Mike Blair of Barnabus: “People are really nice”

People are really nice — When I first started the project, we were in the middle of a pandemic so I had the impression that if I was asking things of people they would respond negatively because they had their own personal issues to deal with. However, over time I started to ask for support on more […]

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People are really nice — When I first started the project, we were in the middle of a pandemic so I had the impression that if I was asking things of people they would respond negatively because they had their own personal issues to deal with. However, over time I started to ask for support on more things and I got an overwhelmingly positive response.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing: Mike Blair.

Mike is 28 years old and has recently graduated with an MBA degree from the Alliance Manchester Business School. Whilst studying in Manchester, Mike helped Barnabus, a Christian Homeless Charity, to project manage the design, production, and sale of a high-end calendar, to raise some much-needed funds for the Charity. Outside of this, Mike loves to play football and debate politics with anyone who will give him the time of day.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

The best way to describe my upbringing would be the most stereotypical middle-class upbringing you can think of. I was born in Wimbledon in South London and then moved to the suburbs of Surrey shortly after. I attended a local grammar school where I was surrounded by incredibly bright and diverse set of friends. When I look back on my home and school life, I am incredibly grateful that I was brought up in such a peaceful and ambitious environment. It is this foundation which really allowed me to explore what I was really interested in and to build really deep relationships with some amazing people — I still live with my best friends from when I was 11 years old!

Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

That’s a really tough question because I never really felt like I had a ‘a-ha moment’ when reading something. But ever since I was about 16 years old, I have been an avid reader of The Economist. Reading as much of this publication every week really gave me a broad understanding of what was going on in the world, but for me, most importantly, it taught me how to think critically.

Last year, I did read this book called ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’ by Rutger Bremen which was one of the most fascinating books I have ever read. It basically stated that the way we have organised our society is based on a false assumption about human nature. Due to the powerful works of philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, structures in society have been developed to stop us from re-entering what Hobbes calls the ‘State of Nature’ which is nasty, brutish and short. Look at the example of ‘Lord of the Flies’ — if we take away the very rules of society, we will quickly enter into a state of conflict. However, Rutger Bremen refutes that and says that as humans, we are so much more than just intelligent animals only a small veneer away from all-out war; we are naturally kind and social. We just need to create a society which amplifies these qualities rather than one which looks to create tribal differences. This is something I whole heartedly believe. It very much resonated with me because deep down everyone wants to help one another — we just need to create structures within our society which incentivize people to do just this!

How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

It is a very broad question. I guess that most people will see those three words and automatically think of charitable organisations and the work that they do. Which is true, charities really do make a difference — just look at the work that Barnabus does in Manchester. But I think of ‘Making a Difference’ in much broader terms. We can make a difference every day: checking in with friends to see how they are doing, giving a colleague some more of your time to help them with a bit of work, calling our parents just to chat to them etc. Whatever it is, even if it seems tiny, we can make a difference every day.

I know personally over the pandemic when we have been locked down that this something I have reflected on. If I could just do more of the little things, more often, I will make a big difference to those close to me.

Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Its worth me stating at this point of the interview that I am not leading or founding any sort of social impact myself, I was just assisting a truly fantastic charity in Manchester raise some much-needed funds to help those most vulnerable in our society.

Barnabus is a Christian homeless charity in Manchester which act on the frontline, helping those sleeping rough on the streets of Manchester through its drop-in centre. As well as providing direct support through this centre, they also look at the complex reasons which cause people to end up in this situation and try to empower these people to get back on their feet — which I think is amazing!

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

Growing up in London and moving to Manchester, homelessness has always been visible to me and as I got older and started to understand the world better, it made me increasingly uncomfortable. I think when I was younger, I was probably guilty of thinking that when I saw a homeless person that it was their fault that they were in that situation because of their own fault — which is a terrible thought to have. But as I reflected on this over time, it doesn’t make sense. One of the common arguments is that because homeless people often have problems of addiction, they are somehow undeserving of help. But the addiction to alcohol or drugs is only a symptom of something much deeper and probably darker.

