Bringing About Change

By Dr Frances Ryan

Frances Ryan is a journalist, author and broadcaster. She is a columnist at The Guardian and campaigns on disability rights issues. She has written about a range of subjects including the impact of austerity and cuts to public services on people with disabilities in Britain.

Tell us a bit about your work and writing. How would you summarise it?

I’m a journalist and broadcaster. I write a weekly Guardian column amongst other freelance work, and also do guest lectures at various universities and events. I write primarily about disability, economics, feminism, and education. And soaps if they let me. 

My work has a large campaigning element to it. I try to use it to highlight what’s happening to marginalised groups and to do what I can to bring about change. 

What are you working on currently? 

I have written a chapter on disabled feminism in ‘Can We All Be Feminists?’ published in the UK and US in September 2018. ‘Can We All Be Feminists?’ is a collection of essays on intersectional feminism edited by June Eric-Udorie. I’m also part of an exhibition put on by The National Trust on modern women, alongside others such as Mary Beard and Cathy Newman of Channel 4 news. 

Mainly, I’m currently chained to my laptop working on my first solo book, on disability in Britain under the austerity era, which will be released with Verso in 2019. 

Which themes appear most often in your work and why? 

My work often looks at how different inequalities intersect; from disability, class, race, to sex. I also like to bang on about the way cultural prejudice about certain groups - say, a working class mum or a wheelchair user - affects how society is willing to treat them. 

For me, a lot of it comes down to how someone’s life chances can be robbed by inequality, whether that’s your mum not being able to afford breakfast so you can concentrate in school or how social care cuts mean if you’re disabled you can’t hold down a job or meet a partner. I try and carry that through my work. 

What inspires you most? 

I’ve spoken to many hundreds of people who are struggling in poverty in recent years, often as a direct result of government policy. Many are battling illness at the same time. That definitely inspires me to keep reporting this and to bring it to the attention of the wider public. 

I think I’m also motivated by the fact we know change is possible. We see grassroots groups making a huge difference in really tough times. In my own work, we’ve seen change as a result of the journalism, from councils moving disabled people to inaccessible housing to awarding a decent care package.  That definitely motivates me to keep going. 

Why does telling stories about lived experience of issues like poverty matter? 

There’s so much patronising, paternalistic or negative coverage of poverty and those living in it that I think telling stories of people’s real experiences plays a big role in countering that. And I think, as crucially, it avoids us as journalists actually perpetuating that paternalism by talking *about* people in poverty and instead, ensures we’re listening and then reporting their direct lived experiences. The people living it should be at the forefront of journalism around poverty. 

Describe your ambitions for your work going forward. 

I think Brexit in addition to the huge cuts to local government throughout Britain, on top of the roll out of Universal Credit, are going to be very challenging for many families and I aim to report on any impact and help keep that in the public eye. I also hope my book next year helps the conversation around disability in Britain, both for disabled people and the wider public too. 

Why are writers central to aiding our understanding of poverty and hardship? 

I’ve always loved political writing for the power it can have - good writing should leave you with a punch - and I don’t think there’s ever been a more important time to have great journalism: diligent reporting, fearless, and humanising of its subject. 

In an era of ‘fake news’, increased tribalism, social media, and (often understandable) distrust of the so-called ‘MSM’, I think there’s a danger in politics of an echo chamber, less transparency of government, and some fatalism (when times are tough, apathy and hopelessness come naturally). I think good writing has a big role to play today in countering that; in challenging our preconceptions about poverty, shining a light on the reality of government policies, and also carving out hopeful alternatives to the current system. 

Why is it important to write about poverty and to tell stories that relate to it? 

Poverty takes so many shapes - from families struggling to pay extortionate private rents to disabled people unable to stretch their benefits to regular meals - that I think, if journalists aren’t writing about this, we’re failing to report on huge swathes of what’s happening in this country. And at time when it’s probably never been harder for many families to stay afloat. 

But it’s not just the stories that matter but who the storytellers are. The reality is that in most newsrooms, there will be few journalists who grew up on free school meals or who rely on social housing. Journalists of any background can and do cover social issues fantastically but I think we need to ensure there’s a diversity of writers so the people actually experiencing poverty have voice and agency.  

How can stories in fiction and non-fiction inform our understanding of poverty and the people who experience it? 

I’ve always been a huge fan of the role of popular culture, like soaps, in both normalising social change (e.g. homosexuality) and creating awareness of important issues, such as poverty. EastEnders did a storyline last year where a long term character struggled with the JobCentre and ended up having to turn to a food bank. I think stories like that can really play a part in humanising poverty and its causes and portraying the reality that this really can be experienced by any of us. 

