A few weeks ago I went to a London litfest event featuring Andrew Mawson (he of Community Action Network, and founder of the Bromley-by-Bow centre amongst other things) and John Bird (founder of the Big Issue). It was a fascinating debate but mainly because of how angry their arguments made me.
There is no question that both men have done amazing things in their lives. I don’t doubt their passionate determination to ‘see’ people who otherwise remain invisible, nor their powerful advocacy of solutions that give control back to the most disempowered members of society.
But what infuriated me was the lazy anti-intellectualism of their views. They quite deliberately and persistently positioned themselves as ‘do-ers’ (Mawson: ‘all I do is things of great simplicity’) with the implication being that the polar opposite of a do-er is someone who sits all day in their ivory tower. I don’t understand why they need to create this dichotomy. Do Mawson and Bird really see no value in thinking, or reflecting?
It seems to me, as a committed ex-thinktanker, that the need for thinking *as well as* action has never been more pressing. And yet Britain, and in particular, the voluntary sector, retains an inherent suspicion for thinking, or at least, it has felt that way to me this year as I have navigated a lengthly and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to move into that world.
I want our voluntary sector to be practical, to ‘build the road as we walk along it’ in Mawson’s words, but I want it to be reflective too. Otherwise we are in danger of sanctifying a bunch of organisations because they ‘do good’, but they do it blindly and arrogantly. Social change needs thought and action, practice and ideas, and most importantly, it needs coalitions of people who share passions but bring these different skills.