This is a guest post by Christine Goodall, Network Coordinator at HEAR.
HEAR Equality and Human Rights Network is a London-wide infrastructure organisation for charities, community groups and community activists working for equality, human rights and social justice.
We promote the importance of lived experience and of organisations that are led by those they work with and represent. As such we were very pleased to be invited to take part in the PACT Pioneers programme.
As a small London organisation, taking part enabled us to make links with, and learn alongside, organisations and their leaders very different from our own in size and complexity, and in very varied locations. This increased the variety of perspectives brought to the table, which was extremely valuable.
It was particularly valuable to be able to consider the themes of the programme alongside the challenges we have all been facing during the Covid 19 emergency. In the session dedicated to trust we were as a group able to consider how ideas around trust link to those of the other PACT themes (power, accountability and connection), and why trust is so important when tackling issues of structural inequality, including embedded structural racism. HEAR was also pleased to be able to organise an additional event with BRAP as part of the programme, looking at some ideas around the fundamental building blocks of trust.
HEAR and its member organisations have been thinking about trust within the above contexts, and our insights confirm how important the other PACT themes of power, accountability and connection are when considering trust and civil society. In this short blog we outline some of what we have found.
Trust is about how we use our power
Building trust requires the acknowledgement of existing power imbalances, whether within or between organisations, or in the wider community. Many processes have built-in imbalances of power and influence that must be addressed. Even within 'communities of interest' there are sometimes hierarchies of influence and power, and the 'interest' is not necessarily balanced, for example this can be true within the field of disability, where hierarchies of impairment can sometimes be perceived. Some ethnic minority communities feel that one community can sometimes be 'played off' against the other, both within communities and by statutory bodies, and even the media, when convenient.
These are not necessarily comfortable situations to confront, but building trust requires identifying and acknowledging power.
Those with greater privilege can feel threatened by ideas of promoting equality for all, and this leads to more mistrust and suspicion of marginalised groups. Opportunities for influence can often be very superficial in nature, in no real depth, and fade away when the answers received are found to be 'inconvenient' or too difficult to acknowledge or deal with.
Trust requires accountability and connection
Strong organisations and communities built on trust require integrity, accountability, transparency, good will and competence. They also require joined up thinking and proactive connection of both ideas and action; there are too many good initiatives that seem to develop in silos and are never joined up, with many never seeing actual implementation. This can be viewed as an abuse of power, of taking people for granted and of not valuing the contributions of all.
Trust must be reciprocal, and built on relationships. An absence of trust is often portrayed as ‘x’ does not trust ‘y’; this misses the point, as trust must flow both ways. What are both parties doing to build trust? If people and groups are mistrustful, it is often easy to blame that party for a breakdown in relationships; however negative attitudes and bias, including assumptions and stereotyping, even outright racism and discrimination, can, and do, strengthen mistrust.
Building trust requires time
Another important factor we’ve been thinking about is timescales. Building trust is a 'journey' and not an 'instant fix' solution, it takes time, patience and commitment. Often in our current environment it is tempting to want everything to happen ‘yesterday’; in organisations turnover of staff can make it really difficult to build trust, both within and between organisations, and with the wider community. When this happens (which may be out of our control) we must work harder to build new relationships and strengthen remaining ones.
Building trust requires safety
An important factor that is not often considered when thinking about trust, is relevant to the current situation when many of us have been working at home for many months. Working at home, and virtual meetings and events, take cameras and microphones into people's homes, and although we know this, the implications are not always recognised strongly enough. The discourse around home working is more often about whether employers can trust employees to carry out their work, but what about the need to open up one’s home, and the consideration of digital safeguarding?
A practical example is where screenshots of virtual meetings have been taken without participants’ knowledge at meetings, and then shared. Does everyone always know when a meeting is being recorded? One practical step that HEAR members have recommended for building trust in virtual environments is for the development and implementation of strong digital safeguarding policy and practice.
Building trust requires good communication
Communications within organisations, civil society and the broader community context are also vital to consider with regard to building trust. Clear, accessible, timely and appropriate communication is vital; without this mistrust can easily develop. In the research literature on organisational change, it is well documented that lack of appropriate communication at all points of the change process breeds mistrust and can impact severely on its success, even halting it entirely. If people perceive that they are not included or at a minimum being kept informed, lack of trust is an inevitable consequence.
Summary: the building blocks of trust
At our joint HEAR and BRAP event on trust we thought about the 'building blocks' of trust; what conditions are important for building trust? what role do leaders play in building trust?
From the considerations in this event, our learning in the PACT Pioneers programme and the work HEAR itself has done with our members, I would like to offer the following summary:
Strong organisations and relationships are those where everyone feels valued, included and has access to the means of influence, where opportunities for real change exist. Trust needs to be built as a reciprocal set of complex relationships. Leaders, both within organisations and civil society, and in the wider community, need to encourage a realistic belief in a better future, built on equality and fairness, and the agency of all in contributing.