How can I change the world? Or Thoughts from #TedxObserver


I was fortunate enough to attend the Tedx event sponsored by the Observer last Saturday. Fortunate in the sense that I had both the time, money and wherewithal to remember to book far enough in advance to acquire tickets. All of which, especially the financing part, require an element of having a fortunate life with disposable income and time.

Having watched some of the videos from TED (and TEDx) events over the last few years, I half knew what to expect but I had some trepidation about my own ability to retain concentration through a whole day and have to say I half expected to leave before the final session. I didn’t. I stayed to the end and gladly did so with few lapses in concentration through the day. I had some reservations too about the ‘bite size’ reduction of arguments and ideas into accessible information but actually, I probably overestimated my own ability to engage as the timings worked well for me (and my levels of concentration).

I was also boosted by some of the conversations I had with other attendees and particularly was glad to catch up with Russell Webster (very interesting blog – highly recommended!).

I don’t want to go through the speakers one by one because I think my response is better dealt with as a composite. The theme revolved around inspiration and change, particularly regarding youth. The difference that one person can make in the world.

That’s quite a compelling view. We saw some truly inspiring people and I wondered how is it that one becomes ‘inspiring’. There were people who actively set out to change the world and others who may have stumbled into the process but the message of the day to me, was to never aim too low when the stars are within the grasp of all of us.

Linking it to my ‘day job’, was rather poignant for me. I went into social work with a strong sense of striving for social justice. I wanted to make a difference and to make the world better. While I dabbled with vague interests in politics, I never have (and still don’t) feel desperately loyal to a particular political party – certainly not enough to agree with everything they say or propose right or wrong. There are issues I strongly support but not an umbrella party as such.

As I worked, as I understood, as I began to feel ground down by the process of care management and care planning which hardly works from an ideal, I realised that the real change I can make is in bringing a humanity to these systems which often seem to be designed as processes and designed by numbers.

As I stand in someone’s house and tell them there is no money left for them to access the respite services they have been receiving for 5 years, I do wonder at my role in ‘changing the world for the better’. When I tell someone that I have made a decision to apply for their detention in hospital I am certainly changing their world and the world of their family and it’s only done when I believe absolutely it is necessary but it’s hard to balance with this desire to change the world for the better when confronted with such distress.

So back to the TEDx talks, music and dances. It drew me back on what I can do to ‘make things better’. I can’t rely on my job to offer that as while there are perceptions of ‘social workers’ as change agents and yes, there are ways we can smooth the process through the statutory systems, I’m not sure how much we can say we are positive forces for change.

Then I thought, the fact of putting humanity into a role which governments have contrived to strip down into a quantifiable process at periods of great distress can be positive. But I need to do more.

We all need to do more. Inspiration isn’t handed to you on a plate to feed from, it is something we all can and need to seize in any way we can. It might be teaching singing or dancing in areas where music has not yet reached due to lack of access or opportunity. It might be writing about the issues that can make a difference. We have more tools to hand through the means of social media – we can all bang a drum and some will be heard louder than others.

If we sit still and wait for our opportunities, they might never arrive or we may have lost some of those people we could potentially have influenced for the better.

So what did I learn from TEDx ?  – that we can all be more and do more to effect positive change in the world that we share. We don’t need to start companies or charities with heaps of money behind us, it can be the small actions that start the change. Sometimes we may need to push ourselves in directions we never expected to go.  It’s  good to feel positive amid all the bad news and being surrounded by positivity and progress helps inspire others. I’d love to see these kinds of talks available more widely.

In the meantime, my resounding thought remains, what can I do today that will leave a positive imprint on the world? I’m sure I’ll come back to this and some of the particular talks and experiences over the next few weeks. It allowed me to think in difficult tangents, and that’s remarkably rich.

Maybe we need to start building Big Society by creating the Not So Big Societies around ourselves first.

Compulsive Hoarding

Last night, I watched a programme on Channel 4 ‘Obsessive Compulsive Hoarder’. I wasn’t planning particularly to sit down and watch it  but I was too curious in the end. While this isn’t a review of the programme, I wanted to write about my experiences of people who become ‘hoarders’.

Trash house, October 2003

I was concerned the programme would evolve into some kind of ‘freak show’ to show the world, with little understanding, how ‘odd’ this phenomenon is. It was more sensitively treated than I expected with the reactions of the neighbours – from horror to help – presenting one of the more interesting aspects.

I’ve seen a fair bit of ‘hoarding’ through my work. I don’t work in a leafy Surrey ‘commuter-belt’ town. I work in an inner city location. Most of the people I work with are older and we come across, what we call ‘Diogenes Syndrome’ relatively frequently although at different levels. Continue reading

Little Hope In The Big Society

Although I’ve been to the centre once before, I’m lost in the maze of this industrial estate. Every unit looks the same, sharp angles and harsh functionality, and my satnav has given up. I think it’s shrugging in helplessness so I turn it off, park up and walk.


After a couple of aimless minutes, a low building down an alley catches my eye and I head towards it, the 60s brick, rusting metal rectangular windows and a couple of portacabins the clues I need. This must be an ex-council building. Inside, the faded paint, slightly stained carpet and chaotic noticeboards are welcoming and familiar. I’ve spent the majority of my working life in places like this and amongst the shabbiness I feel right at home.

  Continue reading

Big Society vs Actual Society

In the week that the Conservatives are holding their annual conference, an opinion poll of voluntary sector workers was published. The poll asked whether they thought Cameron’s Big Society initiative had resulted in an increase in volunteering.

95% of those polled said no.  If they’d seen any increase in volunteers, it had been as a result of people needing something to do with their time because they’d been thrown out of work.

Well, yeah, it’s an absolute shocker, isn’t it? Who would have thought the Big Society would turn out to be empty window-dressing? A meaningless lecture from a bunch of career politicians, lawyers and PR types, intended to make the decimation of our public services slightly more palatable.

Meanwhile, there are those of us who have invested our time and careers in society – doctors, teachers, social workers, nurses, voluntary sector workers. Some of us were doing it while Cameron was busy trashing restaurants with the Bullingdon Club. We’re starting to see the headlines about public sector cuts translating into services shrinking and in some cases disappearing.

I’m a worker bee in an NHS trust. Whether I speak to colleagues in my own trust or neighbouring ones, I hear the same words being uttered. Talk of recruitment freezes, of posts being deleted when people quit, constant memos offering voluntary early retirement schemes, offers to “buy” extra annual leave in exchange for a pay cut. No talk of actual redundancies…yet.

Part of my job involves liaising with other agencies – social services, schools, voluntary agencies. I hear the same talk with them, except in their case it’s even worse. We heard a lot of comforting assurings in the run-up to the general election of how the NHS would be “protected” from the cuts. In practice, “protected” has turned out to mean “a bit less awful”.

This blog will be about the actual society. Not the “Big Society” dreamed up by a political PR machine. It will be by and for those who work in or use health and social care services. Other authors will be joining and introducing themselves in the next few days.

The social consequences of the economic crisis have been severe, and there’s likely to be more to come. We intend to provide the dispatches from the front line. Watch this space.