Stepping into my new role as Financial Health Research Manager by Jen Durrant

15 Nov 2018

An introduction by Sian Williams, Director of External Policy and Innovation

At Toynbee Hall we believe that we are each the expert on our own lives and experience. Listening to and learning from and with the people we work with in order to influence real systemic change is increasingly at the heart of our vision for eradicating poverty.

One of our new team members, Jen Durrant, has the specific role of leading and shaping our lived experience research programme around financial health and capability, working with a wide range of partners from across different sectors.

A large part of Jen’s role will be to get people talking about the things we uncover, so she will be blogging over the coming weeks and months. Here are her first reflections….

Stepping into my new role at Toynbee Hall

By Jen Durrant, Financial Health Research Manager

Starting a new job is often overwhelming. There’s so much information to take in, so many names to remember, so many processes to keep track of – and of course the most difficult and draining task of all, working out how to use the photocopier. It’s exhausting.

But it’s also extremely exciting. One week into my new role at Toynbee Hall, I’m struck by the energy of the place, the passion, and the deep connection to the local community. This is woven into its DNA: founded as the first university settlement for Oxbridge graduates to stay and study the challenges facing one of the most deprived areas in the country, Toynbee Hall has been developing innovative ways to tackle poverty for over 130 years.

And while everything from its frontline services to its heritage education programmes is grounded in this founding ethos, the organisation has also evolved greatly since then, now providing a whole range of financial, wellbeing and legal services, together with policy recommendations and research. It’s a huge array.

“But if there’s one thing that unites everything Toynbee Hall does, it’s the real dedication to creating a society that not only supports people in poverty, but empowers them.”

This is evident in how the frontline services – including debt advice, creativity sessions and peer-to-peer financial training for people facing social isolation and hardship – are all designed, delivered and evaluated in partnership with those who use them.

It’s evident in conversations with the frontline advisors, who highlight that tackling debt is not just about individual choice or competence, but also about the injustices caused by specific government policies and business decisions.

And most of all, it’s evident in the organisation’s commitment to research, to understanding the realities of daily life for people living in poverty and identifying the systemic changes we need to ensure that even people on the lowest incomes can share in the basic financial stability so many of us take for granted.

Stepping into my new role as Financial Health Research Manager, this is the part that excites me most: the opportunity to hear from people with direct experience of an issue, learn from their expertise and work with them to develop meaningful solutions.

Toynbee Hall has already contributed so much in this field, exploring everything from the barriers low-income households face in building up savings or accessing affordable credit, to the ways tech companies and startups can help people overcome the poverty premium and develop their financial resilience.

Of course none of this would be possible without the amazing array of partners that Toynbee Hall works with, from local councils and charities providing frontline debt support, to businesses and social enterprises creating much-needed products and services for people on low incomes, to universities and thinktanks identifying the barriers and solutions to social issues. Every external meeting I’ve attended so far is proof of the progress and creativity that comes from collaboration, and it’s exciting to be a part of that.

Of course, dealing with such heavy issues as poverty, debt and social exclusion, it would be easy to get depressed by the state of the world. But at Toynbee Hall, people seem to do the exact opposite – instead of getting weighed down by the scale of a problem, the team here see it as an opportunity to change the system. Yes, the issues are complex, the work is challenging and the difficulties are many, but at the heart of it all is the drive to create a better world. And if Toynbee Hall shows one thing, it’s that such a world is entirely possible to achieve.

So, one week into the new job, how does it feel? Tiring? Yes. Confusing? Definitely. More names than I can possibly remember? Of course. And even more exciting, energising and inspiring than I could have ever imagined? Absolutely. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the amazing work that Toynbee Hall does, and already I’m desperate to dive in for more.