Transcript: ISBA 2016: Unlocking the potential in our communities - George Thomson

George Thomson, Chief Executive of Volunteer Scotland shares his memories of Edgar Cahn, the creator of Time Banking and explores its use as a community development tool. An example includes the walking charity 'Paths for all'.

Podcast Episode: ISBA 2016: Unlocking the potential in our communities - George Thomson

Category: Community development 

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.

DM - Donald Macleod
GT - George Thomson

DM It is my pleasure to tell you that today is about unlocking the potential in our communities. Are we making the most effective use of all that our communities can offer? How might new partnerships improve the choice and availability of short breaks? Where is the potential for developing new opportunities? Our aim today is to consider opportunities to develop alternative approaches to short break provision but tap into the wider community resources. As our first speaker today we welcome George Thomson who is the Chief Executive of Volunteer Scotland. George is going to talk about the challenges that we face today, challenges that become opportunities, challenges around Public funded care services, demand is rising, costs are increasing, funds available are reducing and what role can the wider community play in helping us to tackle these challenges and make the most of the opportunities and what does this mean for how services are planned and delivered in the future. Please welcome George to the stage.

GT I am absolutely delighted to be here and to be the kind of warm up act to some degree for a short video presentation from Edgar Cahn. I can think of no better exponent that Edgar for the key themes of your conference about inspiring, exploring, challenging and strengthening your network. He is in many respects the man as far as I’m concerned for that. So I think, I want to just to share with you first of all, this is a photograph I just found on-line of Edgar. Some years ago I was privileged enough to be his driver on a tour around Scotland. He did about 8 or 9 different presentations and in the course of driving Miss Daisy almost, is how it felt, what a character he is, this supitimises to me what he was like in conversation, listening, engaging and I don’t know what it is about Edgar or something it just builds a connection with him and the amount of people that came up to him in my ear shot that would say “you know what Edgar I met you some years ago and I’ve listened to what you said and here is what has happened since”. It was such a privilege to be around him and I think one memory I would like to share with you is that when he made a presentation to Stirling Council, it was a breakfast session quite early and the way we had set it up was top table and tables and chairs, quite formal and a Councillor said, just as Edgar started, “hold on a minute I don’t like the way in which this room is set up, I feel quite uncomfortable” and Edgar in an instant, he just simply stood up and he walked straight in to the middle of that room and he made his presentation and engaged with that audience in the round and it was a wonderful example for me about what’s the key to what Edgar’s message and themes are for you, which I am explore a little bit just in the short time I’ve got, about the need to act, to do something and he has written a book, I would really recommend it to you, No more throw-away people and in that book he refers to his dad, his father was a Justice Philosopher and he writes a statement that his dad had written, which is, “justice is the active process of remedying or preventing what would arouse a sense of injustice”. So whilst the theme of course that we are looking at here is how to unlock the potential of our communities. In understanding what’s underneath Edgar is how important justice is in that very quest and I was over in America last year, my niece was getting married in Washington, so I took the opportunity to go and visit Edgar in his house. There is another thing here, I think it’s important about him, is that he, you will see in the notes about him. He worked for Robert Kennedy. He was in Politics as a speech writer at a time of enormous divisions and challenges in American society, it was the heart of that. I wish we had more time, I wish he was here. He spoke about a situation where he married an Afro American black women and his life and her life were under real threat and Robert Kennedy phoned Edgar Hoover, the Chief of the FBI and saved the day. He is just that kind of person, with these kind of stories but beside the story what did Edgar go and do, he went ahead and set up a free Legal Service, a bit like a Citizens Advice Bureau here in Scotland, for poor folk that could not afford legal costs throughout America, he still engaged in that. In his sick bed when he was suffering from a heart attack he invented time banking and the concept was no more throw-away people. At the moment, it was remarkable to see him, he is working on challenging the current iniquity in justice of the amount of black men in prison in the States just now and tackling it from a highly innovated point of view of the State, the Constitution demands that you learn and you learn from the past, you learn about what’s going on and actually bring about remedy’s and challenged it. So quite the man, I would say.

