Gareth McNab
A lightbulb moment

I had a lightbulb moment on Friday. One that led me to take some tentative steps towards using my privilege for the good of others. It’s a first step, a shaky step, but it’s a step.

I got an email last week from my energy supplier, informing me of a change to my terms and conditions. Another day, another perfectly ignorable email, right? Well, that’s what I did – because of my privilege. The key updates were about changes in pricing towards those who struggle to engage when in financial difficulty, those who are forced to switch to pre-payment meters, and those whose credit might not be sufficient to support energy provision without the support of a guarantor.

Despite my day job helping people in financial difficulty, and my charity responsibilities – I’m chair of trustees at Community Money Advice, a charity that supports churches and communities to come together and provide free face to face debt advice – I did what most people do. I just deleted it. “Doesn’t affect me”. Trash.

The following day, I was wrestling with "what part might I play in improving racial justice?" and finding help in the Theodore Roosevelt quote “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are” – and that’s when the lightbulb clicked on. We know from Public Health England that BAME communities are disproportionately impacted by COVID, more likely to lose their health, jobs, incomes and even lives. We know from Runnymede Trust that these communities were already disproportionately less financially resilient than White British households.

That’s when I realised that “doing what I can with what I have where I am” could help me understand that, as an expert in debt and financial inclusion, with a voice into the financial services and debt advice sectors and occasionally even the ear of government, I could speak up and act in such a way that I don’t just demand general justice for all who are poor, but also specific support for those communities disproportionately impacted by general policies due to systemic injustice – systemic racism.

In my realisation, I reflected on the way that I had passed over the email from my energy supplier because it didn’t affect me. I went back to it, read it, thought about who it would affect, and realised that this was an opportunity to speak and to act.

There are many policies like these that outwardly make sense to those of us with the privilege of being unaffected by them; charges that we can afford to choose never to pay; changes that would pass us by, even as we might pass by those in need…

So I’ve shared the issues with my friends – some of whom have benefitted from the “recommend a friend” bonus schemes that firms like this use to acquire new customers. It’s not right that we should benefit financially from a customer acquisition approach that balances the books on the backs of the poor. I’ve written to the CEO, explaining why I see the changes to the pricing and policies as a racial justice issue, one where a firm that tweets about “Black Lives Matter” would do well to make sure that they matter every day, and in every way. I’ve got in touch with a crowd of debt advice mates – consumer advocates, lots of whom happen to have also received the same email. and am working with colleagues across the sector to write a joint letter to this firm, offering the help of the debt advice sector in building a genuinely supportive customer voice and set of policies and processes. I’ve donated the £50 recommend a friend bonus I received to Money A&E, a money advice charity that actively works with BAME communities. And I’m on the look out for an ethical energy supplier that takes its responsibilities seriously – to the planet, and to ALL people.

This lightbulb moment has cost me some time, has involved taking a risk, and will cost me some money. But I want to step away from the life that protects my privilege, looks after number one, and does all it can to reduce the costs of living for me – if one member of the body suffers, we all suffer. I want to use any privilege that my society, background, education and profession affords me to speak and to act in a way that helps others, and especially those that are most overlooked for help.

Join me in my baby steps. May you have your own lightbulb moments. Silence is not an option – but noise alone is not enough. Faith without works is dead.


Gareth works at Nationwide Building Society, and describes his work as helping people understand more, care more, and do more about the lives lived by those in debt and poverty. He’s worked in the field for more than 13 years, combining practical experience with policy expertise.

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