, creative and generous. We have seen this no more so than in the past few months. We have seen the best in human qualities and inspiring examples of leadership across communities in Wales, as people have willingly stepped forward to contribute.
Things have been done that people thought weren’t possible
We have seen the selflessness of many; no more so than frontline and key workers, who have sacrificed much for others.
The response to the pandemic has also shone a light on what can be done when people step forward to self-organise, volunteer and give to other people, because they choose to and they want to, like helping shielding neighbours and setting up community food banks.
More change happened in the space of three months than in three years. Things have been done that people thought were not possible. It shows what radical change can happen when you remove bureaucracy, when there is a sense of urgency and a will to act.
The voluntary sector has mobilised people like never before, adapted services, embraced digital solutions and shown that the sector and its work is indeed #NeverMoreNeeded.
How do we however ensure we retain the positive behaviours and changes we’ve seen in the short-term and embed real impactful long-term change?
It is not a common shared experience
Covid-19 is the most shocking, traumatic and life-changing modern-day crisis.
We have never experienced anything like this before; I hope we never do again. Though we are all in the same storm, we are in different boats, and as someone rightly said, your experience is not ‘the’ experience. This time requires a great level of empathy.
Isolation and loneliness are words I have heard repeatedly over past weeks and the effect of this crisis on the mental health of all generations will be unparalleled. Digital has fortunately enabled us to ‘see’ people, keep in touch and be socially connected, whilst being physically distanced.
But it really is not the same as being with someone else in person. It is a distant and very different emotional and sensory experience speaking to someone through a screen without eye contact.
Inequalities and injustices are now heightened
There are major inequalities and human rights issues arising from the Covid-19 pandemic and responses to it.
Inequalities that existed before are now heightened. New problems are arising. Progress made in some key areas is being eroded. In fact, we are going backwards in some areas, for example, noting recent reports regarding changing attitudes towards people with disabilities since the pandemic started.
Covid-19 has had a disproportionate impact on BAME people and the pandemic has exacerbated and further exposed entrenched racial inequalities that have existed for generations. There is also concerningly the unequal impact on children and young people, older people, disabled people, women and people living in socio-economic disadvantage.
We are yet to see the full extent of the impact of the pandemic and this will take some considerable time to unfold. The reality is that this is not a short-term issue as some say.
People will be changed by what they have seen, felt and experienced. For those in society who are already disadvantaged and marginalised, this crisis especially will be forever life-changing if we do not act now to reduce inequalities and injustices.
Multi-level challenges for organisations
As well as the vast societal level challenges that charities are responding to, and have significant contributions to make towards, voluntary organisations themselves across Wales, large and small, have never faced such an avalanche of multi-faceted demands at once.
How do we meet increasing need for support services for example, when the vast majority of charities have never been so financially challenged and the outlook so unknown? How can we scale what we do, without sufficient funds? How do we influence policy to address major inequalities, when we have diminishing resources? What about reaching service users who are excluded digitally? How do we ensure good governance amongst all of this radical, complex and fast-paced change?
We are now most definitely in the territory of unknown unknowns. I think it is fair to say too that we will all have to do more, with less. Undoubtedly voluntary sector organisations have a critical and immediate need for more funding, but in reality, we are in, what is likely to be, the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and added to this we also do not know yet the impact of leaving the European Union.
There will be pockets of opportunities, as there always is, but, generally speaking, there will be much less money to go around. As such an entrepreneurial approach, preparedness, agility and creativity will be key for organisations to survive, recover and thrive in the future.
A more equal and fair future for Wales?
There are real and valid questions and concerns right now about our future. Will we continue to be wilfully blind to the existential climate crisis? Will society become more, and not less, divided and more unequal? What impact will there be on the lives and prospects of young people, who may be forever known as the ‘coronavirus generation’?
Will we change our priorities and put wellbeing, health, the environment and prevention above purely economic motivations? Will we actually reflect and learn from this crisis?
As we have undoubtedly seen, too much focus on efficiency means that we don’t bring into the present the risks of the future. Our general lack of preparedness for a global pandemic has had devastating consequences, and if we take the same approach to climate change, as we have done thus far, it is frightening to think what this means for our children and future generations.
It’s time for greater political scrutiny and increased public challenge too. By the same token we should also not look to government for all solutions. We need everybody contributing. This requires real leadership and the power of convening to ignite the social change we need
Proactive and opportunistic leadership
This is the time for our leaders across society, across all sectors, to step forward, to co-produce better solutions together. We need to be proactive and opportunistic.
We make choices everyday as leaders how to use our influence and how we behave, this has impact. For example, everyone in the voluntary sector should read the new sobering report Home Truths: Undoing racism and delivering real diversity in the charity sector by ACEVO. It challenges charity leaders to take responsibility to address long-standing racial inequalities in the sector. Racism has no place in a sector that is devoted to positive social change, so we must do everything we can to tackle this issue more effectively. We have a responsibility to listen, learn and act.
To move us forward to create much needed systemic change, as leaders, let’s take this opportunity to bring people together, listen to diverse voices not heard, especially at grassroots, and to involve people who are not currently included in meaningful decision-making processes.
Covid-19 and all of its consequences, is a shared monumental challenge for all of us to unite around; our chance as leaders to rebuild people’s trust in our institutions and to create the conditions to mobilise collective inter-generational action.
Volunteers’ collective action, citizens and young people
Over the past few months, we have seen examples of real leadership, both formal and informal, in our local communities across Wales. Volunteers, of all ages and backgrounds, have led community responses in their local areas both rural and urban.
As we emerge from the initial phase of this crisis, we have the opportunity to embrace the re-energised enthusiasm for volunteering, alongside devolving more power locally and to foster better engagement with citizens supporting a community-led recovery.
We also have the chance to do more to involve and empower young people to be active citizens and leaders – they have the energy, skills and ideas to change society for the better.
Voluntary effort is invaluable. We are going to continue facing numerous challenges, but in dark times there have to be glimmers of hope and optimism. We need to hold onto the best of people – kindness, generosity, voluntary contribution and a sense of community. This is the glue that will bind us together.
If not me, then who?
The enormity of what lies ahead is undoubted. The multifaceted challenges we are facing can feel overwhelming; a monumental leadership task.
Where to start? I think it’s helpful to focus on what we can do and what we can control. ‘I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the water and create many ripples,’ said Mother Theresa Indeed, there are many things we can do as leaders to make a positive difference and actually contribute to ‘building back better.’
‘Do what you can, with what you have, where you are,’ (a Roosevelt quote) is another saying I also regularly repeat. We must hold on to the belief that things can be better, always care, and have the courage and the will to carry on.
We can influence the future, our future
If we allow ‘normality’ and business as usual to seep back in, we will continue to reproduce fundamental inequalities and injustices. Power will also remain with the same people.
Our future generations will look back upon now, and ask what did we do, what was our response to Covid-19? What choices did we make? Who stepped up to contribute? Who did our leaders choose to be?
The answers to these questions will have a profound impact on us all.
The window of opportunity for radical long-term change is still open. Before it slams shut, let’s take the responsibility collectively and show real leadership through action to create a different future for everyone in Wales.