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Welcoming the next generation of social pioneers

Published: 1 Jul 2013


 As part of our Barnett100 celebrations, we were delighted to host a panel event on 20 June to debate Canon Barnett’s ideas and legacy. Fifty guests joined our panellists for a lively debate about the ways in which we should be tackling the impact of poverty today.


Our panellists were two of today’s social pioneers: David Robinson, Founder and Special Adviser at Community Links, an innovative social welfare charity based in Canning Town and working across Newham, East London and the UK ; and Sonal Shah, Chief Executive at London Community Foundation (LCF). LCF brings together a wide range of funders, policy makers, and community organisations. Their mission is to act as a catalyst for social change in London.


Panel Debate Barnett100

Chaired by Toynbee Hall Chief Executive, Graham Fisher, the panel agreed that despite the huge social progress that has been made in the last hundred years, many of the issues facing our community today - poverty, injustice and discrimination - are similar to those experienced in Barnett’s time.  Moreover, Graham , in particular, put emphasis on the stigmatised perception of people who find themselves in poverty:

"Barnett would despair at the desensitised manner in which the poor of today are portrayed."

Hugely inspired by the history of Toynbee Hall and our work, David Robinson said he felt “a great sense of excitement” as he walked through our gates. For him the real question behind these issues is: “how do we build a society that prevents problems from occurring rather than one that deals with the consequences?” He insisted that at the heart of this answer lies human relations:

"People change people's lives, not buildings, not transactions but people".

Very much aligned with Barnett’s beliefs, David agreed that people need skills not charity: “because it will equip them for the future and help them weather the storms”.


Sonal Shah recognised that issues around poverty and justice are an impossible topic to tackle in an evening and kicked-off her contribution by asking a cascade of questions to the audience: How do we make affordable homes? How do we feed our children? How do we make sure that we learn from the mistakes of the past? She believes that: “for so long we’ve invested everything in growth and forgotten about human relationships. I would like to see civil society asking themselves what we would want from a compassionate society”. Sonal concluded:

“We need to set a new framework for that debate to make sure the conversations do not stay the same as under the time of Charles Booth and his poverty map”.


The panel discussion was followed by a Q&A with contributions from the audience highlighting the broad challenges at the heart of the issues raised by the panel. Questions were raised around isolation of the elderly, the importance of space in local communities and the growing issues with regards to funding for projects.


If you would like to take part in the next debate, please make sure to sign up to our e-newsletter to find out more about upcoming events.