A Ruby by any other name…

Do any of you remember a campaign run by the Body Shop in 1998 featuring the “Ruby” doll?  In case you don’t, here she is:

She was swiftly shut down by Mattel, the owners of Barbie, who felt she was making them look bad.  (Or just obscenely thin).

You could argue that producing another plastic doll wasn’t the best way to challenge stereotypes of women in the media.  The very concept of reducing femininity (or even masculinity) to an inanimate ideal is flawed and unhelpful.  But it got a lot of people’s attention and, in Anita Roddick’s words,  “[exposed] the cruel irony of the myth that a company must make a woman feel inferior in order to win her loyalty.”

I stumbled across her voluptuous form only a year or so ago while googling on behalf of my theatre company, The Ruby Dolls.  I enjoy the coincidence of our names.

And I’ve thought about her again this past month, while The Ruby Dolls have spent August performing at the Edinburgh Fringe.  We’ve had a fair amount of press attention, most of it really positive.  And during our very first interview, we were grilled on our feminist credentials.

How could we claim to be intelligent women telling important stories with a name that made us sound like “a strip-tease act” (asked Fest Magazine)?  Why had we chosen such a pejorative name, seemingly contradicting our more sophisticated ideals?

Read the rest of my blog over at The Sophia Network.

Is helping hurting you?

There was book published in 2009 called “When Helping Hurts” which was about how lots of the development work we in the west undertake to reduce poverty actually does more harm than good.  Ouch. Its particular focus was work done by Christians. A further ouch.

It was familiar territory for Tearfund because we talk about that kind of thing a lot – in an attempt to work in a very different way. The main destructive habits the book identified were:

a) thinking we know what people need better than they do;

b) only addressing people’s obvious physical poverty rather than the more complex web of which it is factor;

c) doing things for people that they could do for themselves;

d) short-term thinking.

When I was in Sierra Leone last year (read the blog here), our Country Rep told me that millions of dollars had been thrown at the problems in the country in the last decade, and little had changed. It’s a tragedy, for the people of Sierra Leone, but also for the people giving that money. (And then I made a little film about a really exciting process that is helping people change their circumstances…)

Bad development hurts more than just people in Africa. It’s bad for all of us. Let me explain.

Last year Bond & Oxfam did a big piece of work around its communications with the UK public.  The Executive Summary of the report says this:

Simply put, people in the UK understand and relate to global poverty no differently now than they did in the 1980s…By many measures [the NGOs] have made amazing strides forward in recent years but the public have largely been left behind.

Maybe that sounds a bit cocky (although I love to think we make “AMAZING strides”), but as part of the process they also did a bunch of research into their own communications, and in fact the communications of many UK NGOs.  They found out that the responsibility largely lay with them (us).  We are telling the same story about the problem of poverty and how we can fix it, even though we might have come to believe a more nuanced and empowering story ourselves.  As a sector we still tell this story: ‘ here is a poor sick child, and here is how much you can give to fix it.’ (forgive my generalisations for now…)

So then there’s a big practical problem of how long are people going to keep believing you when the problems aren’t disappearing despite the cash invested.  And there’s an integrity problem in organisations not telling the same story as the one they’re outworking in communities.  And these sit alongside the already-identified problems of when organisations just do things badly, despite all their good intentions.

BUT, and here is my point, I think it diminishes the humanity of everyone involved when we buy into shabby stories about how the world changes.  For someone living in poverty, wherever they are in the world, it diminishes them when their circumstances and the behaviour of people around them tells them that they are worthless, and powerless, and can only hope for somebody else to give them a handout.  But it also diminishes us when we believe that ‘just £10 can change this child’s life forever’, or that the circumstances that keep people in poverty are independent of us – our consumer choices and the trade laws of our own country, for example.

No-one gets to move forward by believing shabby stories.

So let’s all believe a better one, please!  (Further posts may expand on that. Do tell me what you’d like to hear about).

out west

Last week I travelled to…wait for it… the glamorous city of Bristol to speak at a uni event about stories, and especially stories about injustice.  There is an irony here.  When I was at uni I would not have gone to such a talk. I thought injustice was bad and that it was important to care about it. I just had other fish to fry.

(It took a while to realise that I didn’t need to watch my frying pan 24/7, and maybe there were other important things to cook…have I exhausted the metaphor?)

The lovely guy who organised the event has big concerns about how those stories are told (or not told) in the media, and so I was introduced as visiting “world-traveller” to reflect on the stories I’ve found, and why we need to tell a different kind of story.

Now “the media” is an enormous, sprawling monster of a thing that you clearly can’t generalise about, but my main reflection at the moment is that the headlines that reach us bring us to a point of crisis (or try to) but don’t show us where to go with it. Here are some refugees dying of hunger. This is shocking, this is terrible. What do I do? There’s usually no answer (just a weather forecast) or a plea to give money.  Money helps, but it doesn’t solve big, complex problems.  And it can mean we are still very removed from the actual problems, sensing very little connection to whatever is going wrong, still safe in our western existence.

Not that I’m recommending the total other end of the spectrum where we all jump into a lorry full of supplies and head off to the location of the crisis. I don’t think that helps in the long run.

So what I talked about was the importance of stories that show a way through: Stories of people responding with courage, resilience, optimism, compassion, intelligence.  They are often small stories, but there are a lot of them and they don’t grab many headlines. I sometimes think of them as tiny, beautiful chipped fragments of a mosaic. On their own they’re incomplete and small, but when you start to lay them out alongside one another something brilliant emerges.   And that bigger mosaic can have an effect on us, like I argued at the start of this blog. The more good stories I hear the more likely I am to respond with imagination and hope to the problems in my neighbourhood, and the more I want to be part of the bigger picture of good stuff happenig.

I also think it matters that we’re connected.  Not least because it’s easy to get discouraged by the scale of the horror in the world. Yes, we are all “connected” by the reality that our clothes and food and gadgets and tv shows were made in different corners of the globe, and the internet gives us access to more knowledge than anyone can get their around, but the way all of that is set up is largely impersonal.  Moreover it’s mediated by the powerful who maybe have a vested interest in making us see the world they want. I think it matters that we have personal connections to real people and complex, ongoing stories. (This is one of the reasons I get on planes when I hate airports and being away from my husband).  I think we need to believe that we’re part of a bigger picture, a bigger story that is going in a good direction.

So, returning to Bristol, if you’re interested to hear about the project I was speaking at, they have a facebook page “Our World View – a perspective shift on social injustice”.  And the best stories I’ve heard coming out of Bristol recently are from these guys.