A decade on: Fred, the riots and seeking a more connected age

Chances are, if you’ve had any involvement with The Cares Family over the past decade, you know our origin story. On election day, in May 2010, while out canvassing for votes, I met my 84-year-old neighbour, Fred, was exposed to the dual isolation of older and younger people in our rapidly changing world, and inspired enough by my new friendship with a longtime but previously unseen neighbour to set up North London Cares to help others build connection across the generations too. I’m so proud that a decade on, 23,000 other older and younger people have shared in that sense of connection and community – even home – not just through North London Cares but through South London Cares, Manchester Cares, Liverpool Cares and East London Cares.

The Cares Family’s origin story (from speech in 2018)

But there’s another founding story at the heart of The Cares Family’s now decade-long journey. It’s a story that, these days, fewer people know about, but which is as important in explaining how and why The Cares Family does what it does as Fred’s. It’s a story that speaks to broader underlying disconnections in British society — of power and powerlessness concentrated through the uneven distribution of social capital; of a breakdown of trust that happens slowly and then quickly when people become estranged; of a diminishing of empathy; of anger and its antidote, agency. It’s the story behind why North London Cares launched spontaneously in August 2011, rather than at any other time — one which underlies why The Cares Family is now seeking to spur a ripple effect of community-led connection across the UK.

THE RIOTS

On August 8th, 2011, more than a year after meeting Fred, I arrived home from work to images on the TV of north London in flames. Like so many people, I was angry. I was angry for the shopkeepers and small businesspeople — my neighbours — whose properties were battered or destroyed. I was angry at how violence begets violence. But mostly, I was angry at how our political culture, which I’d been part of over the previous two years, had not only failed to recognise the underlying short and long-term injustices at the root of the riots, but had directly contributed to their likelihood and potency through its obliviousness. I wrote at the time in The Huffington Post:

‘I feel empathy for the young person labelled a benefits thief while her corrupt MP fixes expenses and her distant banker goes all in on red with her home or job. I’m angry for the businessman who may share his looter’s sense of hopelessness but who, like the rioter, has no sense of belonging, no community in a disparate era through which to share it.’

The riots of August 2011 were initially sparked, of course, by the shooting of a Black man in Tottenham who jurors would later declare was unarmed at the time of his death. I hope in the media analysis of the decade of dislocation since, that injustice and others like it are given the attention they deserve.

But the fury that swept the country was broad as well as deep. People in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham, Bristol, and Birmingham weren’t only hurting at the death of a young father, but at the powerlessness that so many people had experienced in British society over generations, and which had intensified since the financial crash and recession after 2008. As the riots intensified, it wasn’t just the most marginalised who got involved. Teaching assistants, scaffolders, students and leisure centre workers lashed out too. For days, out-of-touch journalists and politicians, themselves incubated from the loss of community power over two generations, asked why this was happening. One young observer, speaking on BBC Newsnight, put it most eloquently: ‘To remind them that we’re here.’ Riots, after all, are the language of the unheard.

In some ways, this feeling of invisibility had parallels with the isolation Fred had experienced. All over the country people were feeling unseen and social solidarity was fraying as the traditional bonds of community had been swept away. A government that had been elected a year earlier was already closing community centres and libraries and ending grants that helped people to connect to purpose, power and place. Policy decisions made remotely from the reality of people’s lives had implications in communities. It wasn’t just a recent thing. The combination of individualism and managerialism had torn away at our social fabric for decades.

THE CLEAN-UP

That balmy August evening, as I watched my TV in shock but without surprise, I texted my old mate Nick, who I’d knocked about with on the streets of Camden Town throughout that era of change — that era in which social solidarity had seemed to disappear; our whole lifetimes — asking if he’d seen the pictures of our neighbourhoods up in smoke. He responded simply: ‘Yeah. This is not what London is about. Can you launch North London Cares now?’

Motivated by the scenes of our city fragmenting and the challenge raised by my oldest friend, I got to work. Within a couple of hours, at 10:19pm, I’d launched a website with a single, 173-word blog post inviting neighbours to ‘be part of the clean-up’ and shared the link on Twitter. It spread like wildfire. Overnight, that basic website received thousands of hits. By the time I woke up the next morning, at 6am, I’d received scores of emails from people I’d never met who were ready to get out onto the streets with brooms, bin bags and enough solidarity to demonstrate the healing power of community. It was inspiring.

The trouble was, I had no plan. North London Cares was still just a nascent idea to bring older and younger people together, not to mobilise people to clean up after rioting. I’d arranged no partnerships with local authorities or local businesses. There was no mechanism to deploy the fifty or so people in my email inbox to make a difference. It wasn’t even clear, that morning, where the damage was most badly done. In some places, police cordons protected burnt-out buildings as crime scenes. In others, small businessmen and women had already boarded up shop fronts and were speaking to insurers. I scrambled to speak to local councils, but their teams had mostly already swept the streets overnight and working life, at least in the light of day, was back to ‘normal’. I’d built a network of people ready to ‘be part of the clean-up’, but I had nowhere for them to clean.

