Where are today’s social pioneers?

I recently visited Ironbridge and the museums there that record how the industrial revolution came about. The highlight for me was a completely unexpected conversation with a volunteer guide in the house built for and occupied by Abraham Darby and his family.

Our guide, Dorothy, was well versed in Quaker industrial history. She explained how the structure of the Quaker movement presented opportunities for networking. That, she said, was how Darby the industrialist came to meet Gurney the Norfolk banker. All this at a time when travel was far from easy and LinkedIn not invented!

What defined these early Quaker entrepreneurs were their values. They literally walked their talk and treated their workers with respect and fairness, in an era when exploitation was common. My own grandmother attended a school in Norfolk funded by the Gurney family for the children of estate workers. Without them, she might not have attended school at all.

Robert Owen and George Holyoake were also prominent at that time. Not Quakers, they were vocal secularists, putting people first and arguably founding the co-operative movement. Today, the co-operative movement is headquartered in Holyoake House, Manchester. The legacy of these social pioneers lives on.

The Rochdale Principles of self-help, acting responsibly, equality, democracy, equity and solidarity bear more than a passing resemblance to those that underpin the Quaker movement (truth, peace, equality and simplicity). Of course Owen and Holyoake, while not Quakers, were part of the same set. All were committed to living their values and delivering social reform.

But where are today’s social reformers? You’d think that with the internet and social media it would be easier for bold, progressive thinkers to provoke positive social change. Of course we have social entrepreneurs like myself, but few social enterprises scale to achieve lasting change.

Yet today, more than for a generation, the political landscape is crying out for grassroots social reformers. Devolution, Brexit and the NHS’s ‘sustainability and transformation plans’ create unrivalled opportunities to re-invent our society and re-imagine the delivery of health and social care services. As someone said to me yesterday, we have to start with a clean sheet of paper, not simply consolidate and strive to carry on as before with less money.

I can’t help but wonder if there’s just too much noise. Too much talk on social media, too much criticism and too much hypothesising. None of this can deliver the change our society need right now. Where are today’s social reformers? The stage is set, the curtains rising on tomorrow’s world, but I see nobody in the wings ready to take centrestage and lead. Or am I missing something?

Photo by J’Roo


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