The CSJ Alliance director leads the launch of a work experience programme, hears the story of a man who has given up a life of crime, and researches the UK voluntary sector – all while recovering from a serious case of jet lagMonday
I land at Heathrow on the red-eye from Boston after a blissful week on the beach. Blearily turning on my mobile, I discover I am expected at work in an hour's time for an early-morning management team meeting. No time to go home. No time to change. Unfortunate, as I am wearing flip flops and it turns out my suitcase is still on the tarmac in Boston. Today is not a good day to arrive dishevelled. I am leading the launch of a new initiative at the Centre for Social Justice in partnership with two London youth charities, and this is the first morning for our young recruits. Punctuality, enthusiasm and professionalism are buzzwords, and I am not exactly setting a good example.
The initiative is a summer work experience programme designed to give opportunities and experience to disadvantaged young people from a mixture of challenging backgrounds, who are referred to us through charities that are members of our CSJ Alliance
. From my many visits to amazing life-changing charities, I am all too aware that some of those sent to us will be new to the concept of turning up on time, looking people in the eye, and speaking in a professional manner. Today is induction day for two of our new recruits. They arrive at a leisurely 9.15 and 9.45 pleading a variety of excuses. They are working on their punctuality; we are working on our patience.
Tuesday kicks off with the CSJ's fortnightly policy forum – our in-house discussion on key issues where the goal is to progress debates onto the next level and press for solutions. Today we are talking about the 'couple penalty' in the benefits system. Are two people on benefits or working tax credits financially or materially worse off living together than they would be apart? Is that fair? Even if people only perceive there to be a negative financial incentive in the welfare system, if the result is that couples or parents are choosing to live apart as a result, what should be done?
At lunchtime I spend a gripping hour listening to a man who was spent 13-and-a-half years behind bars. His attitude surprises me. I am used to being presented with inspiring stories told by individuals who are models of effective rehabilitation. But this man readily admits to giving up crime because it is no longer as lucrative as it used to be. He also says without shame that his 13 years in prison were the best of his life. I believe him. He enjoyed order, security and, by his accounting, a steady flow of drugs.
Neither work experience candidate appears in the office today. But my suitcase does arrive from Boston. I am very glad not to have to be squeezing a third day out of my Virgin Atlantic miniature tube of toothpaste.
The morning starts with a news review, which the whole team takes part in every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It is always an energetic and fascinating meeting, and I constantly feel blessed to be part of a team that is truly passionate about our mission and united in our commitment to social justice for the poorest in society.
Making the most of the August calm, today is mostly about strategy for me. Looking ahead, I identify which areas of the United Kingdom we should be visiting and the charities we should be speaking to. The CSJ places great value on the expertise and methods of the best local charities – those that can prove their success and show that they are doing more than put a sticking plaster over a problem. We are looking for charities that are successfully taking people from a place of brokenness – be it addiction, homelessness, family dysfunction, gang affiliation or illiteracy – and supporting them into a place of freedom and independence.
I am hugely encouraged to see a brilliant article
published about Kickstart
, an addiction charity that won one of our CSJ Awards last month. It is the story of the founder, Christine Tooze, and encapsulates the true spirit of many of the organisations we work with. Meanwhile both work experience candidates reappear today, cheerful and hardworking. One day at a time, right?
I hate jet lag. It has been three days and I should be over it by now. I am not, and my 7am alarm is even more painful that it was yesterday. I decide to bike to work, making the most of the sunny days.
Today is more policy focussed, and I immerse myself in research into the voluntary sector along with our policy director Alex Burghart and the chairman of the working group, Danny Kruger. We are two months into a major 18-month programme of research into the value and potential of the voluntary sector. Currently focused on a state of the nation report that will be published in early 2013, we are thinking 'solutions' even at this early stage, and hearing from charities across the country. It is a long day at work. I often find if I make past 6.30pm I end up staying past 8pm. I work best when it is quiet.
The morning is a write-off. I sit morosely in Chelsea and Westminster hospital having my knee poked and scanned and injected. I watch in awe as nurses deal with an abusive drunken man one minute and a woman who has had a stroke the next.
The afternoon is a mixture of management meetings, drafting proposals and setting up charity visits for Yorkshire and the South West. I also push on with some events and visits that I am preparing for the Child Poverty Unit, who we are introducing to a number of the charities we work with so that these frontline poverty fighters can give insight into the depths of social breakdown happening on estates and in rural communities across the UK, and so they can share their pioneering solutions.
I head to the gym after work to go swimming. Well, if I am honest I went to the swimming pool and sat in the hot tub. That counts, right? Planning to avoid the bank holiday traffic, my husband and I head off for a weekend in Gloucestershire much too late, and arrive around midnight utterly exhausted at a house we have been lent for the weekend.
Saturday is surreal. We wake up to brilliant sunshine, but end up in the midst of a huge storm. Forked lightening lands in the field next to ours and our lights cut out, 10 minutes before some friends arrive to stay for the weekend. Frequent calls to the local power provider do little to reassure me; our village seems to be the only one affected and we just have to wait. We do blissful nothing all day other than eat and read and chat and wander about. Lovely.
Glorious sunshine following the freak storm. Classic. We all potter down to the wonderful local church in Berkeley where the vicar gives a great sermon about making good choices and his wife plays the guitar and wears shoes that are surprisingly cool for a vicar's wife. Very impressed. They have got a great format where they do a formal early morning service and a relaxed later service for people like us who do not think it is civilised to force people to choose between a Sunday lie-in and going to church. Despite the delayed timeframe, we still manage to be 10 minutes late for church.
We spend the rest of a delicious Sunday stomping through the still-wet mud, exploring a local wood, and feeling very smug about not having to be at work tomorrow morning.Zoe Vickerman is the director of the CSJ Alliance at the Centre for Social Justice, a London-based think-tank