It was a funny thing standing outside that fish and chip shop on a North London housing estate all those years ago.
It’s how MAC-UK started - the charity I founded that works with some of our most deprived and excluded young people. Those who are most in need. But least likely to receive help.
I was single back then. And I had no sense of what it was like to earn an income. And I had been a student for ages. Would I be brave enough to do it now? I’m not sure.
But I do know that if you want to enable community changes, you need to start with communities themselves. That’s why I was outside that fish and chip shop. That’s why it took 12 months. And it’s why it was exhausting.
I stood there not really knowing what I was going to do. But I had a clear idea about how I was going to do it. I needed to listen, listen, listen. I needed to build trust. I needed to be myself. And I needed to be an enabler. Above all, I had to hold my nerve. And I genuinely needed to ask for help. Because I genuinely didn’t know what it was that I needed to do.
“What are you doing here?” asked Douggie. “I need your help,” I said. “I’m a psychologist but sometimes I don’t think I do a very good job at helping young people. They don’t want to see a stranger in a clinic. I probably wouldn’t either. I need your help to do things better. To find something that works.”
“You’re right” he said. “Everything’s rubbish”. “I’d never go to a clinic. That’s for mad people. And I’m not mad.” “What’s in it for me?” he asked. “I’m not sure,” I said. “But I do know that I can’t do this without you”.
“Can I do music?” he asked. “Sure,” I said. “I’m in,” he replied. And he shook my hand and raised his head for the first time.
Over the next seven years we built an organisation called MAC-UK but most importantly, we built an approach. One that genuinely came from Douggie, his friends and the local community. It developed through lots of listening. Lots of bouncing off each other and lots of building networks and resourcing young people’s ideas.
It was about mutual aid. I needed the young people to help me and they needed me. But whatever we did couldn’t stop there. The idea was to inspire change elsewhere and for the big systems around us, like the NHS and the local authorities, to see how they could work differently.
It wasn’t the what. Because that changed all the time. It had to. It was the how that was the point. And many people never quite got that. Many still don’t.
MAC-UK was the beginning in many ways. And maybe I have already done the fish and chip again. But this time it’s the sandwich shop. And it’s Problem Solving Booths.
But it’s not the Problem Solving Booths that are the most important thing. It’s the change they are trying to nudge. The contagion of mutual aid and mutual compassion and respect. Of treating each other as humans. And of listening. Of doing things together. As Dawn Austwick, CEO of The Big Lottery Fund, so accurately says: “no change without us is for us”.
The community landscape has changed since the fish and chip shop days. Brexit is here. So are funding cuts. And Donald Trump. We need to listen to our communities like never before. And we need to support each other.
But there’s no one solution to all of this. Every setting and location is different. And what works now might not work in the future. Because needs change. And so do the things around us.
It’s for this reason that Problem Solving Booths might sometimes feel hard to pin down. And that’s why I know we’re in the right playing field. It’s because we are shaping them with our communities.
We’re learning fast, failing even faster and adapting. And we’re doing it together with people and organisations across the UK and beyond. We’re doing the fish and chip shop conversation at scale. And holding our nerve.
This is the third in a five-part series explaining the concept of Problem Solving Booths. For more information visit www.problemsolvingbooths.com