Does #ukhousing need activism or slacktavism?

My arms hurt. It’s day 7 of my #22pushups challenge, the latest social media craze, where people are posting videos of themselves doing (in my case terrible) push ups.

Here’s my day one video, with a little help from my boy.

It’s got people engaging, sharing and talking about veteran mental health – an issue that doesn’t normally get attention. But is this just ‘slacktivism’? Do people just feel like they’re making a difference with minimal impact?

And is there anything #ukhousing can learn from these crazes?

The #22pushups challenge

The challenge was started by #22KILL, a campaign group based in the US – to honour those who serve and to raise awareness for veteran suicide prevention through education and empowerment.

The ‘22’ bit comes from a survey in 2013, which said 22 veterans commit suicide each day in the US.

Here in the UK, CombatStress, a mental health charity for veterans, is supporting the campaign, seeking donations to help those veterans left battling stress and depression.

But does it DO anything?

It’s a PR dream. Huge celebrity endorsement. Wall to wall media coverage around the world. Social media is stuffed full of people talking about the issue with their friends (for 22 days each!).

The problem is the original message can get lost in translation. It becomes just a challenge, rather than connected to the original cause or issue. And sometimes charities and causes bustle with each other for the online attention – and donations.

As I’ve done the challenge I’ve donated to Combat Stress, something I probably wouldn’t have done unless I’d taken part and gone on to find out more about the issue.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t donate to the last charity that posted something through my door, hassled me in the street or paid for an advert on the TV.

Another success story was the Ice Bucket Challenge. The money raised for ALS has left a lasting impression, as their infographic shows.

InfoGBut, as with all trends, the world moves on, and the issue often remains unsolved. This is never truer than the headlines about the Calais refugee camp running out of food as donations dry up – other issues have crowded it out, for now.

Is activism better?

Junior doctors are proving that activism can get your cause attention with a bit of rebellion. But will it ultimately get them the result they want?

I have an occasional photography blog on Facebook called One Million Lives. It’s a collection of photos and stories.

One incredible person I met was Angie Zelter, a campaigner and founder of a huge number of international pressure groups. She started her activism career chained to the fences of the US base at Greenham Common in the mid 1980s, protesting about the nuclear weapons there.

Angie_4_webThat passion has grown and intensified, and I met her outside one of the AWE (Atomic Weapon Establishment) sites in Berkshire in the summer, where she’d organised a month-long protest.

She was passionate, informed and has dedicated her life to this cause.

But despite this, media coverage was light, her message didn’t carry to the masses. MPs voted heavily in favour of renewing Trident just weeks later.

So what can housing learn?

#Ukhousing has felt that it’s struggled to get its voice heard for many years.

There have been some great campaigns, with lots of engagement – you can never doubt people working in the sector don’t believe in its importance or social purpose.

But we’ve not struck on a moment recently, mixing the activism – to fight for what we feel is right – with a slacktivism hook that gets people talking, engaging and sharing. That gets the housing crisis on the front page of the Daily Mail. That gets politicians clamouring for change.

The last time we had that powerful connection with the public was when Cathy Come Home appeared on our TV screens some 50 years ago.

We could do with another moment, but more than that, we need a movement.

A moment or a movement?

As Ken Loach said of Cathy Come Home, ‘a film isn’t a movement, it’s just a film. A film can agitate a little, illustrate, but it’s part of the process. Unless you organise, nothing much will happen – people turn off the telly or walk out of the cinema and that’s it’.

A moment is not enough for what we need.

Dan Slee asked Twitter this week what were the three main challenges facing the sector. It was a good list. Lack of money, lack of houses, welfare reform and so on.

As well as needing a long-term, non-political plan to meet the broad housing needs of the country, the main problem, in my view, is that housing’s stakeholder map encompasses everyone.

Whether you’re a politician, a landlord, a developer or a labourer. Whether you’re a renter, a homeowner, a landowner… or none of the above.

Everyone has a stake in the game.

As the sector comes under greater and greater pressure, housing communicators have a vital role to play in bringing people together through a shared cause.

This means getting the story right, absolutely. But this also means focusing on fostering the right relationships – strengthening some, rebooting others. With so much change politically this year, if anything now is the right time to take stock and rethink how those with a role in housing can make it work for everyone.

Yes, we need to agitate, to create a moment that connects people with housing – but it’s only through true, new and progressive relationships that we’ll build the homes our communities need, at prices they can afford.

Right, I’m off to film my first #HomeRun challenge.

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