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A square peg in a round hole? Reflections of a ‘policy person’ in a grassroots space

By Helen Flynn, Head of Policy, Research and Campaigns at Just Fair

I’m a human rights policy* person. I believe to the very core of my being that human rights based policy making has so much to offer to build a better, fairer world.

Over the years I’ve been in a lot of spaces where I discuss human rights with people working in similar rights organisations and we discuss the importance of direct experience in informing our work, but we don’t necessarily know if anyone in the space actually has direct experience, or if it is only learned experience that we are all bringing. We are not unconscious of this.

I strongly believe our hearts are in the right place, we want to do better. But I know that over a decade of austerity has meant that budgets in charities for policy work are severely stretched and so the vast majority of us are working with shoestring budgets and have huge workloads. We want to do better but just don’t have the time/space/resources/knowledge to change how we do things.

So when I joined Just Fair I was really excited about the grassroots work they undertook through the Social Rights Alliance and what it meant for our overall approach to human rights policy work.

When Susanna invited me to join the sessions of the Community Researchers as they embarked on a 6 month programme to examine how a human rights based approach could strengthen their work, I jumped at the chance.

The original plan was that I’d be on hand to cover the ‘legality’ side of a human rights based approach, letting the Community Researchers use my knowledge as they wanted. I imagine the usual set-up, a one-way process where I would give them my time, knowledge and expertise as and when called on. I am so delighted to report that six months later I can laugh at the limitations of my ability to imagine what the process would be and do for me.

Four round pieces of wood inserted into round wholes. A firth peice of rectangular wood lays beside an empty round hole

I cannot readily explain the amount I learnt from the group and the spaces where we interacted – so much of it is still percolating. But I do know that:

  • I no longer want to see who isn’t at the table and see how we can bring them in, I need to walk away from the table and go meet people where they are at.

  • I have seen the limitations of human rights law debated, illustrated in practice and a refusal to be curtailed by the letter of the law in its current form.

  • I have seen the truth of the importance and instinctiveness of intersectional solidarity in practice.

  • The process is as important as the goal – it’s about the arrow and the target.

  • Power. I now find myself looking at where the power lies, what different characteristics or situations change power and how we can unlock power.

  • Whatever is happening on the national stage in relation to human rights, there is a different narrative on the ground. There is joy and hope and there are incredible human rights defenders.

I have been thinking about what has been different this time. I have had the privilege of working with so many people with direct experience of rights violations over the years. Why this process, these people and their campaigns have made such a profound impact on me? Here’s a few thoughts:

  • Personal growth is scary and it is tough. But the space held by the Community Researchers was one where love and trust had been built and they allowed (and actively encouraged) me to be part of that space. When I was challenged on my thoughts, actions or beliefs, I had that safe and kind space in which to examine the challenge and to change and grow without recrimination.

  • Just Fair trusted in the process. In a world where we are so burdened by workloads, my organisation believed in this work even when the results weren’t immediately tangible and allowed me to ring-fence time every fortnight to be in a space with the Community Researchers.

  • Being given the space and time by my organisation and being welcomed and challenged by the incredible Community Researchers made this unlike any experience before because I became part of the group. I wasn’t just there when they called on my ‘expertise’ but at all the meetings. I was still a ‘policy person’ but this was a skill I brought, rather than my defining role in the group. This change meant I was able (in no small part due to constant encouragement and urging) to open myself up to not only giving things to the group, but also taking things from the group. I think this was a fundamental shift in my previous relationships with those with direct experience of rights violations. Over the years I’d be so conscious of not wanting to take, not wanting to be exploitative and only to give, that I overlooked the value of taking, and being a part of the group. I unwittingly closed myself off from important learning and being part of the process.

What happens next? I know that I have gone through immense personal and professional change, but it’s now on me and Just Fair to make sure that the change isn’t just to my person but is institutional. Just Fair is committed to doing better. We have amassed a huge amount of learning about taking a human rights based approach over the past couple of years in our work with the Social Rights Alliance. It’s time to pause, continue to work alongside those we already work with, but also look at how we can apply the learning to our own organisation, to our policies and practices. How we, as a human rights policy organisation, can improve how we take a human rights based approach to all our work.

We know there’s a lot of other organisations out there who want to do better but maybe don’t know where to start, so we are also committed to sharing our journey. We are not promising to get it all right, but to keeping ourselves open to learning, to being held accountable and committing to change.

Time for deeds as well as words - so watch this space.


* (and advocacy/research/campaigns - but I’ll use the term ‘policy’ throughout for brevity)

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