Thankfully, where I had no organisation, I at least had the internet. Quickly, I was able to establish that a bike shop in Camden Town, just a few doors up from the newly located Escapade fancy-dress shop (which my friend Fred had set up decades earlier, but sold some years before) had its windows smashed. I directed people to help. Others were dispatched to Hackney, where neighbours were gathering to support businesses in distress — to hand out tea, and to build a narrative of togetherness amid the destruction.

A group of volunteers more organised than me created a map of clean-up locations across London that I directed people to. Throughout the day, images started to appear in the news of local people reclaiming their streets, and people I’d mobilised shared their stories of how they’d contributed. The next night, the Evening Standard carried a photograph of hundreds of Londoners lifting brooms above their heads and the words, ‘Already the clean-up is beginning, coordinated by friends and neighbours — in part via Twitter,’ though the tone of the article typically recognised none of the underlying causes of the fragmentation. The day after that, the then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, himself no stranger to stoking division, tweeted his thanks to North London Cares amongst some of the other community organisers who had helped drive the clean-up.

At first, I felt embarrassed by the coverage because this was a moment, and a movement, that had completely outgrown the still foetal, slapdash North London Cares, which itself was just me, a laptop and a living room table. In reality, I’d made a minimal contribution. More embarrassingly still, if the truth be told, it was my own connections — to politicians, to people in the media, even to staff at City Hall who were able to put North London Cares in briefing notes to the Mayor’s communications team — that had helped spread the word and had given this still unregistered, ungoverned ‘organisation’ a platform it didn’t really deserve.

Nonetheless, it was clear that North London Cares’ callout had made a positive difference. Taking that risk had inspired others to take a chance on community and to run with their own autonomous local initiatives, too, in a difficult moment. It had spurred a counter-narrative to the destruction and shown that division and disconnection were indeed ‘not what London is all about.’ I was grateful to Nick for suggesting the premature launch.

THE START-UP

With that overblown platform, I felt I had a responsibility to make something lasting of North London Cares. Over the following months, I dialled down on two of my three consultancy jobs, working from 6am to 1am every day for weeks to hand over responsibilities while seeking to make the most of the coverage North London Cares had been given. The pressure felt relentless. I was being overpaid for freelance work that I wasn’t giving much attention, while chasing a community ideal that still had no plan, no governance and no money, and which was unlikely to anytime soon.

In a period of austerity, where community resources were scarce, long-established organisations with far more experience than me were desperately asking me for help. A charity which collected unneeded coats from commuters arriving into London’s train stations, to distribute to local shelters, asked if they could mobilise my newly signed-up volunteers. A supplementary Saturday school in Tottenham, the area where the riots had started, pleaded for me to find teachers to help bridge a six-week funding gap. With the guilt of unwarranted praise still swirling, I felt I couldn’t say no. The problem was that, as far as I knew, none of the hundred or so volunteers sitting in my email inbox had experience in receiving and delivering coats, let alone teaching qualifications.

I could have given up, and I probably would have if it weren’t for the people around me encouraging me to keep going and putting in their own time to help. Friends relinquished their autumnal lie-ins to stand on frigid station platforms at 7am, happily collecting warm clothes from commuters and driving them to homeless charities. My sister, by now five years into her career at one of the schools we’d attended as teenagers, helped me find qualified teachers who each gave up six Saturdays because they, too, believed in the power of community. Nick and another friend who had experience leading a charity, became North London Cares’ first trustees, helping me to develop a plan. Contacts in the know, and strangers who’d seen the stories shared in the media and online, pointed me towards funding I could apply for. It showed me again that, in this world, for better, as well as for worse, it’s not what you know that counts — but who you know.

Bit by bit, with the help of friends and family and people I’d never met, North London Cares found its feet. By Christmas, I’d raised enough money to make our first hire. And during the course of the next year, 2012, Margaret Mead’s old adage showed itself again to be true: that small groups of committed citizens can indeed change their communities; indeed, they may be the only people who ever have.

THE SCALE-UP

When I first set up North London Cares, my expectations were tiny. I thought that if a few dozen people in my neighbourhood could share time with their neighbours — people living in the same areas but from different backgrounds and experiences; people with different perspectives on the world; people who because of how society was changing would not normally interact — then a little empathy across difference might be raised, a little closer connection forged. At most, I figured that sharing stories of the power of local relationships might inspire a few other people to look out for their neighbours too. My friendship with Fred, and the reaction to North London Cares’ launch, had shown how both could be true.

What I didn’t expect was that, ten years later, Fred’s story — and our friendship — would have inspired an ever-growing group of Cares Family charities in the UK. I didn’t expect that through sharing the stories of those friendships — in The Economist, The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Times; on the BBC, Sky and Channel 4 News; in the media in Germany, France, Australia, Japan, Hong Kong and the United States — our little idea would gain recognition around the world. And I didn’t expect that our little charities would become part of a global movement of local people building connection with neighbours in their own communities, as antidotes to disconnection, polarisation and fragmentation in our rapidly changing world — a world that through Brexit, Trump and now a pandemic has only accelerated in its separation.

