I’m as guilty as anyone of skipping through 15 second bursts of songs, flicking through and reading the headlines in a newspaper or starting yet another book that ends up on the pile next to my bed. It’s not just our youngsters who seem to find it increasingly hard to hold their attention on anything for very long these days.
There is a phrase that Cormac Russell uses quite often. It seems like something or nothing at first. He says that what is important is what we pay attention to. More and more I’ve come to realise just how powerful this idea is. When we make an effort to notice what we and others pay attention to it can tell us an awful lot.
Some colleagues and I recently spent some time with another housing association that is doing some amazing work. They have closed down all sorts of ‘specialist’ teams, contact centres and helplines; ploughing the money saved into funding more and more community based housing workers. Each housing worker has a small patch where they have a real chance to get to know their customers, to build really meaningful relationships.
Two of my colleagues went with one of the housing workers to visit an older gentleman. Let’s call him Dan.
Sat in Dan’s ground floor flat the conversation the housing worker had was completely focused on updating the housing association’s records – checking Dan’s email address, looking at his photo ID and ensuring that the phone number on file was up to date. There was now attempt to connect with Dan as another human being with a story to tell and a future yet to unfold.
Dan was not a problem for the association. He didn’t owe them any money; none of his neighbours were complaining about him and he wasn’t damaging his home. So that was that. Fill in a few pieces of missing data and the housing worker could be on his way. He’d never actually been inside Dan’s flat before but here he was, about to leave, without noticing two amazing things about Dan. My colleagues, who like me are trying to get better at paying attention, had.
One spotted Dan’s incredible collection of old radios and started a conversation about why he collected them, where he found them, etc. The other wandered over to the window and looked out into Dan’s back yard. Wow! She was blown away by the way he had transformed his little back yard into a wonderful urban oasis.
What a waste. That housing association had gone through a massive period of change to be able to get housing workers out into their communities but then failed to pay attention to the right things.
Those housing workers were still stuck in a deficit world view. One where the people living in the associations homes were just customers, best seen but not heard, and not citizens…members of a community with with a worker on every street corner ready to jump into action at the first sign of something going wrong.
I just came across this interview with Cormac on East London Radio. I know, I know….it’s an hour long! But sit down. Pay attention and I think you’ll be glad you did.