The Social Entrepreneur 

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I first met Andrew Mawson in 1995.

Actually, I didn’t meet him – but saw him in the distance at the Bromley-by-Bow centre he had created, busy helping a group of disabled locals into a van – presumably for some kind of life-expanding excursion away from one of the most socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods in London.

What an amazing place, this centre! In such a depressing neighbourhood!

My recollections: 

Opening on to the street, the ‘Pie in the Sky Cafe’ serves take-away coffee and light meals to passers by. It’s also an entrance to the centre. You can go inside for a sit down affair. Or make your way to any of the spaces in the centre.

Behind this ‘front’ there’s a woodworking space. Upstairs, if I recall rightly, an art room in full swing carving sculptures from soft rock, a kitchen with a handful of women of various nationalities, cooking favourite recipes. This place was an old church hall. Now, as I visited, it was full of local people engaged in all kinds of activities!

Mawson had been appointed to this church by the United Reformed Church some years before, and had been going hammer and tongs reforming it into something well beyond its twelve elderly ladies on Sundays and their problems paying the heating bills in winter.

The church itself had been transformed into a child-care facility, with professional staff. It had been cleverly designed so that it could easily be converted back into a church space for Sundays.

I talked with a lady outside the cafe. She lived in a little Council flat nearby and had just dropped off her children into childcare. Now she was heading in to help some disabled people with their reading. I followed her.

Mawson had started with a cot-case church, in a cot-case neighbourhood, with apparently cot-case people and with just 400 pounds in the bank. HIs biggest asset, apart from his own vision for social justice, his persistence and his communication skills was that he was starting with what nobody wanted. Though he did have to win over the twelve elderly ladies!

This week I discovered a copy of his book, which tells its story. It’s written in 2008, but it contains some great clues for leading social change, particularly meaningful for those of us who experienced the Thatcher-Blair years.

I share some of his little gems from the ‘Introduction’:

Social entrepreneurs do not follow conventional ways of working. Their view of the world begins with people, passion, experience and story – not policy, statistics and theory.

The trick is first to demonstrate what you are proposing to do for people in a small tangible way and then to expand the sense of possibility. 

Seeing is believing. Integrity is the name of the game.

Social entrepreneurs often defy easy definition.

Learning is by doing. Social entrepreneurs call into question the systems and processes of government, which are still run by well-qualified civil servants who rarely get hold of the pieces (of the jigsaw puzzle) themselves and whose approach has so failed many of our poorest communities.

What marks out social entrepreneurs from business entrepreneurs and other kinds of charitable and public-sector workers is that they are not driven solely by financial profit or ideology, or by a career or a pension scheme…They feel they have something important  to share that must be demonstrated both emotionally and practically…they care a lot about people and are talented at forming relationships and creating committed teams and communities around them. They are very serious about learning from, and applying business experience and ideas, to social questions. They are fundamentally interested in what works in practice and how you scale up ideas to achieve effective growth. (or ‘scale across’ – Jim Wakelam)

Difference and diversity, not conformity and equality, are the fertile soil of social change.

Serious social entrepreneurs…have seen through the weaknesses of philanthropy and the dangers of its grant-dependent culture…

Where others had seen an appointment to this ‘dying’ church in a hopeless neighbourhood as mission impossible, Mawson started moving around the neighbourhood, looking for any and every opportunity for change. He said ‘yes’ when others had said ‘no’. He asked ordinary people for help. He used the language of ‘us’.

He was prepared to pay the personal price of time and energy that social change demands. And he was prepared to stay the course, beyond the disappointments and setbacks. He not only empowered others to do their dreams, but continued to extend the capacity of his neighbourhood to dare to imagine a bigger, ‘impossible’ world he could see as a new, exciting opportunity for their human flourishing.

Andrew Mawson. The Social Entrepreneur – Making Communities Work. (Atlantic Books. London. 2008)

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