Transcript: Challenge Poverty Week 2020

An interview with Suzi Murning, Campaigns Officer at The Poverty Alliance.

Podcast Episode: Challenge Poverty Week 2020

Category: Welfare reform 



What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.

MD - Michelle Drumm
SM - Suzi Murning

MD Challenge Poverty Week was held between 5-11 October this year. The week aims to raise a unified voice against poverty and calls for a more just and equal Scotland. We spoke to Suzi Murning, Campaigns Officer at The Poverty Alliance to find out about the history of Challenge Poverty Week, its purpose and the activities and impact of the campaign for this year.

MD Today I’m joined by Suzi Murning: Campaigns Officer at the Poverty Alliance. Challenge Poverty Week happens every year and calls for a more just and equal Scotland. It was held this year between the 5th and the 11th of October. Suzi, thanks for joining me this morning to talk about Challenge Poverty Week.

SM I’m very happy to be here.

MD Firstly, could you tell me a little bit about the history of Challenge Poverty Week?

SM Sure, yes so Challenge Poverty Week started in 2013 so, seven years ago now. It’s been going for quite a while and it was established against the backdrop of a very negative rhetoric, around people living in poverty. As you can imagine that was three years after the Conservatives got into power and David Cameron was kind of propagating this really negative narrative that was really stigmatising and really aimed to bolster support for welfare cuts, etc. that were going on at that time and that had a material impact on people but also a psychological impact. You know the stigma that they experienced and the knowledge that people were really buying into this narrative and thinking things about them that really don’t ring true to their actual lives and their experiences. So, that’s kind of what galvanised the Poverty Alliance to start Challenge Poverty Week. So, the Poverty Alliance has been going since 1992 and we started Challenge Poverty Week in 2013 so, the goals then were broadly similar to what they are now which I will talk about but slightly different in that we were coming from a different place: a lot of the work hadn’t been done yet so, they had, really, a lot of groundwork to do. So, as is the same now, one of the goals was to increase the awareness of the reality of poverty in Scotland, the second goal was to encourage engagement and positive debate around issues to do with poverty and low income and the last goal which really is a key focus of what we do now was to strengthen the anti-poverty movement in Scotland by providing a common platform but I think because of Challenge Poverty Week a lot of that work has already been done so we’re really just drawing on the strength of that movement that’s been created in the past seven years and before that since the poverty alliance was established in 1992 and it’s gone from strength to strength. In terms of the actual activities, I think this year one of the key things that was different about Challenge Poverty Week was that it was done pretty much solely online. And I think one of the things that it showed me was, you know we were trying to think before Challenge Poverty Week, how do we help people engage when they can only engage online when before there were organised in person events, you know, they were organised information stalls and you know, we did our best and I think we did manage to help people think about how they can get involved when they’re restricted but actually I think a key learning from this year was that organisations will take that idea and run with it and they’ll do their own thing and they’ll come up with their own imaginative ways to help challenge poverty so, I think in terms of how it’s changed: a lot of the changes over the years will be from the organisations themselves, just taking this idea of challenging poverty, opening up discussion and pushing for changes and just running with it and just doing their own thing. So, I think we’ve had a hand it in and in previous years we had steering groups with different trade unions and other third sector organisations but I think a lot of the way it’s developed has just been really organic with organisations, they’re passionate about solutions to poverty, really knowing their community and knowing the people that they provide services for and then creating events and activities that would best serve their interests.

MD And tell me, do you include people who are affected by poverty in the campaign itself or is it more about the organisations that are involved?

SM So, absolutely, The Poverty Alliance, generally as an organisation, we don’t do anything that doesn’t have people with experiences of poverty or who are currently experiencing poverty really leading the way. They are experts by experience and we thoroughly respect that, we’re a membership organisation and we have working groups who are made up of individuals with lived experience and they really are core to everything we do. So, that obviously includes Challenge Poverty Week so, one of the key things … as I’ll talk about when I talk about the purpose of Challenge Poverty Week, one of the key things we try and do is change the conversation around poverty and we do that by sharing the real lived experiences of people who are experiencing poverty or who have experienced poverty and obviously we try and share that in the media and share it as far and wide as possible and that’s always … that’s never, you know, the staff behind the scenes writing about stories someone’s told about … it’s from the people themselves who’ve had these experiences so, they’re absolutely front and centre of what we do and in terms of who we engage, it is organisations that we focus on to try and get involved apart from obviously, you know, the activists that we work with that share their stories throughout the week, but their job is to then engage their local community and reach out to the people in their communities who are affected by poverty.

