Working Towards a More Equitable System

Rachel Bray on working towards a more equitable system

Above: Rachel Bray (left) with Diana Skelton

This article is based on a presentation by Rachel Bray. She spoke at an English-language workshop on rights at ATD Fourth World’s Social Philosophy conference in December 2022.

Here, she comments on “FROM RIGHTS TO LAW.” A text by co-researchers of ATD Fourth World’s Social Philosophy Project, discussed and debated during the conference. In her presentation, Ms. Bray emphasises the importance of incorporating the Merging Knowledge methodology into the decision-making process.

Writings from ATD Fourth World’s Social Philosophy Project have recently been published in book form. The title is Pour une nouvelle philosophie sociale (For a new social philosophy). It is edited by François Jomini, David Jousset, Fred Poché and Bruno Tardieu and published by Bord de l’eau. This book highlights contributions from participants and the project’s research results.

Institutional indifference

I want to share some observations, reflections and questions regarding the document “FROM RIGHTS TO LAW”. My aim today is to develop these concepts further for eventual implementation in the public arena.

  • Disempowering policies prevent a person or group from having control, authority or influence over their own lives or interests in the face of institutional indifference. When those in power determine what is best for you and make choices on your behalf. This can lead to a sense of insignificance; you feel infantilised. For example, when supporting people in navigating the British welfare system, you realise that in an effort to make people responsible, the system becomes disempowering because the intent is to control and direct people. (page 8)

Contributing to this document is ATD Fourth World activist Moraene Roberts. She cites [that when] a person “no longer feels they are an agent of their own destiny1, that their sense of self-efficacy2 [becomes] critically damaged.” and I think the implication here is critically damaged by poverty.

Non-take up of rights and shame

In this same document, the co-authors dig deeper into the section “The Rebounding of Rights.”

  • Not claiming what one is entitled to is a key issue regarding rights. For example, many people do not use social assistance programs out of fear that this right will backfire on them or out of shame about their situation. We think we are protecting ourselves and our loved ones by doing this, but at the same time, we are putting ourselves at risk by running away from socio-educational services, for example. It is a strategy employed by parents to protect their children, and their family, but it can appear negatively to social services who think that the child is in danger. In poverty, parents do not have the same logic as institutions (for example, social services) because this logic is forged in a daily struggle.”

I understand this “daily struggle” to be one of living in poverty, and I will reflect on these points. The means to claim support are undermined by a fear of shame and its consequences, and we heard quite a lot about that this morning. I wonder how we understand the source of [this]shaming when we talk about the system (the institutional logic referred to as ‘the machine’) in the document.

Designed by people

What do we actually mean by these terms? As we understand it, the system was clearly designed by people at some point whose intent we cannot know. The institutional logic is now driven by a set of behaviours and ways of doing things that have become habits. Does it have an intent to dominate? I’m not sure we can use the word agency for an institution. An institution comprises people and systems. So, I just wanted to note [that there is] risk when we assume an intent to undermine rights and dignity when perhaps it does not exist in the implied sense. The key might be to explore the process supported by the system and the extent of agency of those working in it or who are brought into it as intended beneficiaries.

The right to protection, dignity and self-determination

We have heard a lot this morning regarding social welfare systems that provide care for children. Decisions are being made that aim to balance rights to protection, dignity and self-determination for various people (the child, parents, siblings and perhaps wider family members) and to provide services at scale to meet the needs of many. It is very difficult to meet all these priorities; one effect, I think, [is] that one issue facing vulnerable individuals becomes the defining problem. The system is unlikely to be able to respond [in a way] that supports the many dimensions of this person’s life and that of their careers and their family or community. Compromises and shortcomings are almost inevitable…

  • My image here is of two parallel railway tracks; on one track are people who experience poverty and are the intended beneficiaries, and on the second track are people trying to construct systems (e.g. social welfare). There is no point of connectivity between them apart from the decisive issue, which is described as a problem. Is it possible to see this as our opportunity to challenge this situation with empathy, kindness, and dignity for all involved?

How can we change the system?

This question prompted me to think that systems only progress when all the parts continue to play their expected roles. As for a bicycle, the cogs must fit together for it to work. If nothing is disrupted, it will continue [as anticipated]. Where then is the opportunity to disrupt? We heard one of our activist colleagues say, “No one is questioning how things are done.”

What would happen if we chose to alter the expectations of the system, prioritising individual rights and responsibilities based on the principle of dignity for all? Next, we explained them; we discussed and documented them, illustrating these concepts in some way, and then we enacted them.

An unequivocal two-way dialogue could then be established: “We expect each of us to show autonomy and to listen to encourage communication between the potential beneficiaries of the system and those who operationalise it. This sets a collective expectation that people living in poverty should always influence the decisions about their lives.

I listened to the co-researchers speak and witnessed the incredible process that they have been engaged in. It made me think deeply. Merging Knowledge methodology was implemented to conduct this research. There were clear expectations regarding participation, contribution, and the valorisation of everyone’s knowledge. This massive intellectual mobilisation was made possible because everyone could meet and co-create similarly.

So, I ask the following question:

How can we make this kind of thinking and decision-making environment more widely available to broader society and assist institutions in setting up expectations that enable them to be appropriately accountable for the behaviour within them? I think this might be a helpful line of enquiry to pursue.

Transposing Merging Knowledge Methodology to Institutions

I recently tried doing something similar and would like to share this experience. Two years ago, I introduced the fundamentals and principles of Merging Knowledge to the University of Oxford. I hoped this approach could help us formulate a policy regarding the career development of researchers. To put this into context, there are four and a half thousand postdocs and other researchers at Oxford on fixed-term contracts with minimal opportunity to secure a permanent academic position. Their access to facilities and career stability in Oxford is very limited compared to established academics or other permanent staff, meaning they can be overlooked and feel they are at the bottom of the ladder.

  • We wanted to co-create a strategy involving the intended beneficiaries of this policy: the postdocs, the academic managers (who have much more job security and power) and professional services colleagues (practitioners). My colleagues liked the deliberative democracy approach, and we conducted a process in late 2022 involving three peer groups–12 fixed-term researchers from different divisions and disciplines, 12 professional service colleagues, and 12 academics.

Merging Knowledge workshop

Each group met twice online for a couple of hours and used a big online whiteboard to share ideas and make suggestions. Reports from each group were shared within and across the groups. Representatives from those three groups then came together in a Merging Knowledge workshop through which priorities were agreed for the action plan. In summary, it worked, and I found applying this methodology (Merging Knowledge) in a very different institutional context very interesting and powerful.

  • Perhaps it wouldn’t be so complicated to think about applying this methodology to more institutional contexts. Where the processes for making decisions or requesting information would be more sound. That the aim would be to ensure that rights are respected and applied more widely. Our role may be to offer new ways to work within a structure that shifts this to a more equitable system.
  • We might even realise that these actors, perceived as creating friction because they apply the law and manage the systems, actually have the same noble intentions as everyone else but are somehow constrained by the system in which they operate.
  • Our role could be to propose new ways of working within the structures to move towards a fairer system.
  1. ideal of maximum agency
  2. defined as a person’s confidence in their ability to shape and determine their own motivations, behaviour and environment
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