What do you think are the biggest myths in our culture surrounding poverty? 
I think one of the central myths underpinning much of our culture is the idea that what we have in life purely stems from our talents and efforts - when in fact it’s of course deeply affected by economic and social structures. This myth simultaneously blames people in poverty for their own hardship - ‘If you try hard enough, you’ll succeed!’ - and perpetuates the idea that the ruling class are somehow owed their place. 

It’s confronting to hear that what we have might not be because we’re somehow more deserving than others. But I think unpacking that, and then working on ways to genuinely level the playing field, is one of the most crucial things we can do. 

Which issues are most overlooked in discussion about poverty?

I think the relationship between poverty and disability isn’t talked about enough. The great irony of the scrounger narrative was always that far from living the Life of Riley, disabled people are more likely to live in poverty and severe poverty than others. And this economic hardship has a huge impact on a disabled or chronically ill person’s quality of life. Disability is often spoken about in the media as a tragic pitiable existence but in addition to being untrue, it’s often a lack of economic security - that very thing government is increasingly willing to leave some without - that damages a disabled person’s ability to lead a full and flourishing life.  

Compelled to Tell

By Natasha Carthew

Natasha Carthew is a working-class country writer from Cornwall, UK, where she lives with her girlfriend. She has written two books of poetry, as well as three novels for young adults, Winter Damage, The Light That Gets Lost and Only the Ocean, all for Bloomsbury. Her first novel for adults, All Rivers Run Free, is published by Riverrun/ Quercus. Natasha has written for many publications, including the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook, Eco-fiction, TripFiction, the Guardian, the Big Issue and the Dark Mountain Project. Shes currently writing her second literary novel for adults and a new collection of rural poetry.

She is also the organiser and Artistic Director for The Working Class Writers Festival which will tour the UK in 2020.

Buy Natasha’s LATEST BOOK    here!

Buy Natasha’s LATEST BOOK here!

Natasha Carthew answers questions for Project Twist-It

Tell us a bit about your work and writing. How would you summarise it? 

I consider myself a Country Writer. In my work I’m interested in rural issues, from poverty to social isolation, especially in Cornwall which shamelessly, is the second-poorest region in northern Europe and where a quarter of people live in poverty. It is these people’s stories that I am compelled to tell, the stories that may at first seem bleak, but are ultimately uplifting as the characters push for better.

What are you working on currently? 

I’m currently writing my second literary novel for adults and a new collection of rural poetry. I’m also touring the UK with my new Adult book ALL RIVERS RUN FREE (published by Riverrun/Quercus). My new work of fiction for Young Adults ONLY THE OCEAN is due for publication November 2018. Both books explore poverty and disadvantage. 

Which themes appear most often in your work and why? 

Rural isolation, poverty, low wages, abuse, disadvantage and poverty. But mostly hope!

I think it’s really important to discuss working class themes in fiction – both positive and negative. Without erasing the struggles of economic hardship or limited options, working-class literature should remind us of the strengths of the working-class culture; humour, integrity, hard work and loyalty among other things.

What inspires you most?

Social justice. The simple fact that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities.

Why does telling stories about lived experience of issues like poverty – whatever the medium – matter? 

Literature should challenge the under-representation, negative stereotyping and discrimination in society. We can trigger a different way of thinking about poverty and increase support for better policies by talking about the issues and telling our own stories. I like to talk about my own background; raised by a single parent in a council house, no money, no transport, no visible prospects in order to inspire others to believe we can change our own narrative. It’s important to tap into the positives in our lives no matter how small to make a difference to the way we perceive ourselves. If it wasn’t for my working class background and dogged tenacity I definitely wouldn’t have become such a successful writer. 

We as writers and creators need to work together to change the story people hear, so they can think in a new way about poverty.

Describe your ambitions for your work going forward. 

I didn't see working class identity in books when I was growing up and I still find it hard to find many working class writers that are published in the UK and I want to change that. I want to give readers a sense of belonging, so it’s always been my ambition to write stories that empower instead of isolate and this I will continue with my work.

Why are writers central to aiding our understanding of poverty and hardship?

We tell the truth. Source material isn’t beyond reach; it’s within every working class writer.

Why is it important to write about poverty and to tell stories that relate to it? 

Literature that addresses poverty fosters both knowledge and understanding of others outside our own sphere of experience. It is only through knowledge and empathy of how others live that we can attempt to communicate and connect with each other. It is important on a personal and political level. People feel respected and validated and their self-esteem is enhanced when they see themselves and their wider communities and hear their dialect reflected in books.

How can stories in fiction and non-fiction inform our understanding of poverty and the people who experience it? 