MD Brilliant so, tell me a little bit about the purpose of this year’s Challenge Poverty Week?

SM So, this year there was three primary aims of Challenge Poverty Week now, in its kind of modified matured form but they’re really all constituent parts of a kind of overarching aim which is to push for policy solutions at a government level so towards the Scottish Government, and towards the UK Government and also local authorities who make a lot of really important decisions. So, the first kind of primary key aim of Challenge Poverty Week is to raise awareness for solutions to poverty and raise awareness of the reality of poverty in Scotland and build support for those policy solutions. So, we know what these solutions are, we know the solutions we need to stem the rising tide of poverty, we just need the political will tom implement these solutions and we also know that an informed public who knows exactly what needs to be done and who’s values are aligned with the purpose of these anti-poverty policies, that’s the most important instrument in achieving political change so, by raising awareness in the general population and the general public that will help us move towards a place where governments are really taking charge of this issue and making changes and especially this year with the Scottish Parliament elections coming up in 2021, it was really important to push for very specific policy solutions and garner support for those specific policies and Challenge Poverty Week has never just been an awareness raising week, an awareness raising week is important and a raising awareness is really important, it’s not to diminish that aspect of it but it’s always been about looking towards a future where no one’s experiencing poverty in Scotland and we do that through highlighting policy solutions but again because of the current situation that we’re in and because of the elections coming up, we really put a lot of time and energy into that. So, we put a lot of effort into raising awareness of what these policy solutions are that could help people, why they’re needed and the effects of not implementing these policies. So, that’s the first key aim is to build support and awareness around the issues and policies, the second aim of the week: in a bid to bring about real tangible change, is to help change, as I’ve mentioned is to help change the way poverty is talked about in Scotland. So, this kind of links to the first aim as well, so, the way we understand what poverty is in our minds, the way we assess and judge both the moral and practical implications of living in a society where people are trapped in poverty, is a great determiner of whether people will support solutions. So, luckily and rightly in Scotland a majority will … you know some research has shown that a majority of people do recognise poverty as a very serious issue and are willing to get behind the policy solutions that are necessary to help bring people out of poverty but there are also still some very damaging and very cruel sub narratives around poverty that not only weaken our collective resolve to end poverty but also stigmatise those living in poverty so, as challenge poverty week shines a light on the issue of poverty we use this as an opportunity to try and replace these negative narratives with ones that seek to foster a sense that poverty is a matter related to justice, that if people are experiencing poverty is unjust and foster one that brings out and activates the values that we all share which is compassion and justice when talking about poverty so, we try to reframe the conversation and pivot away from what are frankly incorrect views about the experiences of people living in poverty and how they come to be in that situation, you know, replacing frames that put the burden on the individual, that it’s their fault that they’re in poverty, and we try and create frames that help foster this idea that poverty is a result of your context. It’s very much the society in which you live, the community in which you’re brought up, the family in which you find yourself and the resources you find available to yourself, it’s very much about context and that’s how we try and change the narrative about poverty is through activating this kind of understanding of what poverty is and how people come to experience it. So, bringing out the values but also achieving a different understanding and a different rationale. So, our funders for Challenge Poverty Week, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation lead on this work across the UK. So, just for listeners I would really recommend their framing toolkit. It’s a really simple explanation of what it is to use frames to help change the narrative around poverty and it’s really easily applied in your day to day life. Where we try and change these narratives is also really important so, our communications officer, it’s her role to help the media journalists use these frames and we really want these frames to be understood widely so, we use Challenge Poverty Week to put stories in the media, that are well framed, that don’t contribute to this negative stigmatising narrative, that offers another narrative that people can adopt in themselves: that’s more compassionate and just but it’s also about changing the way people talk about poverty in their day to day lives in their conversation, that’s very influential, the way someone talks about poverty. So, that’s why we do operate at that high level trying to get headlines that are well framed but we also encourage as many people in as many organisations to get involved as possible and to use these framing recommendations so that there’s a widespread change and shift in the way that we speak about poverty. And the last key aim of Challenge Poverty Week, and it really ties the first two together is that it doesn’t matter if we all think compassionately about poverty and therefore support solutions: if we don’t raise our voice collectively to show government that we want and need to change our society urgently for those who are experiencing poverty. So, the week is an opportunity for everyone to raise their voice with hundreds of other organisations and individuals to build that kind of pressure that a well informed and indignant population can leverage over a government to encourage action. So, that’s the kind of overview of the purpose of the week.