Ok, so, to get underneath some of the, if you like, the story about Edgar as a person I think a key concept I would like to share with you that I have learned from him and these talks is that he spoke about the scarcity of money and abundance of human capacity, human talent, compassion, capabilities. I would transfer the scarcity of money to one of the scarcity of opportunity. So we are talking unlocking the potential but we have got to be able to see first of all the abundant capabilities, qualities and possibilities of the community that we are talking about and what I would say about the volunteer picture in Scotland today is that we have a chronic scarcity of volunteer opportunities and a chronic failure to connect with the willingness that people are showing to make a contribution and I’ve only got time to illustrate that in a couple of ways that we have got an online database of opportunities and we explored 100,000 people coming on line, interrogating what they were looking for and where they were going. Of the 100,000, only 1,000 registered an interest in what they saw and they were looking for things that were local, that was supported, and that’s a clear ask and fit. You know, actually that choosey but we are failing to find the routes for them. In England, a kind of sister organisation, “Be Inspired” that works with young people. Their research for the UK has shown that 84% of young people, which was 18-24, want to get involved in volunteering and we are simply not making it happen, I don’t think. Armed with a mind-set of abundance and possibilities around us, how might we then start to work with that, where do we go next. So critical in looking at Edgar Cahn is the values base that comes underneath his thinking. In the course of listening to him and the speeches that he made and the engagements he was asked to talk about time banking, but actually what I learned from it, was that it wasn’t actually about time banking at all, it was about these universal values that are so important and these universal values are about the capacity of our people to make a contribution in the ones I’ve mentioned, the asset, if you like. The value of engendering mutuality and reciprocity and the value of developing community, building community and a sense of community and if these values are all combined in a fashion with a process, which he called co-production and Edgar is in some senses the leading life around trying to understand what co-production is. When the co-production happens you then build the trust, the relationships, the actions that bring about the outcomes and I would like to just, in a second, illustrate one remarkable project in Scotland just now called Pass for All. Just as way of looking at how they have done this that, it’s a simple example but they have funded Walking Leader, 10,000 of them throughout the Country and at last count they have now got 300,000 walkers, small community groups if you like, doing their thing, all various grades and so on, building holidays, all kinds of things that they are up to. So 300,000 walkers and that’s without looking at Employers and Employees another wing of what they do. So 10,000 volunteers, 300,000 walkers and they reckon about 15,000 activists that are involved in taking over paths, ponds, making things happen .I think it’s about change, if you like. I think that’s an inspiration for us, if we apply these values and look at the possibilities and actually create some infrastructure and support you can actually achieve unbelievable amounts of well-being and activity. One thing that is really taking me of late is that we have, in Scotland, a thing called Scottish Household Survey and every year the Government fund research into participation in Scotland and we are not doing that great actually. We are just fair to middling and that’s one of the things that get to me about changing the current system. One of the findings in there is that when somebody that has not volunteered has asked the questions, “well what might encourage you to get involved in volunteering” between 80 and 90% of us say that we don’t know and I was looking at this recently in Glasgow working through there which is has got poor participation rate, sorry if there is anyone from Glasgow here, no, Anne-Marie. It’s not doing so great and one of the things that’s even higher there, I don’t know what would encourage them, so I think a vital part of this agenda for your consideration is that to build the stories and the meaning and the sharing of that from those that are engaged in their own words, in their own pictures, in their own humanity almost and it really does get to me the amount of the times where I’m involved in patronising types of unsung here awards and 50 year awards and all that kind of thing that it’s not actually relating that story from the grounds. So I think that is a key consideration for you.

Ok and last in terms of I think a challenge that Edgar’s time banking was an infrastructure and I know that Dawn, you involved myself and colleagues in the Shared Care Scotland National Network and it looked at volunteering and where that could be generated and I learned things about, like in Edinburgh there is the Volunteer Net as a software and infrastructure support. So there is any number of different ways in which I think we need to be looking at. How do we provide the support and infrastructure that can generate the community engagement? But I think the challenge and it’s a big challenge that Edgar makes as well is that the roll of professionals, the gate keepers, the professional sensibilities about transferring or typical orientation to becoming a neighbours empowers facilitators, co-producers. I can tell you that it is a crisis in Scotland just now. The inability right now of our public servants, civil servants and authorities, public agencies, to really fully understand that. About a work force capacity change that enables us to bring people in to work with us on a common interest with trust and honesty. These are big big challenges and the professional mind set is a core of whether or not we can actually bring about a change and unlock the potential of our communities. To then I suppose honour Edgars appeal to us, to look at the abundance of our human capacity around us and find ways in which we can make that happen.

So I’m sorry he is not here in person himself. You will see in this video just now, he is more formal attire in his house and library. I’m really privileged to have had this opportunity to speak about him to you. So thank you for that and if you could put on the video.


Greetings Edinburgh, thank you for allowing me to be with you in this way. I wanted to share some thoughts as you go about building systems of respite that are really organic. You are really creating a village that knows how to build a village and that village has two characteristics, it values something other than money. It values caring and it values respite. 1 hour of respite is our slice of eternity and a slice of eternity is not something that can be valued or owned by money. Second it needs a infrastructure where people can know each other, reach other or rely on each other. My hope is that time banking can provide you both with a tool that values other than money, other market price and provides a way of connectivity in social media, it works on smartphones so you can reach each other. The latest issue of gerontology asks who will be there to care for us? The answer is we will be there to care for each other, that’s the kind of village you are creating, that’s the kind of world we are trying to build and I salute you and charge you for taking it to the next step. Thank you so much.

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