Saturday, 14 May 2011

altogether better

If a story's any good, it's worth hearing more than once.

And on Thursday, I heard a good story three times.

I'd been asked to facilitate part of an event where the aim was to celebrate ordinary people who've been doing extraordinary things for others.

But it was about more than celebration. This was an event about grabbing people by the arm and saying "Look: this is happening. And with the right kind of help, it can happen more."

So it was partly about congratulation and reward. But it was about inspiration too, courtesy of some hard core living proof that great and small things are happening every day.

My role on the day was a simple one: to help a few people tell their stories. But we weren't interested in statistics and set-pieces. What we wanted to create was an authentic, powerful conversation that might capture both the head and the heart.

A public conversation.

A conversation that would get behind the facts, the figures and headlines.

A conversation that might reveal some of the passion and desire and humanity behind the blurb.

So - I spent the welcome lunch trawling the room, asking people about their projects, their stories and their lives.

And in amongst the hundred or so award winners, sat a group of people from a programme called Altogether Better. (Good name. Great people.)

And to one side and sitting alone was Lisa.

She looked a little edgy. And a tiny bit overawed by the glamour and elegance of Somerset House.

After a quick chat with the people running the project, I caught Lisa's eye, sat down and asked her about her story.

"I'm a bit shy." she said. "And I've got a bit of a stammer."

"That's okay" I replied. "I've got plenty of time. And it's just you and me."

(I think I might have smiled at her.)

"Okay." she said.

And slowly she told me her story, for the first time:

I'd been away for ten years /

In Canada.

And when I came back /

I bumped into my abuser.

And as a result /

I started to /


It took 18 months to get any counselling.

But I had a wonderful doctor /

Who said come in every other day /

Until we get can get you sorted out with someone.

Just check in with us.

Every other day.

So I did.

And eventually /

Well /

I got better.

And now /

Now /

I run a group for young women with mental disorders. Day to day life changing things.

That's how I earn a living.

I'm not on the dole any more.

And /

I haven't self-harmed for two years.

A short silence fell between us. I found myself looking at Lisa intently. I think I was looking for clues as to how okay she was or wasn't feeling about disclosing so much so soon.

"That's an amazing story Lisa" I said. "You know that don't you?"

"I'm not very confident." she replied. "I trip over my words sometimes."

She smiled.

"And I have a stammer."

I'm sure Lisa did have a stammer once. But I couldn't hear a trace of it. And maybe her sense of confidence wasn't as strong as some in the room, but it sounded to me like it might be ready to grow.

I put my cards on the table:

"Lisa. How would you feel about telling your story again? To everyone. If it makes it any easier, we could have a conversation about it, rather than you feeling you have to spill it all out.

"A conversation? In front of everyone?""

"Yes. In front of everyone."

We kept looking at each other. I was conscious of not wanting to push Lisa. But it felt like this might be an important moment for her, to say yes. Or to say no.

So I told her that I thought what she'd achieved was amazing. And I I told her that I thought other people might think so too; that she might inspire other people. I told her that of course it was her choice. And then I asked if she felt she might be ready.

Her eyes smiled.

"Try me."

So, after some fabulous stories of swimming pools reclaimed, bus-shelters rebuilt and able bodied teenagers learning how to help disabled bodied teenagers, it felt like the moment to give Lisa the opportunity to speak.

So I turned to her.

Her face was as pale as a sheet.

"Lisa. We were talking earlier weren't we?"

She nodded.

"How do you feel about sharing your story? About how you got to be here today?"

Without a pause, she breathed in to speak.

"Take your time" I think I said.

And she started.

Concisely, gently and with Sheffield steel in her eyes.

I'd been away for ten years /

In Canada....

And I heard the story for the second time, while a hundred people heard it for the first time. But this time - towards the end - she stopped.

In mid-flow.

Perhaps I should step in and rescue her?

Perhaps she'd been too brave.

Perhaps she wasn't ready after all.

I looked back at her again. And it was clear.

