Big Issue founder John Bird visits Bethnal Green

John Bird. Photo: Sofia Almiroty.

John Bird. Photo: Sofia Almiroty.

“I’m John Bird I am an ex-homeless, I’m an ex-offender, I’m an ex-racist who was brought up in racial prejudice by my family [who] were very poor and defeated people who did not know how to care for themselves.”

In this way, John Bird – social entrepreneur and founder of The Big Issue introduced himself on Monday morning at St. Hilda’s East Community Centre in Bethnal Green.

Bird was invited to give a talk on how he managed to become a global social entrepreneur, overcoming a deprived childhood that saw him begging in the streets and earning a criminal record before he was 30.

The 67-year-old man was dressed down and very keen to share his story. “My father used to beat my mother and my brothers used to beat their wives and I’ve been married three times and I’ve never beaten a women in my life, which is the greatest achievement I [have] ever made”, he said.

Bird had a troubled childhood. By 15 he had spent three years at juvenile prison and there he learnt how to read and write. “I couldn’t read or write. I recognize words but [couldn’t link] them and that’s what reading [was]. There was this prison officer who told me to underline all the words that I didn’t understand and that he would explain them to me, and this changed my life, I became the biggest reader ever.”

His odyssey to overcome homelessness grabbed everyone’s attention at the community centre. The audience of future social entrepreneurs listened carefully to Bird’s epic story. Most in attendance were women working on food co-ops, art programmes or funeral services for the poor in their communities. They are taking the Social Enterprise Skills course at St. Hilda’s.

Nerim Yurtoglu, a Turkish woman who wants to work within the Turkish speaking community living in London by helping them get economically active by growing fruits and vegetables and cooking traditional food, said of Bird’s talk: “He is from a disadvantage background and even has a criminal record. [It’s] very inspiring how he turned out to change his life and above all come here to teach us.”

Balkis Karim, another women from Uganda said: “I admire [him] because he loves to help other people and he came here today. I [learned] from him and now I want to help others.” She wants to offer her time to different charities and organizations and work with them in helping people sell food and grow their own vegetables.

Jay Hudson, a mother and an artist, told how she turned to art during a difficult period in her life. She was at the centre because she wanted to offer the same art activities that saved her and also wanted to help and empower others with the ‘Knit a Year with Me’ initiative.

She welcomed Bird’s advice: “I think that how he has turned all those difficult experiences that he had into skills that he can apply into the business and into the world is very open and refreshingly honest and how he can see the good and the potential in people is thrilling.”

Bird established the Big Issue in 1991 with Gordon Roddick during a period when the number of people living on the streets of London was very high. The organisation offers some of the most excluded people in the country the chance to take control of their lives and learn how to make legitimate income. It operates throughout Britain and has paved the way for street papers in 13 European countries, South Africa and Australia. Bird also heads Big Issue Invest, an investment arm of the Big Issue, which supports more than 150 social businesses in developing their business plans.

Lourdes Colclough, Community Food and Volunteering Manager and coordinator of the Food Co-op Social Enterprise Project at the centre, who asked Bird to come in, said: “To get where he is and being able to overcome all that to set up this global social enterprise using ethics and working in a way that is sustainable, just happen to give a different picture of the world.”

Many were inspired by Bird at St. Hilda’s East Community Centre where another opportunity to take their course on Social Entrepreneur Skills will open again in October. The Food Co-op Social Enterprise Project is funded by the Big Lottery.

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