MD Yes, so you’re trying to talk to the public and then you’re trying to talk to policy and you’re trying to get public to influence policy as well. Could you give me any detail at all on some of the policy solutions that you propose as part of this campaign?

SM Yeah, so one of the key things we focus on in The Poverty Alliance generally and in other anti-poverty organisations focus on is social security, it’s one of the key aspects that could change people’s lives for the better in terms of pulling them out of poverty: it’s an instrument that’s really key to that. So, this was the second day of Challenge Poverty Week, so it was the Tuesday but it was the first day we kind of focused on a specific theme and it was social security. And the kind of key message there was to ensure social security system provides a decent standard of living for everyone and this involves very specific asks. So, for example towards the UK Government, we would ask them to end the 5 week wait for universal credit, and by making advance payments non-repayable. And we also had asks around social security levelled towards Scottish Government, so we asked the Scottish Government to create a minimum income guarantee and they could do this in different ways. So, for example significantly increase the value and reach of the Scottish Child Payment. So, that’s an example of some of the policies that we ask for, it’s not like we are plucking these out of thin air, you know, these are policies that people are speaking about all the time and these are issues that anti-poverty organisations have been raising for years and years and time and time again but we use the week to shine the light on these issues and to show that there is actually a lot of support for these policy solutions.

MD Right, okay. Thank you, excellent. And can you tell me a little bit about the reach of the campaign then?

SM Yeah, so Challenge Poverty Week has a very wide reach and that’s purposeful, everyone expects The Poverty Alliance to be against poverty, you know, and as much as it’s incredibly important that other organisations like us, for example The Citizens Advice, get involved in the week and they play a really key and fantastic role in the week. We also, we need to change perceptions about poverty, to really show that this is a wide spread issue and there’s wide spread support for solutions, we really try and get more unusual voices involved in the week so, that’s not to say they’re voices that typically don’t support the anti-poverty movement, they do but they’re not the kind of organisations that talk about it day in, day out. So, for example this year, as with previous years every major sector of Scotland has got involved in the week which is really fantastic and it’s really heartening, so we have trade unions, local authorities, faith groups, schools, charities, business, football clubs, politicians and various statutory bodies so, really every sector got involved so in that respect the reach is very wide. And as I’ve mentioned every year Challenge Poverty Week gets bigger and bigger so, this year 340 organisations got involved in the week: took part, but you know, there was well over 400 organisations who raised their voice throughout the week and showed a level of support for the week even though they might not have had the capacity or the time, the resources to actively take part in the week and this year there were over 700 separate actions performed throughout the week which is really fantastic. Really unprecedented rise in the number of activities and I think that’s in large part because … well we’re not sure but we have thought about it and we think it’s partly because things are done on line and you know if people would typically put a lot of time and resources into organising one event whereas if things are done online they can, you know, do an information campaign every day and highlight different services every day, and different issues and you know, some organisations put out videos every day, some local authorities ran different training sessions for their staff and information sessions for the public, every single day, two or three a day so there was loads going on this year which was really fantastic. So, in that respect there was 340 organisations who actively planned something during the week, those organisations had a reach of thousands and thousands of people so that’s really wonderful and I think you need that kind of reach, thousands of people getting involved in some way or another through organisations that aren’t spending every day talking about poverty because that’s how you reach the kinds of people, who again like I say, don’t typically talk about these things because when things start to change, when the broader public start to really engage around these issues and show the governments, “We won’t stand for this.” That’s when change happens so, that’s what I think what we’re all most proud of around Challenge Poverty Week and what we care about most is getting that really deep reach and again as I’ve mentioned, the media reach is really critical, that’s really critical in getting through the messages that we are putting forward during Challenge Poverty Week. And this year, as always we had some really fantastic pieces in national and local newspapers that really again, framed the conversation in a way that’s productive and helpful and non-stigmatising and that share the stories of people with lived experience of poverty that really help people foster that deeper understanding of what poverty is and how people can end up in a situation where they’re living in poverty and what needs to be done to stop that.

