"We live in challenging economic times, both for our communities and for very many in the population. These times are unique for the generations alive today, and how we step up to the challenges they present will determine not just the immediate future but also that of our children and our children’s children. For me, it is about focusing on the possibilities and not being satisfied with average."
So said Ken Scott, the Chair of the Westway Trust board of trustees in 2012. When Ken took over from Jon Rayman there was nothing but an intention to make the Westway Development Trust (as it was called then) even better than it already was. After all, as he went on to say,
"Having celebrated its 40th Anniversary last year, it is pleasing to report that the Trust has, over the last twelve months, continued to deliver its prime mission of ‘enhancing local lives’ by providing support to ensure a variety of affordable services and opportunities for residents of all ages and from virtually all communities in Kensington and Chelsea."
Whatever problems existed were seemingly not visible to Ken or Jon before him. Whatever mirror was being held up to the Trust to help it reflect on its position in the community was blurred or otherwise ineffectual. The obvious point that here was a Black person taking on the leadership of the Trust for the first time and in doing so perhaps reflecting the community more accurately, did not translate into a Trust able to fully recognise or acknowledge its festering problem of inaccurately representing and even damaging the community in many of it actions and inactions. Instead, it looked straight ahead and launched into a period of strategic commercialism, culminating in all that happened as a result of Destination Westway. Eight years later, with the mirror of five years of campaigning and an increasingly clear picture of the past, perhaps we can now better consider the position of an organisation whose Chair says
"Significantly, ‘enhancing local lives’ resonates with me and is something I encourage in my corporate life.".
It has been around 8 months since I became Chair of the Westway Trust and I don't have a corporate life to balance, just a personal one. I am reminded of the struggle of keeping up with social media whenever life takes over in certain ways. I am sorry for my relative public quietness and I am also here to state clearly the struggle of being two things at once: a member of a loud, proud community and a board member of a problematic institution. I hope to have the opportunity to speak or write more on that in due course, hopefully also with my fellow trustees, because there is quite a lot to say on it. In the meantime, here is an attempt to provide an update as best I can.
Eight years on from 2012's challenging economic times and little has changed there. In fact, I am unsure of the moment in British history when we didn't apparently live in straitened financial times, either because poor people were just that or, because wealthy people were claiming yet another reason for not distributing wealth effectively. It seems that whether you're ransacking India for 100 years or ransacking Afghanistan for 10, the spoils only find their way into select pockets. So here we are, still in those "challenging economic times" that force billionaires to flee to Monaco. Today of course, our challenge includes something our ancestors have similarly faced before, with a health crisis to compound our endless economic one. The scene is set.
It is a different scene to the one we faced in January/February as myself and a handful of other community members became trustees of the Westway Trust. We were looking contentedly at a few million in the bank, 23 acres of solid income foundation and some business in China barely starting to creep into view. A couple of weeks later and hand sanitiser, quarantining and understanding the difference between furloughing and a furlong was the order of the day. We have now become leaders of an organisation that has lost (hopefully temporarily) the security blanket of its incredibly stable income and seen a sizeable hole develop in its accounts, in a country and world getting used to a life of living on shifting sands.
It seems truly incredible - but simultaneously completely normal in our absurd world - to think that not long ago a Prime Minister offered us "strong and stable" as a promise. First you accept you are in a circus. Then you figure out the clowns are running the show.
And so back to mirrors. As with so many things, the Westway Trust is a micro of the macro. It is a mini mirror itself and the river in Africa has been particularly strong in this one.
We can no longer afford to be in denial. Literally, we cannot afford it. The walls between community and trust are falling and the hordes are coming in. The clowns are being replaced by the lunatics. And there is the rub. Madness reigns. Except in a mad world, is the madness really mad? The natives have breached the defences and are running what was theirs to begin with.
"The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same form of mental pathology does not make these people sane."
Erich Fromm, The Sane Society
This organisation is akin to a fifty year old person with increasingly severe symptoms in a state of ignorance and denial, whose family have now taken on the task of bringing them back from the brink. That doesn't take weeks or even months. It takes years. An all-important aspect of that journey back to good health is that there are people around who are fully committed to and supportive of that path. They are not assisting in denial. Think for a moment of the network of support any single person needs. We are having our own eyes opened to that fact every day inside the organisation as we try to build the support for trustees and staff that is necessary for real change to happen. It is so important that our community are comfortable with that, because we need to continue to build patience and support for this journey of change with every individual, group and organisation we come into contact with.
The top Executives of the Westway Trust have left the organisation. We have an Interim Chief Executive with experience in community voice and organisational change. I cannot tell you how refreshing it is to have a skilled White man from Yorkshire accept, without fear, that he is not the future of this space and consistently question his place in it. We look ahead to a transparent and community-involved process to bring in a new permanent CEO in the new year. We have a staff team who are showing their commitment to the transformation and are showing their ability to grow and respond to the challenge. We have a board and staff team who are communicating and working with each other like never before. It is only a beginning but, I believe we are instilling a better culture within the Westway Trust.
There is broad agreement that the Westway Trust must be 100% committed to centering the community. It is a concept that we all must grasp. A community-led board is a clear example of that. Because of the realities of power it became the only way to begin and our experience of the Trust so far proves that beyond doubt. The community must be the ultimate authority in the centre of this organisation and our journey now is to find out how else a community-centred, community-led Westway Trust manifests itself.
Another defining aspect of change has to be the investigation, understanding and acknowledgement of what has been wrong.
The Trust is working weekly with community members toward the imminent publication of the Tutu Review into Institutional Racism. It will lay out in very clear and historical terms the organisation in relation to race relations. We are preparing ourselves for the impact the publication will have on the community. It will also have an impact on the organisation and its people. We want that to be a positive impact where possible, in the knowledge that the Trust is now led by some of the people who brought the Review into being and that people within the organisation have been adversely affected for many years. We do not want to shy away from findings we asked for, we want to dive in with our community and work together to build a Westway Trust that is fit to be a valued part of our community.
This is a second concept that I want everyone around the Westway Trust to grasp. We are not to blame but, we are responsible. That is, we are able to create a response (a privilege that many do not possess) and in fact we are morally bound to respond. If the resource of the Trust provides an ability to respond (which I believe it does, albeit a limited one in some cases), it is not for the Trust to hold it to itself but, to share it wherever possible to give more and more people that same ability. It is not for us to hold the capacity to fix things to ourselves. It seems obvious that a community able to respond carries that much more potential than an organisation able to respond.
Working out how this organisation practically takes and shares responsibility and potentially goes against decades-long ways of working, will take time and more importantly, practice. Or more accurately, praxis. Doing, not theory.
We all know what this community does. It builds out of ruins.
Many times it has done this and this is again what we will do, to make a real attempt at enabling the affected and traumatised to create their own/our own space for healing. Westway Trust trustees and staff are coming to terms with that challenge and we look ahead to opening up further to our community to share the struggle. Our struggle to hold up the mirror and see into it.
(the disclaimer: these are the words and views of Toby Laurent Belson and not the Westway Trust or the board of the Westway Trust)
Westway Trust Exposed 2015 AGM
Tutu Foundation Review Launch
Dodge This - Review into Institutional Racism