As we hang up our aprons to take a break over the summer holidays, I have been thinking back over our busy year. Here are a few reflections, in no particular order, about what we’ve learnt and what feels important at this stage in our journey.
Levels of demand are scary. In 2019 we’ve already seen more families than we did in the whole of 2018 and we’re on course to see 3000 children this year (we saw 100 kids in 2016, around 650 in 2017, and 1828 in 2018). But even at this scale, our work is a drop in the ocean. 2.7 million kids are growing up destitute in the UK as I write. 42 per cent of children in London live in poverty — and two thirds of them have at least one parent in work. Put simply, this is not right. I’d go as far as to say it is morally wrong.
Collectively, we might have gone a bit mad. Having and raising kids has become a major money-spinning industry. The UK market for baby clothes and footwear is worth £7.3bn, and is growing faster now than it was 10 years ago. We’ve given out £1.7million of this lovely stuff since 2016. I’m glad we’ve found a productive way of reusing all this kit, but here’s the kicker: our babies really don’t need all of it in the first place.
Building a diverse volunteering community takes work. Rich people are often nervous about talking to poor people. Poor people are used to being disempowered when they come across ‘professionals’. Building the bridge between those spaces is hard.
There’s a world a difference between sympathy and empathy. Watch this short animation from Brene Brown if you’re not sure what I’m talking about. We show it at our volunteer training sessions and it says in 3 minutes what most of us spend a day trying to say.
Values are everything, just everything. Ours are love, thriving, solidarity and sustainability. Not only do we use them to assess our progress, we also build our communications materials, volunteer induction, recruitment processes and fundraising events around them. They help us make difficult decisions. In short, they are our moral compass.
There’s no such thing as a ‘beneficiary’. We prefer to think of it like this: there are times in our lives when we need help, and times in our lives when we are able to offer help. Our job is to make that possible, and to do it in ways that enrich the person who is offering help, as well as the person they’re supporting.
There’s this dead space between being an exciting start-up and an established and sustainable organisation. It’s into that chasm that many organisations fall. We’re clinging onto the cliff with our fingertips right now. This is the time we desperately need to invest in back office systems like IT networks and databases in order to sustain our growth — but that costs us money we don’t have.
People love to give at Christmas. It actually blew our minds. We asked for 1000 gifts to give to children living in temporary accommodation and hostels. In the end we were nearly buried under an incredible 3200 presents this year. That is a lot of wrapping up to do. But it was totally worth it. This year we want to tap into that phenomenal generosity in a way that doesn’t put yet more disposable stuff into circulation. Watch this space.
Success and growth aren’t necessarily the same thing. I wake up every morning wondering whether we’ve become part of the problem, patching up a broken system. Success in these terms isn’t about more sites. It is about playing our part in tackling child poverty systemically, so that little lives are no longer blighted by hunger, cold, shame and insecurity, in 21st century Britain.
It’s hard to do media stuff on your terms. I wrote a lot about this here. We try our best to use media work to do two things: first, to raise the question about why organisations like Little Village are needed in the first place; and second, to challenge the powerful stereotype that people in poverty have somehow brought it on themselves. They haven’t. The families we see are trapped in a perfect storm of low wages, a social security system that’s been cut to the bone, eye-wateringly expensive housing that’s often in a disgraceful condition, insecure jobs and rising living costs.
Royal endorsement is a mixed bag. Harry and Meghan’s support of Little Village earlier this year was amazing and a huge vote of confidence. But it also led to people assuming we were sorted financially. The truth is their support raised us £6000 — most certainly not to be sniffed at, but not enough to keep our doors open for long.
Stable desks and laptops that weigh less than a small elephant are important. Unfortunately we have neither yet (see 7 above).
We need to reflect and process stuff to stay connected. It can be tough to work or volunteer at Little Village. Sometimes we feel very powerless to support a family that’s struggling with issues that go beyond what we can help with. Sometimes we get triggered by something someone is going through. Taking time to reflect together and process this stuff is a really crucial part of staying connected and emotionally engaged in our work.
Saying thank you is very important. We spend a lot of time thanking people, with good reason. Our 383 volunteers have already given 7927 hours of their time this year. Our local communities have furnished us with 409 buggies, 515 cots and a grand total of 23,246 items, all given with love and care. We’re doing a lot of thinking at the moment about how we can say thank you even more.
There’s an incredible emotional charge around what we do. People find it really difficult to part with some baby kit. My Ergo sling carried all three of my babies, as I grappled with first time parenthood, as I paced the streets trying to get elected with my second, and as I started up Little Village with my third. I tried and failed to donate the sling about four times before finally forcing myself to hand it over. I feel sad thinking about it now. Add to that the thought of kids not having safe places to sleep (40% of the families we see are in this situation) and tears are never far away at Little Village.
It’s a joy to welcome kids into our workplace. I don’t know if all my colleagues would agree with this, but I love how our children are part of our working lives (although they live in fear of their best toys getting donated when they’re not looking).
Make flexible work a reality and you can unlock the most brilliant workforce. I wrote about this recently here. Little Village is powered by amazing women who want to do meaningful part-time work so they can be present parents too. Few employers seem able to offer this (why??). We do everything we can to support it. All we need now is a few men around the place. We know you’re out there, men who want flexible work. Come and talk to us.
Working with families with kids under the age of 5 is full of potential. People want the best for their children, and they want to be great parents and role models. Those desires are rich with possibility. Through our volunteering programme we’re helping parents grow their confidence, skills and networks. There’s also some fascinating research showing that people are their most open to meeting people from different backgrounds in the first six months of their baby’s life. So we try to capitalise on that too.
Don’t underestimate the power of kindness. As Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Most of the feedback we get from families is about how they were made to feel at Little Village. That’s what keeps us going, and that’s what’s behind our name. We’re here to build resilience and solidarity, one act of kindness at a time. If you’re not already part of our community, come and join us.
I’ll finish by sharing a few of my favourite pictures from our year. What a journey to be on. Thank you to all of you for joining us.
Little Village is like a foodbank, but for clothes, toys and
equipment for babies and children up to the age of five. Our
dream is that no child in the capital grows up without essential
items for daily life. Join us and help to support London's families.