I am also someone who is aware of how lucky I have been, in terms of my upbringing. Therefore, it is impossible that I could ever possibly understand what other people have been through, so definitely could not ever judge another person. I truly believe that everyone is deserving of happiness and for some that is easier than others, so I wanted to get involved because achieving happiness isn’t a level playing field. We owe it those that have it the hardest, to try and do something to help them.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

For anyone that has been to Manchester, they will know what the climate is like. For anyone that hasn’t been, it rains. A lot. I used to walk 30mins everyday from my flat in Manchester to the Business School and I would pass this one elderly gentleman at the end of my road sleeping rough and it used to hurt me that he would have to sit out in the rain all night.

I remember just after we went into the first lockdown in March 2020, I went for a walk and saw an ambulance where he used to sleep. I still don’t know what happened to him, but it really cut through me. So, I said to myself at that moment, that I wanted to use some of my time to help in anyway that I could. That is when I started the process of getting introduced to Barnabus.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

Going back to what I said earlier, I truly believe that everyone wants to help each other. The hardest bit is knowing how to help and then taking the first step. I know this sounds really simple, but all I did was talk. I spoke to people about how distressed I was about the elderly gentleman I saw at the end of the road and stated that I wanted to help.

In one of my conversations, someone told me that they had a friend on the board of trustees at Barnabus and they would put me in touch. So, I emailed this contact and that is how it started. I guess my advice here is to be open about things that make you uncomfortable, then think how you can make a difference, bounce those ideas off other people and then make that first step, even if it feels weird at first. Taking the first step is so much harder than all of the other steps down the road.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your initiative?

Definitely! After we had made the decision that we wanted to produce a high-end calendar, one of my colleagues on the project said that they would contact an award-winning design agency in Manchester called LOVE Creative to ask their advice on the artwork for the calendar. Subsequently to our first calls with them, they very kindly decided to produce the calendar for us free of charge.

This was an amazing experience because we got taken through a full design process by an incredibly talented team. They also gave some really interesting suggestions to what we could do as a follow-up to the calendar. One of these suggestions was to try and speak to Manchester City Council to see if we could spray-paint the names of some of the homeless people in Manchester in glow-in-the-dark paint around the city, so that they would only become visible at night. This would help remind everyone that the people sleeping in these conditions were real people and the problem really is prevalent.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

I am not really sure that there are any real funny mistakes. I mean, I made a lot of mistakes but not sure which was the funniest. Maybe it was when I ordered the wrong stitching in the calendar. As this was first go at producing a high-end calendar, I knew nothing about quality of paper or stitching so I was just making decisions based off Google searches. Therefore, I ordered 1000 calendars with a certain type of stitching which really did not match what we were looking for and would have ruined all of the carefully produced artwork LOVE Creative had put together for us.

Thankfully, the guy who was managing the printing picked up on this and called me to inform me of the mistake. But as we had already raised the sponsorship money to cover the cost I was unsure how we were going to cover the excess for my mistake — fortunately, the printers said they would absorb this extra cost. And this is what I mean when later on when I talk about people being really nice!

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

Absolutely! All of the team at Barnabus are fantastic but in particular Carol Price and Alex Simpson were hugely influential at making the project a success. Also, my old boss Christiane Hutchinson was incredibly helpful over the course of the project.

Like any project, nothing happens in isolation. Carol and Alex were so good at helping us get the calendars into stores around Manchester. Whilst I would make some of the initial contact with stores, Carol and Alex were the ones who would do the physical delivery of the calendars to the stores which was crucial to the success of the calendar. They would also do all of the fulfillment from the online orders so really they deserve much more credit than I do!

Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

The project that I helped Barnabus was going to make a real difference to them because a lot of their fundraising opportunities had to be cancelled due to the pandemic. However, the need for Barnabus’ services was probably going to increase.

To highlight the fantastic work that Barnabus do and why fundraising is so important can be seen through Andy’s* story:

Andy grew up in care and had been living on the street for 10 years, with a number of complex personal issues. He had visited Barnabus on occasion for basic needs such as access to food, but Andy would never really stay around long enough to let Barnabus help him. However, this all changed when he encountered problems receiving his benefits. When Andy he came to Barnabus to get help with this, the team managed to connect with him on a deeper level and got him accepted into supported accommodation.

Andy has now been in this supported accommodation for 5 months where he has put on weight and grown in self-confidence. He can now hold eye contact when having a conversation and has even asked Barnabus for help with his drug addiction. Barnabus have even managed to start the process of reconnecting Andy with a family member who he had lost all contact with.

