Discussion Featured Voice: Helen Buhaenko

by Francesca Fitzgerald _______11th January 2019

Voices of Progress is a research project where we interview people from all walks of life and ask them about what progress means to them. Each week in 2019 we will be featuring one of our inspirational voices. To find out more or nominate a Voice,  please get in touch. 

Helen runs the Gellideg Foundation Group in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. Over the course of her career, she has worked largely for organisations with a focus on social change, including Oxfam. She came to work in her current field after feeling frustration at the lack of grounded experience in people working at a policy level on social change. Gellideg Foundation Group is an anti-poverty organisation focused on empowering people to achieve their potential. You can click here to find their website.

During the interview we talked with Helen about many things. Below she discusses the challenges small charities face at a local level, the importance of economic development in Merthyr Tydfil, and the challenges facing people as they transition into employment.

Gellideg Foundation Group works locally, although now at a regional level. It’s driven by local voice, needs, reality and poverty. It’s about working with older people and younger people, people in poor health and working families. We work with people who are acutely disadvantaged. Progress for our organisation is instigating and supporting change, improving the life chances of local people, helping people to have better health in older age, supporting life long learning, including excellent child development. Those would be our aims from our charity’s point of view.

In terms of what businesses can do – to start with, they can help with in-work training. What we have here is that for a lot of people there’s a disjoint between education and work. A lot of people can’t see how they’re related, so when people leave school and look for a job they often don’t have a lot of qualifications. They need to develop their skills, and to do that they need to enter a job market which allows them then to be paid to train.

If business could build in in-work training and career progression, then people could start at entry level jobs and then build their way up. That would be fabulous. I think apprenticeships are doing that as well, which is really good. People really respond to apprenticeships. Then there’s family friendly policies, and building in pension systems from the beginning.

Upskilling for the older generation would be a great idea, too. Ageism is an issue there. When you think about apprenticeships I suppose you think about the younger generation. But I think that given younger generations are projected to live to 100, you could be working until you’re 80. Extraordinary, isn’t it? You might develop skills and have an education when you’re 20, but that’s never going to fly you forwards until you’re 80. There comes a point in your mid 40s-50s where you have to recalibrate and upskill again, or maybe change direction. It’s this whole business of lifelong learning. There’s also this business of creativity. They were talking on the radio about the jobs people are going to do in 20 years time, jobs that haven’t even been considered yet. We have to be alive to the fact that education is more and more about being open to innovation and thinking outside the box, so that people can constantly develop throughout their lives in order to respond to the new opportunities that will come.

I think businesses have a duty to support their local community and charities, too. Smaller local charities don’t have advertising departments like larger national charities, and aren’t as well recognised. But they’ll be doing really good work on your doorstep, making an awful lot of use of that pound to pound given to them. They don’t have the money or time to go out asking for donations, putting up posters, asking people to leave them something in their will, or do the raffle this year for us. It makes sense for a local business to do that. They will be directly supporting people in their area, so it does all add up, but people tend to overlook those smaller charities. That would be a good way forward for business.

I think there also needs to be more business engagement with the public in general. We’ve done some work here looking at what people would feel would be an appropriate career path for them, when they’re 8 and 12. They’ve got really quite gender stereotypical ideas about what they want to do, partly because they’re looking around at their family and friends and seeing what their family members do and then just reproducing those ideas as potential career options for themselves. So to break through that the local network is so important. You have to ask how we can make those other jobs and careers relevant to people.

Interestingly enough, a report came out recently about Merthyr Tydfil how it’s changing its socio-economic conditions. And it is, we’ve noticed that over the last 5 years. So many more people are in employment now than there’s ever been before. 10 years ago, 48% of working age adults were not in employment and that’s because so many people were on sickness related benefits and just weren’t working. That was economic inactivity. Now that’s cut right down, but it means there are an awful lot of people through the whole benefit reform who are now employed but in low paid work. It is really about getting out of that first level, and stopping people from being stuck. Many people do get stuck, and are really time and income poor.

The relationship between work and poverty is complex. Being in work brings benefits to people lives, gives a sense of pride, a structure, improves health. But where work is unfair; poorly paid and precarious, people are going backwards, working and getting into debt. We need a social contract that is fair, so that everyone has the chance to progress. _______

Economic development does work. If you ask people here what sort of things they would like to have, it’s a job and a good house. Though if change doesn’t come from an individual, it’s never going to work. A person needs to want to make that change. There’s all that business about empowerment and confidence building and working with mental health issues and reducing dependency on substance misuse. All of that, that’s really important. Lots of people fear change. You go back to that individual thing of needing the confidence and support to change, because the status quo is often seen as better than the unknown.

But there’s also the whole societal cultural thing, whereby a community can believe something and it doesn’t matter what you do, if that community doesn’t go along with that, they’re just going to reject it. So you can come in with school reform or whatever, but it’s just going to be rejected unless there’s a consensus amongst that community that this is something that they believe in and that is meaningful to them. This is why top down, enforced initiatives are often rejected.

So change happens at an individual level and at a societal level and it also happens at a structural level. Structural changes, changes in policy or legislation, like the change to Universal credit, have a disproportionately high impact on the lives of people in poverty.  People have no power over these changes and are heavily impacted by them. But all of those things stack up together. It’s quite difficult, you have to see it as the whole picture rather than one part in isolation. We need to work collaboratively with people, to find out what they really believe about something and then to work with them to develop a new way forward.