‘Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy’. (Proverbs 31:9)
‘We need to cut the cost of being poor’. (John Bird)
HOM: Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision.
John Bird is a British social entrepreneur and now, life peer. He is best known as the co-founder of ‘The Big Issue’, a magazine edited by professional journalists and sold by street vendors who are homeless or vulnerably housed. This week we will mark the World Day of Social Justice, and I thought he might provide a valuable example of what one person can do when the need for greater social justice becomes a driving force in life.
John Bird began life in humble circumstances. He was born in Notting Hill to a poor London Irish family. At the age of five he became homeless and resided in an orphanage between the ages of seven and ten and was often excluded from school. He became a butcher’s boy after leaving the orphanage and supplemented his life by stealing. Between work, he spent several spells in prison during his teens and twenties, where he learnt to read and write and learnt the basics of printing. For a while he attended Chelsea School of Art but was homeless again by 1967 and often sleeping rough. For two weeks he worked as a dishwasher in the Houses of Parliament canteen, an institution he would later return to as a life peer. However, in the early 1970s he started to build upon his prison education and set up a small-scale printing and publishing business in London.
But John Bird never forgot just how difficult his early years were, and the boy certainly gave rise to a man who was determined to make a difference for those who faced social injustices, resulting in poverty. So, in September 1991 he launched The Big Issue with Gordon Roddick, co-founder of The Body shop, another business which made the promotion of social justice central in their business model. The Big Issue magazine started as a London venture but expanded with specific editions and services to other British cities, and then to other countries. John Bird is also the founder of the International Network of Street Papers, which now incorporates over 100 street papers, and is published in 34 countries in 24 languages. And in 2009, Big Issue launched a social investment fund, and has since invested more than £30 million in hundreds of social enterprises making a positive impact in communities across the UK.
John bird has just turned seventy-eight and has not lost the drive to make a difference where he can. Even though he can be considered a success despite his difficult early life experiences, he knows full well not everyone is able to do so without a helping hand and that is what The Big Issue continues to offer. And in his birthday column he wrote ‘…. a hearty thankyou to The Big Issue for its unremitting commitment to continue its labours helping those in need, and those in grief, to be given the means to scale the walls of social isolation and become able in their own right’. And a hearty thankyou to John Bird who provides an example of social entrepreneurship which can inspire us all as he seeks to redress the very real social injustices that exist.