Once again, a highlight of the festive season has been the Choir With No Name Christmas Concert. If you didn’t catch them this year, then make a point of catching them some time next year. (I have to confess, I am an official CWNN groupie – as they call their supporters – but don’t just take my word for it check it out for yourself, www.choirwithnoname.org)
All members of the choir are people who have experience of being homeless, or otherwise living on the margins of society, who enjoy coming together to sing. Their shows are not at all sentimental or voyeuristic: this is a serious choir singing complex harmonies, not Saturday night karaoke. But it is also great fun – for the choir and their audience.
CWNN is the brainchild of the very talented Marie Benton and it has been her imagination, inspiration and persistence that has seen the original north London Choir With No Name go from strength to strength since it was founded in 2008. Since then it has performed across the UK, getting rave reviews and even supporting names such as Coldplay and Paul Weller. Last year saw the birth of CWNN Birmingham and a south London Choir has just been set up. And they say this is only the beginning…
I first came across CWNN several years ago, when they sang at an NCVO reception. Talking to members afterwards made me realise what a big difference an apparently small thing like joining the Choir had made to their lives: just being seen as ‘normal people who love singing’; doing something new – and doing it well; a chance to share stories and experiences; to be part of a team that helps each other; to prove themselves.
Seeing the Choir again this week, made me think about what we mean when we talk of ‘empowerment’. Too often it is associated with specific goals such as employability or personalisation, and more recently with activities such as running local services or taking over local assets. We forget that empowerment is also about the person within, how we feel about ourselves, our lives and our place within society. And we underestimate the importance of conviviality, of fun and friendship and the sense of belonging that that brings. That is what CWNN gives to its members.
Clearly food, warmth, shelter and security are essential priorities for all. But it is also true that everybody needs to be valued and respected for themselves, their spirit to be nurtured, regardless of their circumstances.
With homelessness once again on the rise, as the housing safety net falls apart, we need a diverse voluntary sector that both tackles the root causes of homelessness and provides support to those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Now more than ever.
We need organisations such as Shelter, speaking out on behalf of homeless people and campaigning for affordable homes for all. And we need those like St Mungos, providing emergency accommodation and longer term support to people with complex needs. But we also need organisations like the Choir With No Name, helping people living on the margins to feel good about themselves, their place in the world and their future. That is why I’m a proud member of the CWNN fan club.