On a cold blistery December day in Central London, a small group of like-minded professions are plotting away at the cure for our country’s obsession with the needy people to whom we must give, in order to make ourselves feel better about our own privileged positions in the world. Is there a different way to think about charity? Is it time to propose a new narrative? We think there is and for now at least, we’re calling it an Asset Based Approach. Asset based thinking is a movement, it’s a call to arms for all who care about our society, to assess the way we think and talk about the people and communities we serve.

Since October 2017, representatives from some of London’s leading youth organisations have been exploring what an asset based approach to youth work means to our individual organisations. 26 organisations signed up to a series of three monthly events at London’s Guildhall. By December there were four of us left (no doubt a symptom of the under resourcing I mentioned earlier), undeterred by the enormity of the challenges which lay ahead were: Myself from Beyond the Classroom, Chris from City YMCA, Allison from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and Annie from the Young Hammersmith and Fulham foundation. We were generously hosted by the Partnership for Young London and facilitated by the brilliant Colin Falconer of InspireChili.

Often in our sector, in order to secure much needed resources, we are obliged to describe need: how disadvantaged are the people in your area? What are the sexual exploitation statistics like in your community? How bad is the literacy rate at your school?  These questions can be soul destroying to respond to, forced always to focus on the evident lack of opportunity and resource in the communities we care so much about. It is almost as if you win a prize for being the most deprived corner of the country. But what about talent, and what about potential, character and grit? Oh how I would love to tell you about the young women who come through our doors with bags of charisma, they have drive, ambition and are highly innovative. They inspire me every day with their determination and surprise me with their wisdom and deep reflections. They have the potential to do a better job of running this country than previous generations, if not for the barriers which stand in their way. But barriers are moveable we jump over them, move around them and sometimes completely obliterate them. Who doesn’t like a challenge? And given the significance of the challenges some of our young people tackle every day, they are also some of the strongest and most resilient people I have the privilege of getting to know.  But you may not be familiar with this side of Brixton, Tooting or Peckham because I don’t often get asked about it.

Imagine if you were to begin every interaction with a young person, by thinking about their endless potential? Rather than the difficult circumstances they find themselves in, at any particular moment in time, often of no fault of their own. We’re not proposing that you ignore the difficult challenges which exist in our society, only that you don’t limit the expectations of individuals by their environment, demographics or social background. Language is powerful, a person experiencing homelessness is very different to a homeless person. One does not allow for hope, change or any indication of value.

With the recent media attention, it’s easy to assume that finding a cure to Poverty Porn is a new phenomenon, but it’s one that many of us in the youth sector have been quietly frustrated by. Colin’s 2011 TEDx encouraged us to reconsider how we communicate homelessness and to focus on talent.  I first went public with my reflections on the matter in 2015, when I asked a TEDx audience to “consider investing in the things they care about rather than ‘giving’ to them”. Investments have an innately positive connotation, because we only invest in what we believe already has a value, right?  And we expect to get something back. We often take informed risks with any investment, but we’re hopeful and we believe in the potential of whatever it is that we are investing in. If, as they say, young people are 20% of the UK population but 100% of our future, it seems silly to me, not to take a punt, when the likelihood of hitting the jackpot is quite so high!

Amma Mensah

Please stay tuned for updates on our work around Asset Based Thinking, in collaboration with:

The Partnership for Young London

Inspire Chilli


Young Hammersmith and Fulham Foundation

London Borough of Tower Hamlets