It’s time social enterprise got political
Meet three social entrepreneurs who are unafraid to use their platforms to lobby for change.
This year, whether we like it or not, the mince pies, mulled wine and yuletide ditties (not yet, btw) will be accompanied by something altogether less festive: a maelstrom of fractious TV debates, awkward photo opportunities with bacon sandwiches, and manifestos that seem to consist of the same words in different orders.
The election is on.
The social enterprise world hasn’t always been vocal about its political views. That’s despite the fact that our raison d’être is to make society fairer. So why have we, by and large, kept quiet?
For years, social enterprise has enjoyed cross-party support. The Tories love the ‘enterprise’ part and Labour loves the ‘social’. As the field has grown, we’ve increasingly found ourselves in bed with government. For many social enterprises, the state is now a customer, investor and provider of subsidy. Perhaps in a desire to avoid biting the hand that feeds us, we’ve kept schtum about our political stances.
As Britain’s most experienced community organiser and long time friend of Year Here Neil Jameson recently told us:
“If you want to take on the state, you can’t take money from the state”
In an era where government’s widely-discredited austerity policy has deepened poverty and inequality, the convivial relationship between social enterprise and government has become problematic, hypocritical and, arguably, immoral.
Here are three social entrepreneurs who buck the trend, using their voice to lobby for change, rocking the arcane power structures that underpin society and building alternative models of how we all could live together.
Josh Babarinde is the founder of Cracked It, a tech repair service staffed by young people involved in gangs. He argues that, far from justifying and legitimising government policy, some social enterprise activity redresses the failings of government.
Highlighting another venture from the Year Here stable, he explains:
“Many social enterprise are finding really clever ways to respond to systemic fuck-ups — like Fat Macy’s, that makes sure homeless people can get around our misguided benefit system and save to move into their own flat. If we didn’t have such a messed up welfare system, there would be no need for them to invest so much time and effort in inventing such a specific intervention.”
More than just an insignificant patching up of a broken system, Josh is clear about this kind of social enterprise’s function in society: “It’s sewing up an open wound.”
And, he argues, we should raise our voices about the wounds we find. From the impact of school exclusions to workplaces’ failure to be inclusive of people with criminal records, Josh doesn’t bite his tongue on the root causes of rising youth crime.
“Recently, I met Boris Johnson’s advisor on knife crime. I felt it was my responsibility to tell him that the narrative government is putting forward is wrong and unhelpful. Priti Patel saying ‘we need criminals to feel terror’ is indicative of an utter misunderstanding of what the issue is. You just can’t scare people out of crime.”
Josh has ventured even further into the political realm. In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, his call for an independent office to monitor political campaigns garnered over 160,000 signatures. And now he’s is standing for parliament.
Ruth Ibegbuna founded Reclaim to address the dearth of working class voices at the top. She set up the charity in Moss Side, Manchester, to support and amplify the voices of working class young people.
Ruth explains why this work is so important:
“When one single school can educate so many leaders, from the same narrow socio-economic backgrounds, how can we say we have a political system that works for all?”
She’s also criticised other sector leaders who fail to call out the political decisions that lead to the very social injustices they address in their day jobs:
“I am incredulous that social entrepreneurs can separate themselves from their politics. It feels like a time of seismic political and social change and silence around these issues for me is impossible. I’ve definitely run into trouble from those who feel I should be seen but not heard.”
Despite plaudits from government, Ruth has remained fiercely independent, free-thinking and principled.
Sophie Slater is co-founder of Birdsong, an ethical fashion brand with a ‘no sweatshops, no photoshop’ ethos. Sophie, who has Ed Milliband’s immortal words Tuff Enuss tattooed on her arm, is unashamedly political. She cites “the gaping wounds left by austerity on the women’s sector” as one of the reasons she set up Birdsong.
Despite receiving advice to tone down her opposition to austerity and the ravages of capitalism, Sophie hasn’t held back from sharing her views in her writing about the fashion industry (read her on Beyonce’s Ivy Park line in The Guardian, Greenwashing in Vice and the women’s sector in Vogue).
“Employers can manipulate the political atmosphere and language barriers to dock workers pay or make them work overtime. We’ve been vocal about this. Some UK garment workers are being paid just £3.50 per hour.”
Birdsong uses sustainable materials and has thoughtfully built an ethical supply chain of women’s groups paid a living wage. Their No Borders and Still Friends t-shirts promote anti-racist and pro-immigrant messages. Even Birdsong’s postage and packaging is undertaken by people with learning disabilities. From marketing to manufacturing, Birdsong is a demonstration of an alternative model. They are building the world as it should be – and this gives them the legitimacy to call for wider change.
With UK politics in turmoil and faith in politicians at an all time low, it’s time for social enterprise to get political. With this in mind, our 24 hour challenge this year is to tackle voter apathy in Barking, East London. We chose Barking as it holds two, somewhat dubious, accolades:
- A Trust for London report found it to be London’s most poverty-striken borough; and
- In 2017, it had the lowest voter turnout of any London constituency.
It’s ironic (or, perhaps, completely explicable) that the kind of area that could most benefit from political attention has the least faith in politics.