MD Is there quite a lot of education for the journalists and the media involved in them understanding the framing or the reframing of this issue?

SM Yeah, absolutely. So, in the run up to challenge Poverty Week one of the most important things we do is offer framing training. So, our communications officer does training with lots of different organisations but also journalists. So, journalists can come along and understand the ways they can talk about poverty that are positive instead of negative and you know, I think one of the things we try and get across just as a general message is that we all think and speak in frames whether we like it or not so, it’s not like we are trying to create something that’s not already there, we’re trying to replace negative language with something that’s positive. You can’t get away from speaking and thinking in frames and it’s just about which frames you adopt and we are focused on trying to get people to adopt ones that will be helpful. So yeah, we do training for the media so, they’re well informed about the ways that they can … and just, I haven’t mentioned it but one of the things Challenge Poverty Week is about is the week itself and using that week to really shine a light on it but it’s about what we can achieve in that week that has a lasting effect, not just on policies but on society. And one of the ways we do that is by training journalists and by providing them information about positive framing around poverty because that impact can endure much longer than the week itself. We also offer training for political parties, politicians, staff, staff at the political party head offices, everyone who’s involved in putting out communications that might and that are often around the issue of poverty so, again that has an enduring impact that’s positive.

MD Fantastic, most of the years I presume will have a theme and I just wondered about this year’s theme?

SM Yeah, so this year as with last year: we had different themes every day. Now organisations can just take the issue of poverty and run with it and work with the issues that they care about most or that they’re focused on but we do provide themes for every day just to give a bit of structure to our own communications and if people want to get on board with these themes then they can so as I said the first day we launched an animation so, that was the focus of the day and I would encourage people to go on our Twitter and watch that. And again, as well as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation toolkit, this video is a really wonderful example of framing in practice and how we can talk about poverty so I would encourage people to go and watch that. So, that was the first day so, we had 6 themes for the rest of the week so, the first one as I said, was social security, we also covered communities, work and jobs, tax, public services and of course care, all those themes were spoken about with the back drop of Coronavirus and I think that’s partly one of the reasons why we really wanted to focus on care this year and have a specific day for carers to really bring a bit of awareness of the poverty that’s linked with care that’s certainly come to the fore given the crisis.

MD Tell me then a bit more about the activities that took place over the week?

