Podium: To be poor in the US is the bottom

A speech by the founder of the Body Shop to the Human Scale Education Conference

I AM a former teacher. Thirty years ago, it didn't take me long to work out that educational philosophy can be divided into two schools of thought. The first states that the child knows little and is essentially a raw material to be processed: only years of structured education can make children useful to our society. The second sees children as a unique set of potentials, and it helps them develop the habit of freedom. This is the type of education we find in the Steiner and Waldorf schools, the fabled Summerhill and the schools of the Human Scale Education movement.

"The need for imagination, a sense of truth and a feeling of responsibility - these are the three forces which are the very nerve of education" said Rudolf Steiner. What we must have as teachers, as parents, even as business people, is a moral sympathy with everything we do. All of us here should work to educate free human beings to develop purpose, imagination, a sense of truth and a feeling of empathy and responsibility. And vision.

Let me share with you an experience that illuminated me a year ago. I crossed the great American divide, travelling through the so-called "Black Belt" of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, to get my first look at extreme poverty in America.

My guide was Jacob Holdt, a Danish "vagabond" photographer, who has spent the last 20 years roaming America, photographing its rural black communities. This was my first experience with real poverty in any Western country. To be poor is hard, but to be poor in America, in a land of such wealth, is the very bottom of such hardship.

The feelings of hope, change, optimism that I felt during the Sixties, when we campaigned for racial equality, dissipated rapidly during this trip. I discovered that poor people are not heard - their voices are silenced in a forgotten world.

We stopped to see Wilma, who was living in a one-room shack in the middle of a field. She wouldn't come out because her mother had just died and somebody had tortured her dog to death. I spent hours talking to her through the cracks of the walls.

I experienced the incredible passive power of television; how TV was just like a pacifier to the mind. In these small, broken-down shacks, a silver-pale TV-light pierced the darkness. The TV was often on 24 hours a day. The catatonic stare in these people's eyes made me feel that TV misused and starved the brain.

What else did I learn during this trip? Well, I learnt that these communities that have been excluded from society for generations are held together by grandmothers. I saw the forgotten underbelly of America, and how racism is perpetuated there structurally. I also observed that, even though they are on the borderline of hugely uncomfortable lives, these people still live purposeful lives.

They go on hour by hour, minute by minute, engaging in a desperate struggle to survive and be sheltered. They are living each day in a sort of maze.

My old man, Gordon, got the idea for The Big Issue, the newspaper sold by the homeless, while in New York, where he'd been sold a copy of the paper Street News.

The Body Shop put up the seed money to get the project off the ground and gave non-financial support in every way we could. In just over six years, The Big Issue has grown into one of the UK's most respected papers.

It is now one of the mostly widely read papers in Europe. It comes with commitment, dynamism, fun, brashness and caring wired into its genetic code. It talks belly to belly with you, often in your face. It is hard- hitting, informative and entertaining. It is real; a breath of fresh air in journalism.

Whatever way you look at it, something is missing in most of our lives. Maybe it's the belief in the divine spark, that sense of awe and wonderment I mentioned earlier. Where has it gone?

Every tribal group or pre-industrial group that I have worked with seems to have it. I think it's because they are storytellers. The Celtic people, for example, insisted that only poets could be teachers. Why? It was their belief that knowledge that is not passed through the heart is dangerous.

Our modern culture perhaps has the mentality of a teenager.

We hate blank spaces. I've been trying to take some of those blank spaces and fill them up with bits of story, or calls to action. Nothing is more boring than a paper bag.

On our till bags, we give people the phone number of organisations that they can bombard with challenges to change course. I believe in promoting our products through global culture and linking them to political messages.

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