She was ready.

She was ready. And she was pausing. She was taking her time.

And she'd saved her big line till the end:

And for two years now /

I haven't self-harmed.

How to describe what happened next?

Honestly I suppose.

The room burst into applause.

Co-workers. Government ministers. Journalists. Bloggers. Tweeters and techies alike.

If it hadn't been so genuine, it would have been tacky.

But it wasn't tacky. Far from it. It was one of those rare moments when a bit of something real happens in front of you. And we all knew it.

But Lisa hadn't finished.

Lisa was on a roll.

The reception that evening was at No 10 Downing St.

The famous black door was thrown open to everyone who'd won an award.

Champagne, orange juice and fizzy water flowed. Canapes were served while eyes widened at the sight of the portraits, the furniture and the chandeliers.

David Cameron arrived as promised, shook hands, showed interest and made a heartfelt and witty speech.

It was all going to plan.

And then, as DC (as he's called at home) began to leave, surrounded by his modest entourage of small neat women, he felt a hand reach out and grab the sleeve of his jacket.

"Mr Cameron?"

It was Lisa.

"Have you got two minutes? I'd like to tell you my story."

And I heard Lisa's story a third time, while David Cameron heard it for the first time.

And he listened. And he was respectful in his reply.

And then he had to go. And celebrate his first year in office.

Which left Lisa and me, looking at each other, surrounded by astonished guests and No.10 staff. Her face was beetroot red. And beaming.

I honestly wondered if she might explode.

But she didn't explode. She grabbed me with her great big gorgeous arms gave me a hug I'll never forget.

"What have I done?" she squealed.

"You just grabbed the Prime Minister and you told him your story" I said.

"But, I could never have done that before!" she said, tears streaming down her face now.

"Well. You just did it now" I said. "And you did it pretty well."

Naturally I've asked Lisa's permission to tell this story. And I've also asked if she'll record a conversation with me. And she's said yes. So soon you'll be able to listen to her speak for herself about her experiences and her journey in life so far. Not just about the day in London and to No. 10, but the many, many days that led up to it.

So for now - thank you Lisa.

You are an inspiration.

To me and many others no doubt.

You seized the day.

And grabbed the jacket of power.

(And by all accounts you got to sit in DC's chair in the Cabinet Office.)

And it feels to me like you are well on the way to being truly altogether better.

An addendum
I could have started this post by telling you that the event in question was run by Steve Moore, Lucy Windmill and the brilliant team of people at Big Society Network.

I could have told you the day was all part of David Cameron's passion for the Big Society.

But I chose not to.

And I wonder how differently you might have read this story if I had.

Or whether you'd have read it at all.

As anyone who knows me will testify, I'm not a big fan of the Conservative Party (which as a friend recently pointed out to me probably makes me a better facilitator at events like these.) But I don't think I'm alone in disagreeing with most political parties about something important at the moment.

And for me, the idea of a policy that sets out to encourage us to look out for and after others, to be humane, to take responsibility, to act and challenge constructively rather than criticise from the sidelines is something worth beginning.

And that's all the Big Society is. A beginning. And like many beginnings it's having some false starts. Some clumsy articulations. It's being confused with other things. And it's fallen through some trap doors.

But whatever the ins and outs and rights and wrongs of branding and perceptions, last Thursday was not a day about political parties or government. Not really.

It was a day when I experienced for myself ordinary people creating change. Here. On these shores, where resistance to change always has (and probably always will be) strong and useful.

Some of the people I met were creating change long before the phrase Big Society was coined. But some people have only just started, like Lisa.

And if some of the change we need is going to come from people like Lisa, who's found the courage to take on her past, learn from the good people around her and transform her new growing confidence into action and helping others...

I'm up for that.

Because it's altogether better.

Altogether Better is run from Yorkshire and Humber Public Health Observatory who are about turning information into health intelligence.

You can read a full list of the fabulously inspiring organisations and individuals who won a Big Society award here.