SM So, it was an absolute pleasure to watch all these activities happen and just to say as well, when this whole thing happened, we had a meeting and we thought, “How is this going to impact Challenge Poverty Week? Should we even go ahead with it?” and of course we decided we should because you know, we believe that issues around poverty are more important now than every before so we thought of course we have to go ahead with this but we lowered our expectations of what could be achieved given the lockdown and at this point at the beginning of lockdown we had no idea how it was going to last, how things were going to change so we just had kind of low expectations, you know but 340 organisations actively got involved but I think at this time and for a long time we would have been happy if 100 got involved. Very quickly, to be fair, we did start getting a sense that everyone agreed with us, it is more important than ever before that we Challenge Poverty Week and we were really thankful for that and it was really heartening but as well, so before the week there was hundreds of organisations signed up so we knew it was going to busier. Because things were online, you kind of think, “Oh, is this actually going to happen?” and then I woke up on the Monday morning and I checked Twitter and you know, it was off. That was early on the Monday morning and things were already happening and I thought, “Great, this is going to be a really lively engaging week.” And, sure enough it was. Every day there was just so much going on it, it was so hard to keep up with and actually I could have spent the whole week just managing Twitter because there was so much going on, you know. So, one of my favourite activities from this week was so the Scottish Association of Social Workers published a blog, it was written by their chair: Jude Currie, and she really talked about the positive role that social work can and does play around the issue of poverty and families experience of poverty. To me it really just epitomised the mood of the week, it was just so beautifully written and I could feel all her passion and care about the issue and it just … the week really did feel imbued with a sense of compassion, it wasn’t just about the activities themselves it was the way people spoke about it, the way people engaged with it that was really, really encouraging and I think if you want to get a sense of that I would read Jude’s … not that it focuses on the issue, it was focussing on social work but I think just the mood and the tome of it just really epitomised the beauty of what this Challenge Poverty Week ended up being and we were really thankful that Social Work Scotland got involved as well, there was a lot of activity around social work and I think, “Yeah, I absolutely agree it’s really important.” So yeah, I was pleased, not just that they got involved and raised their voice but did it so well, I think. One of the other activities that I really loved was a continued learning development course that West Lothian Council ran for teachers across the local authority area and educators so, we had lots of head teachers, you know different secondary school teachers to primary school teachers, people who work in the education sector come along and they were basically, the point of it was to highlight to teachers the role that they have and the lives of the children and young people who are experiencing poverty in their household and how they can use that role for good so, they highlighted a service that they have: it’s a tracked referral service, often teachers will refer a family to a certain service, whether it’s Citizen’s Advice or a debt charity or Woman’s Aid, something like that but often life takes over and people often don’t get round to following this up so, what this system does is the teacher actually makes the referral, but the system makes it very easy for them to do that so it’s not a huge burden and they can see whether that connection has been made between the family and the service so, I think that’s really wonderful and you know, it’s the teachers have always done their best … to highlight services to teachers but this is s a really good way of making sure that that actually happens and that they get the help that they need and we also provided framing training during that as well to help educate teachers about the ways they can talk about poverty that aren’t stigmatising, as I said, because that can have a huge impact on the children in the classroom that are experiencing poverty. Just to list a few other things but there was so much, so many great activities, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published their State of the Nation Report on the first day, that just kind of gives it a brief, well a detailed overview of poverty in Scotland and in the United Kingdom so that was a really good start to the week. EIS Union also published their PACT report, that was a really great move forward in terms of the trade union and the education sector, really working actively on the issue of poverty. There was loads of like really fun and imaginative events as well, people had really put a lot of creativity and thought into what they were doing so, Inverclyde Carers had a quiz night where they had … you know, it was a very fun quiz but they had questions about care and about services so for example one of the questions would be if you were experiencing this issue, who would you phone? And you know, what kind of benefits are you entitled to? So, I thought that was really imaginative and really great. Some organisations organised free yoga classes, they raised awareness around certain issues like period poverty, created lots of different videos, lots of different blogs, highlighted services just to make people aware of the different help that they can get and one of the best parts of Challenge Poverty Week is that lots of schools used our lesson plans. So, we have lesson plans for lower primary, upper primary, secondary school and this year we also had one for colleges. And seeing the photo’s come through of the kids sitting having a think about what are the issues around poverty is really heartening so I would recommend having a look at the Challenge Poverty Week Twitter feed for some really cute pictures so, that’s just an overview of the activities but as I said, there’s such a diverse array of activities that take place.

MD Yeah, and it’s really good to hear about the offline activities as well because you said the campaign was mostly ran online but actually there’s quite a lot of activities that happened offline which is really, really good to hear about too and the other ways for people to get involved who maybe don’t have access to technology as well.

SM Yeah, absolutely, yeah.

MD Brilliant so, overall, then in terms of … have you got much information on the impact that the weeks had in itself and I suppose what is the hopes for the impact around it?

