Our language is important. The descriptions we use, the terms we return to and the statistics we draw upon all conjure up a picture and denote a judgement, consciously or not. When this picture is of a place it can lead to assumptions about the people who live there, the experience they have of life and the way they relate to the place they call home.
At the Virgin Money Foundation we are concerned about the disparity of investment that goes into different places, and the way this creates stark variations in the opportunities people have access to. We choose to spend our money in the places that have the least money, to back people from those neighbourhoods to make big changes happen locally. We look for people with vision for their community, who understand its strengths and who know what positive changes are needed and how that change can happen. This means that we only fund in places in the top 20% of the deprivation index (IMDB) and that we don’t fund in places where there is widespread affluence. When we receive applications from these places, we turn them down.
Like many funders we have a conundrum. In order to avoid community organisations from wealthier places investing precious time writing applications to the Virgin Money Foundation, we seek to be clear about where we spend our money and why. This has led us using terms such as ‘disadvantage’ and ‘deprivation’. These terms are negative, more importantly still they are not words the communities we invest in would use to describe themselves. Our endeavour for clarity has risked us stigmatising the very communities we seek to champion.
Late last year we decided it was time to change. We knew that those two words ‘deprived’ and ‘disadvantaged’ were not the labels communities we funded in wanted to be placed on them, we knew there were probably other words we use that they didn’t feel reflected accurately the places they live in and love. We wanted an honest conversation about this, but like with many other issues we knew that as the holder of the purse strings, organisations might not tell us the whole truth about what they don’t like about our language, and that we might not fully hear them. To help us explore this issue we decided to work with Expert Citizens. We asked them to work with people in the communities where we spend our money to review our language and to tell us what they think of how we describe the places where they live. We asked them to take the most problematic words we use and suggest alternatives that still provide clarity but which avoid negative labelling. We asked them to consider our need to provide objective reasons why focusing our spend on communities with the highest rates of poverty, poor health or worklessness was important, to help us be clear but not let that clarity slip into negative labelling.
The review has given us a lot of food for thought. I have lived in twenty properties so far in my life, in what I would describe as 18 different communities. The variety between them has been enormous. The differences in average incomes, access to libraries and swimming pools, density of population, crime rates, average level of qualifications, employment opportunities, age demographics and life expectancy rates. I’ve lived in areas in the top 10% on the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMDB) and areas in the lowest 10%. I don’t think aspiration levels, happiness levels, strength of community and inclusion within these places were determined by their wealth but the access to opportunities and the investment within the areas were markedly different and far from equal. As a funder, focused on place, being able to speak of these differences is important, but not through language which unhelpfully labels. The work with Expert Citizens has been fascinating and important, the real work begins now, we’ve heard what people have told us now we must change the way we talk.
Over the next month look out for more blogs from us on this topic, sharing our learning from the process and how we plan to change.
Virgin Money Foundation