Two former employees of the original Institute for Community Studies reflect on Michael Young’s approach to creating change…
Michael Young thought that the best way of understanding people’s lives was to ask them, ideally by talking to them himself. He didn’t necessarily arrange to do so; he would get into conversation with people at bus stops, in shops, in GP surgeries and hospitals. However, he was a surprisingly shy man: on those occasions when he did arrange a formal interview with people at home he was nervous. Towards the end of his life he told me that he had never stopped being nervous despite having been talking to strangers for over 60 years. He believed that individuals were good analysts of their own lives and that they understood their own problems. He also believed in the resilience of communities. His early research was in the impoverished and damaged post-war East End. Everybody was poor and many were unhealthy but he realised that the mutual dependence of most (but not all) of the people he met enabled them to have fulfilled lives and to be optimistic about the future.
Despite his shyness Michael was stubborn and demanding. Once he had analysed a problem and invented a solution he was ruthless in finding the people to do it and the money to fund it. He liked a bit of grit in the oyster, too: he enjoyed arguing about his new ideas, arguments which he used to adapt and perfect them. Not everything worked but he accepted that failures were part of being a serial social entrepreneur – he was never deterred.
One reason for his success in innovation was his ability as a writer. He deplored academic jargon and he admired clarity. All his books could be read by anybody and he wanted good ideas to be disseminated and copied as widely as possible.
Kate Gavron, October 2019
For Michael Young observation was evidence. His idea of community was the ordinary people around him. He had a sharp eye for what wasn’t going well for them. It was almost a daily thing. Standing on the roof of 18 Victoria Park Square, drinking tinned tomato soup, he wondered what to do about the mentally ill who walked round and round the Bethnal Green gardens. From his hospital bed he noticed when nursing routines didn’t work. From tops of buses he saw too many cold hungry children dropped off in East End school playgrounds before the schools doors opened. And one day he asked me whether children whose parents were divorcing might not need to be given a break from family problems in a refuge or sanctuary. Sometimes he suggested solutions; sometimes he expected you to go off and create something. Sometimes they worked. These examples did not lead to any of his well-known achievements, but are typical of how he operated.
The scale of his designs for social reforms was grand. What are we doing about this? We must set up a national agency. An obstacle is not a reason for giving up; it is proof that something needs to be done. It’s no good starting off with a compromise. If a government department is unreceptive to your proposal, persuade them to accept it and pay for it as well.
On the day of the official re-launch of the Institute of Community Studies a reminder of the power of relentlessness to change things for the better.
Kirsteen Tait, October 2019