SM So, we will do our evaluation soon and we’re kind of in the process of that but it takes a few weeks just to digest everything that’s happened and have a think about it so we will be putting out information about what happened during the week and an overview of the positive effects but right now just speaking in broad terms, you hope the impact and I’m sure the impact is that it moves poverty up the agenda and I know that’s a very vague answer to your question but that is the impact that I believe the Challenge Poverty Week this year will have had but it’s also the impact, which I know already, is that it reinvigorates efforts that are already existing around poverty. So, for example we had a meeting with a lot of child poverty leads from local authorities and health boards, talking to them about how they can get involved and a lot of them said, “You know this is a great opportunity to really reinvigorate the work that we’re doing around poverty.” I think it was 26 local authorities got involved this year, so lots of local authorities were doing work and it was in their minds anyway. The child poverty leads who are pushing this agenda all the time, it was an opportunity for them to really add some more momentum the work that they’re doing and I think the impact can be felt, as I mentioned, not just in terms of pushing for policy solutions because these things take time, this is a gradual process, you know, it’s one week, one burst of energy and enthusiasm but it takes time for that to really seep in and contribute to positive change. But I think in terms of the impact, there’s an impact on the ground right away when organisations are highlighting services, that has an immediate impact for anyone who sees that who has a need to use that service. Lots of local authorities train their staff around different issues, for the staff and for when staff are dealing with people in low incomes so for example, and I know NHS Tayside, this as well as some other local authorities, they provided training for their staff about how to lower energy bills, how to reduce food waste, they were tackling issues around poverty at the same time helping tackle the climate crisis which is an issue that is certainly not unrelated to poverty. So, I think there’s immediate impacts on people’s lives and again the more people that we connect to during the week, the better and there was thousands of people, like I said, who would have been involved in the week in some way even just participating in an event and loads of the events will have provided helpful information that can actually help them right now and help alleviate certain issues in their lives.

MD And so what’s next for challenge Poverty?

SM Yeah, so what’s next? We are obviously very keen to capitalise on all the energy and enthusiasm from the week. We’ve still got our planning hats on, so we’re still thinking about in what form that’s going to take. And thinking about that, I think some of the things we’re going to do is use our position as an anti-poverty alliance and anti-poverty network organisation to help train organisations to really keep campaigning up, to keep it going. You know there’s lots of wonderful organisations that provide services in their local area and who’ve got involved in the week and who did great work, who would like to campaign, who would like to keep up that momentum and keep pushing for change that maybe don’t have the skills because they’re focused on service provision so, I think providing training is going to be a key part of how we do that. And campaigning skills but also on lobbying skills so that they can lobby Scottish Government, UK Government, but also their local councillors in the local authority. So, that’s one of the things we’ll be doing going forward. Given the election coming up in 2021, whatever we plan to do to capture the mood and the enthusiasm for solutions to poverty and for an end to poverty, whatever we do we’ll be looking forward to that election and trying to make sure that we find ways to ensure that the policies that we’ve been advocating, find their way into political parties manifestos so, that’s … although I can’t give you too much detail yet on the specific things we’re going to be doing going forward, but whatever we do, it will be with the aim of trying to get these policies that we’ve been advocating into manifestos and then into the plan for government for the next Scottish Parliament term.

MD Wishing you well with the aspirations for that. Sounds really exciting.

SM Thanks.

MD Can people get information, is it from the Poverty Alliance website, around some of the impact of the campaign and if they want to get in touch around training, etc?

SM Yeah, absolutely. So, The Poverty Alliance website will give the information on The Poverty Alliance generally and the training sessions that we offer will be updated there so, keep an eye on that. But we also have a Challenge Poverty Week website: you can have a look at all the resources and there’s lots of things on there that you can continue to use. So, we’ve modified the letter to politicians so, you can send that any time. So, you can get in touch with them, lobby them to help make change. Teachers and educators can use the lesson plans any time, they don’t have to be used during the week so, you can find resources there and as I said, once we’ve finished digesting what went on in the week and we’ve had time to reflect we’re publishing a blog that kind of outlines the impact of the week that we think it’s had and what’s gone on in the week.

MD Well Suzi, it’s been delightful just to speak to you around the campaign and to hear all about it and good luck with all of it going forward and making the changes happen.

SM Yeah, thank you very much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

MD Brilliant, thank you.

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