This story shows exactly what I mean when I say we are not born on a level playing field. Andy has had to fight so hard to get himself into a position where he enjoys something that most of us take completely for granted. And that is why Barnabus is doing such inspiring work — helping those who can so easily be forgotten!

*Andy is not this person’s real name.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

I read a quote recently which probably best sums up my thoughts on this: “the mark of a society is how well it looks after its most vulnerable”. The reason that I like this quote is that does not necessarily pin the responsibility on one group — society is something that each of us live within, so we all have some responsibility in trying to improve it.

However, that sounds a little abstract so to try and put something more concrete down, I would recommend the following:

  • Politicians — The causes of homelessness are wide and complex. However, it is an indisputable fact that the levels of homelessness have grown in the UK over the last decade. I believe that the government should commission a study into this rise in the UK, taking in the views of all the relevant stakeholders (care services, the NHS, mental health services, charities, local/city councils etc.) and then provide a series of recommendations which look at tackling these problems. It would be foolish to think that things can change overnight but with the right approach and funding, significant steps can be taken to improve the situation.
  • Individuals — I am not naïve to think homelessness is the only societal problem that we have and that individuals don’t have infinite time and resources, but small things can make a big difference. Just taking a moment to speak (and most importantly listen) to someone they see sleeping rough can make a huge difference to that person. Also, never fall into the trap of blaming the homeless person for being in that situation. Simple things like that, by changing your mindset and your approach to the homeless will open up so many more opportunities for change.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “3 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).

It’s difficult to answer this question because I learned so much by making lots of mistakes, but I think I would have liked to have known the following at the start of the project:

  1. People are really nice — When I first started the project, we were in the middle of a pandemic so I had the impression that if I was asking things of people they would respond negatively because they had their own personal issues to deal with. However, over time I started to ask for support on more things and I got an overwhelmingly positive response. For example, I asked at the University of Manchester about promoting the sale of the calendar and after explaining the project, I was put in touch with the volunteering society who then went out of their way to give me as many media channels as possible to inform about the calendar. They also offered me an army of willing volunteers to help transport the calendars around the city if needed.
  2. Be prepared to fully immerse yourself — As I was also studying at the time, I knew that I would have to manage my time carefully. And even though I was only assisting Barnabus produce a calendar, there were a surprising number of moving parts. Therefore, the project took up much more of my time than first anticipated, but it was without a doubt one of the most rewarding things I have ever worked on and gave me a new perspective on the work that charities do!
  3. Communication is key — As I mentioned, there were far more moving parts than I anticipated. To make sure that everyone knows what they need to do and to overcome problems, having clear lines of communication is vital. Over this project, we would hold weekly calls with LOVE Creative to understand what their internal requirements were and to make sure everyone on the team understood their responsibility. This is probably true of any project, but it was so important on this project because the charity has real work to do helping real people and as we were working against a strict timeline, it was important not let things slip.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

An interesting question but I really don’t think I need to tell anyone about making a positive impact within society. If you look at some of the fantastic for profit and not-for-profit organizations that have been started in the last 5 years, you will be amazed at what you find.

I have always been an advocate that young people now have a more positive view on their responsibility to improve wider society. What I did with Barnabus is only a tiny, tiny project when you look at what other young people are doing to add value to society. I am incredibly proud to be part of this generation and think over the next decade we will see huge positive changes to our society, which would have been driven by young people.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Hmmm, a difficult one! I would love to meet Jos de Blok, the founder and CEO of Buurtzorg. I know this is going to sound very niche, but I would recommend your readers to check him out. Buurtzorg is a healthcare company based in the Netherlands which has redesigned the healthcare model by empowering both the nurses and the patients through greater autonomy to community healthcare practices. It started as 4 nurses in 2006 which has grown to over 14,000 nurses today.

It’s a fascinating story and one I think which has many parallels with trying to improve the services that we offer the homeless in this country.

How can our readers follow you online?

Firstly, please do check out Barnabus: https://www.barnabus-manchester.org.uk/

I am not really a big social media user, so the best place is to probably get me on Linkedin: linkedin.com/in/mikeblair39

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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