Literature illuminates the complexity and human dimensions of poverty, it’s important because it’s often concerned with the basic subject matter of development. Storytelling is one of humanity’s oldest methods of possessing information and representing reality and is incredibly important in telling stories of poverty, especially from a working class perspective in order to reflect and celebrate this forgotten corner of diversity.

In ALL RIVERS RUN FREE for example, Ia Pendilly is a voice that comes from the margins of society, socially isolated and literally through her rural location – she is uneducated, is in an abusive relationship and survives hand to mouth, nobody cares about her or offers her help and she has learnt not to ask for it. But she’s a fighter and she’s tenacious, that determination is what motivates her and drives her forward. These kinds of voices are rarely heard, and when they are, we hear them written by people who might not have experienced any kind of marginalisation themselves.

Without authenticity, readers are not getting a true account of what it’s like to be poor or socially isolated, especially from a rural perspective.

What do you think are the biggest myths in our culture surrounding poverty? 

The biggest myth is that people are lazy and don’t want to work when in reality people who experience poverty can be the hardest working people. It can literally be a matter of life and death. Growing up, if my mother didn’t juggle several different cleaning jobs for minimum wage, we would have starved, simple as that.

Which issues are most overlooked in discussion about poverty?

Transport! As a writer I talk about this a lot, the expectation to travel for meetings, appearances or whatever for free and also from a rural perspective it comes back to isolation. It can be embarrassing when you have to enquire about travel costs again and again.

An Antidote to Stigma

Picture by Shaun Bloodworth

Painting a Different Picture

By Pete McKee

The Sheffield-based artist Pete McKee is the second in an incredible group of artists and writers contributing to Project Twist-It EVERY MONTH on our blog page with reflections on their work and how, collectively, we can transform the way we talk about poverty. Check out Pete’s work and share the blog!


Tell us a bit about your work/art. How would you summarise it?

My work tries to explore the everyday life of the people I grew up with and those I see in present day. I enjoy focusing on the minutiae of life.

I try to tell my stories with heart and passion, with humour and also a sprinkling of pathos, which I suppose is how we live our lives from day to day.

What are you working on currently?

I have just finished a major new show called, 'This Class Works', which is an exploration of the working class and it's positive aspects. It was created as an antidote to the constant degrading the working class gets from the government and right wing press. I'm the product of the working class and I'm proud of my upbringing and the values my parents instilled in me.

Which themes appear most often in your work and why?

Love, music, fashion culture movements and football fandom. All things I have a passion for. It's the reason I can be proud of my work being honest and not replicating what i think people want to see. 

What inspires you most?

To be brutally honest, it's the fear of not being able to provide for my family if I don't keep creating. The cathartic thing is I utterly enjoy creating new work, coming up with new themes and working on large scale exhibitions. But, music and other people’s greatness is a fantastic inspiration, when it comes to filling my heart and mojo create.

 Why does telling stories – whatever the medium – matter?

An artist’s job is to connect with their audience, to stir their emotions, be that on a spiritual level, or merely making them smile. The best way to do that is to communicate with themby telling them a story they can relate to, invite them into your world and make them a part of it.

Describe your ambitions for your work going forward.

The exciting thing for me is that I don't really stick to a plan, An opportunity will present itself and I make a decision whether it feels right go with the project or pass it by. I want to do so manydifferent things that it can become overwhelming. But, I always have my big exhibition plans three years in advance to keep my eye on.

Why are artists central to aiding our understanding of poverty and hardship?

Well, I can pretty well guarantee that if you are an artist, you will have experienced poverty in your quest to make a living out of what you love doing.

I was pretty much skint for 45 of my 52 years, facing serious debt. 

How can the visual arts influence the stories we absorb to do with poverty?

I guess it's all to do with the ability to strike a chord simply, without reams of text.

Recommendation of the Month

This month the Project Twist-It team recommend (if you can get it on TV or online) watching the BBC’s The Mighty Redcar. Here again is a wonderful antidote to the negative bombardment we’ve become used to from TV ‘reality’ depictions of people on low incomes or who need government assistance. It is the opposite of ‘poverty porn’ and worth every minute of your time.

Learning Curve

By Billie J D Porter

Why is Project Twist-It a crucial initiative? Because too often, poverty is a subject that people shy away from talking about, or even thinking about. It’s a word that means different things to different people, which is exactly why we need to be hearing from a number of different voices on the issue. 

Finding Our Voice

By Mary O’Hara

For a lot of people experiencing poverty, including children, there is a profound discomfort about their perceived status in society. Frequently, living in poverty means being judged. Sometimes, it means being blamed for the tough circumstances you find yourself in, as if the whole world is handing out opportunities like candy and you’re just not reaching out and grabbing them.