Courage, Connection and Compassion
My stepsister, Boo Armstrong, has a place of honour at The Outsiders’ Network. Not only did she do so much with her own life, but she inspired me to stop holding back and find the courage to create what I believed in. The Outsiders’ Network is the result.
Boo died in October 2012. For the 150 people at her funeral, and many others who couldn’t attend, Boo was an inspiration. She found the courage to follow what she cared about and to be who she was, often provocatively – and often at personal risk to herself.
She was not uncontroversial. She lived with her own doubts and questions. But she touched many people’s lives because she lived with courage, compassion and connection.
“The thing that really gets me out of bed in the morning is justice and injustice,” Boo said.
Boo was best known for her work on animal rights (she was a committed and persuasive vegan), LGBTI campaigning and support, women’s health and access to complementary therapy.
Boo noticed, for example, that only those who could pay could get access to complementary therapies. Yet, patients wanted the NHS to offer it, 49% of GPs would suggest complementary therapies to their patients and practitioners wanted to offer them to more people.
Realising that some kind of brokering service was needed, and also that research was necessary to show that it was financially viable for the NHS, Boo debated with herself, and initially resisted the call to act.
“I kept thinking, good idea, good idea. But no, that would be taking on the whole NHS,” she said in her speech at Be The Change conference in 2005. “Then I realised, that was my job and I couldn’t just shirk my responsibility. I’d seen this thing. It was very clear to me.”
So Boo set up Get Well UK. Her pilot project in Northern Ireland looked at mental and physical health outcomes for patients using six complementary therapies and the financial cost or saving to the NHS.
The results were dramatic. With improvements in physical and mental health, fewer GP or hospital visits and less dependence on medication, the NHS would not only improve patients lives, but also save money.
The Traits of a Social Pioneer
Boo had three interconnected traits which moved her to take action, and which I believe can motivate us all if we choose to be open to them:
To open ourselves to the pain of another, or even the deep pain of our own life, is hard. But it also provides meaning to the choices and actions we take. When action comes from compassion it comes with love, empathy and understanding, and moves us to create something bigger than ourselves.
Boo’s own compassion meant she saw people, rather than walking past them. As her friend, Anita Anand, described, when she was out with Boo and they saw someone homeless on the street, Boo not only emptied her own pockets, but Anita’s too.
When Boo saw a problem, she saw the person behind the problem. And once she had done that, she tackled it as well as she could. At the age of 19, Boo become the youngest ever chair of the London Gay and Lesbian Switchboard, choosing a life of impact over studying at University.
With housing prices making normal Central London living impossible, Boo lived on a narrow boat on the Regents Canal in Camden. Even there she saw a problem and fixed it, setting up a communal laundry and recycling scheme for her fellow canal-dwellers.
There is nothing easy about breaking new ground. With hindsight, it is easy to praise success, but in prospect doing something new can be lonely.
And one of the most courageous acts of all, is to be the person we really are, whoever we are with. The word courage comes from the French ‘coeur’ or ‘heart’. It takes a brave and loving (yes, compassionate) heart to live through the hard times and keep on going.
Boo was one of the most courageous people I knew. Plenty of people trot out the phrase ‘be the change…’ Boo lived it.
At times, Boo’s courage could develop into recklessness. She was not always an easy person to be with. She could be challenging and argumentative. But it also meant that she could approach big names, in the service of the causes she believed in, and ask for what was needed.
She raised over £1million (over US $1.5million) for charity. She gained the support of Prince Charles for her work on complimentary therapies. She spoke to a committee of MPs at the House of Commons on the findings of Get Well UK’s research.
Deep connection is powerful stuff. The intimacy of connection opens us up. It feels risky to put our head above the parapet and risk being judged. And Boo had her share of being judged.
But this level of connection is also how we truly empathise and move people. And Boo was someone who connected with people from all walks of life.
Her work at the Gay & Lesbian Switchboard meant that people would call to ask for advice, sharing profound questions about their identity, relationships and self-worth. At Women in Health, another charity providing intimate services for often vulnerable people, Boo rose from working as the receptionist to being the co-ordinator.
Boo’s ability to connect with people, to look at you with her huge eyes, as if she was looking right into them, is surely one of the reasons her death elicited the kind of moving tributes, from the large number of people who she cared about, and who cared about her.
Not perfect, but plenty
Boo was by no means perfect. She had her own life struggles, questions and inner and outer conflicts. Pioneers are not immune to struggle, after all.
The challenge is not to wall ourselves away to such an extend that we suffer alone. However fearful we are of being judged, making mistakes and not knowing the right answer, we all have something to teach, something to learn, something to share.
The very things which make you feel like an outsider are those which give you the insightfulness, the compassion, to live the life that is right for you.
Devi Clark is CEO and Editor at The Outsiders’ Network. Devi also coaches careers changers who want a meaningful ethical career at NewLeaf Coaching.