The journey has been extraordinary, and it all started with the power of community — this notion that we don’t have to wait for big business, big government or big charities to take action to fix problems we can see right in front of our eyes; rather, that we each have agency, through our relationships, to make lasting change where we are, in the places we care about.

And while The Cares Family has transformed beyond recognition over a decade of growth, we’ve never lost sight of our core organising principles: that the most powerful relationships are always mutually beneficial; that the heritage, meaning and sharing of space in local places can help facilitate those relationships; and that you can’t be passive in bringing people together — you have to be proactive, or else neighbourliness can die and acrimony pervade. Those principles — agency, authenticity, action, attitude, agility, accountability — are explained in this essay on ‘what it takes to change a place.’

The Cares Family: why we do what we do

AGENCY: AN ANTIDOTE TO ANGER

My friendship with Fred taught me that each of those principles is fundamental. Because if Fred had ever felt that I was offering a ‘service’ by escorting him to the barber’s, there’s no way he’d have agreed to it — and there’s no way we could have become friends. Fred was a proud man with a rich personality and heritage. He didn’t want to be ‘done to’. He was not my ‘client’ and I was not ‘befriending’ him; neither of us was a ‘beneficiary’. We were just neighbours, who shared much in common but didn’t know about it until serendipity, a shared hunger to be seen, and an openness to difference brought us together.

The 23,000 older and younger people who have been part of The Cares Family over the past decade have shown that to be true. In one of the world’s most age-segregated countries, people with vastly different backgrounds, experiences and attitudes have enjoyed nearly 4,827 social clubs — like dance parties, book clubs, Desert Island Discs nights, local history discussion groups and more. They’ve listened to and learned from one another through 25,569 hours of one-to-one friendship just like Fred and I enjoyed. Through chats at bus stops and in pubs and betting shops, at churches and in mosques, in local doctors’ surgeries and hospitals — places that facilitate trust and bring people into the community — people have felt visible, part of a community again.

We’ve done this by highlighting the universal human experience — what Jo Cox called, ‘the things that unite us, rather than divide us’. Together, people born into war and people who grew up in the digital age have welcomed the arrival of new seasons, celebrated birthdays and marked different religious festivals equally. They’ve traced lines of shared heritage through film and photography nights and discussions about culture. Everyone is encouraged to bring their skills and personalities to the table, to create spaces for play, fun and vulnerability. In sharing new experiences, older and younger people have shared power. They’ve felt valued and visible, shared patience and perspective. Through relationships with young people, the modern world feels less isolating for older neighbours; through friendships with older people, the past is tangible, understood.

Those relationships haven’t been without pain. Nurturing them takes deep care and attention. But in creating the space for neighbours to share their experiences of change, their traumas, and their joys, trust has grown — and healing has occurred. It shows people the value of the 200-year present: that in just two lifespans, we have the power to change the world again and again. That gives people a sense of hope, rather than hopelessness — a sense that, working together, we can build, rather than destroy.

THE CARES FAMILY: ACTION, VOICE, POWER

Applying that agency and building that solidarity across difference, with optimism at the heart, does not overlook the causes of injustice, or the anger that goes with it. On the contrary: it recognises that injustices are deep-seated, and that the best way for communities to heal is to do the deep work of human connection, together. As I often say, if isolation is a gateway to so many of our societal ills — from loneliness to addiction and abuse, prejudice, discrimination and educational, social and racial inequity — then community is the answer.

These are themes that I had the opportunity to discuss with David Simas, CEO of the Obama Foundation, in the ‘Useful and Kind’ podcast, to mark The Cares Family’s 10th birthday. And they’re themes at the heart of our vision for the next ten years too.

Our ‘Action, Voice, Power’ strategy will seek to spur a ripple effect of connection across the country — connection fostered not from the top down, but from the bottom up. That’s why The Cares Family is investing in community innovations all across the UK through our Multiplier project with UnLtd. It’s why in the coming months we will publish new stories and start new campaigns that lift up the experiences of people in neighbourhoods, ‘to remind them that we’re here.’ And it’s why, starting in 2022, we will seek to share this learning with as many communities as possible.

It’s that focus on connection across difference — what I call relational justice — that will help break open those pockets of power and powerlessness; that will lift up empathy for others; that will help us to build new, relatable, institutions fit for the 21st century; and that will ultimately help us to tackle the even bigger issues of our time.

Ten years on from that spontaneous beginning, I couldn’t be prouder of The Cares Family, more grateful for the thousands of people who have been part of it, more inspired by the teams who make our vision a reality, or more motivated to make an even bigger difference in future. Here’s to another decade of helping people feel visible.

Founder/CEO of @TheCaresFamily . @ObamaFoundation Fellow. Previously @Ed_Miliband aide and @LabourList editor. Camden head, MUFC heart.