What is hyphen-21 ?

Hyphen-21 is a UK charity. It was set up in 1994. Its aim : to articulate and advocate for the qualities, skills and conditions required for helping people in emotional or other kind of difficulty, particularly people on the edges and outskirts of society. 

How the charity began

It was formed at the suggestion of Phyllida Parsloe, then Professor of Social Work at the University of Bristol. She proposed it as an independent voice for a principled “social work” stand-point, in response to different events and developments in our fractured society, as these occurred. Through the consistency of its responses, offered over time, it would aim to establish and clarify, and win authority for, its stand-point and approach. Abstract statements of aim or intent, or codes of conduct set out in absolute terms, would be insufficient.

The Underlying Questions

The implications of this approach seemed more general and more central than the status or purpose of the particular profession of social work.

Take the following questions, for instance : Does relationship matter ? Can relationship of its own be healing ? Are  skills  required  in  that  process ? If so, what skills ? Are they innate, or can they be taught, developed, improved, through training and practice ? And does empathy play a part in this ? We say that word, and perhaps yearn for it, but what really is empathy ? Is it powerful ? But how so ? And, again, does it matter ? What helps it be effective, a positive force ? What hinders it ?And does that list of questions apply only to social work ?

The Charity’s Title

The above is just a list of questions. But of course, the small circle of people responsible for setting up the charity had some of their own answers and saw a prioritising of empathy, for instance, not just as necessary to a healing relationship, but as central to any healthy community. The charity’s very title derives from that notion – the hyphen is a between construction. I and you others, or other, create it, or arrive at it, together. It connects us and makes something new. For “Hyphen-21” is actually a reference to a book by the late Martin Buber called “I and Thou.”  Throughout that book, he posits two necessary human positions and forms of relationship, like the two poles of one planet ; he names them “I – It” and “I – Thou.” It is the hyphen between I and Thou with which this charity is chiefly concerned, as being the more central and difficult and the more grievously under threat in our time. (The number “21” in our title refers of course to the present century). Truth must be served and told on the hyphen between I and Thou. The lie and puerile slogan are only possible on the hyphen between I and It.

Shifting Priorities

The charity’s founders never conceived of it as an agency that would actually own or run anything, as such. Instead, it would seek to do its work by highlighting particular initiatives associated with good practice, excellence of approach. Let these make the case and do the real talking. The charity would identify, stand for, promote, seek to support.  

And thereby, we hoped, it might help in some tiny way to shift priorities, from the quantitative to the qualitative, from the Me ‘n Mine to the Us and Ours, from the left hand side of the brain to the right, from the rigid to the flexible, from the increasingly regressive and oppressive to the increasingly creative. 

This Home page has been revised in the summer of 2022. This summer, it cannot be said, of course, that the shifting of priorities we had hoped for nearly thirty years ago has taken place. Quite the contrary. The tendencies we saw and feared in the early 1990’s have carried on growing in strength ever more rapidly. In the meantime and always present, the threat of uncontrollable global warming looms ever larger and closer. Political structures capable of dealing coherently with contemporary events and developments continue ever more incapable and ever more anachronistic. The UK’s present government seems more concerned to make an open smirky mock and posture of good governance, than to govern. 

So this charity cannot claim to have been a significant change-agent or even presence. That, however, does not make it a mistake or irrelevant. 

What the Charity Does 

Over the years since its founding, Hyphen-21 has changed a great deal as well, in some ways unexpectedly. 

For instance, we thought it wouldn’t run anything. In fact, for more than 20 years, it has been running an international  project supported by numerous funding bodies, including  the UK Arts Council, the NHS, the King’s Fund, the John Lewis Partnership and the UK Foreign Office. The project began off being called “Poems for the Waiting Room.” Now it is called “Poems for…the wall.” For a while, the Project shared this website, but then, in 2008, the UK Poet Laureate of that time, Andrew Motion, launched a website designed specifically for “Poems for…the wall.” Now, all the poem-posters presently available can be downloaded from there, free of charge. Many of them are bilingual, with over fifty languages represented. At the time of writing, this number is soon to increase. The site’s address is

Also, for a while, this website featured and promoted particular initiatives in the community. These were often under the heading of mental health social work. But we have decided that, for maximum effectiveness and clarity, these too should have their own website, to be called “Better mental health working.” Eventually, that site will go live and this one will link to it. 

And this Hyphen-21 site will continue in that role – on the one hand, as a set of general statements of principle (see “Background” above) ; on the other hand, as a kind of doorway, or antechamber, or directory, to the various topics and initiatives with which Hyphen-21 is now concerned.    

Mary Young

Finally, I want to refer here to the late Mary Young. Mary was a psychotherapist and historian, amongst other things. She was also a Hyphen-21 Trustee – from the charity’s launch to her own death in 2012. For a while, Mary’s biography of Augustin Robespierre, a beautifully written but also serious work of original and ground-breaking research, only recognised as such a few months before she died, was available on the website of Kingston University. Following that university’s radical reduction of its history department and with the permission and assistance of Professor Marisa Linton, I am linking to Marisa’s updated pdf of Mary’s book here

Hyphen-21 is a registered charity and a company limited by guarantee.

Rogan Wolf, Founding Director of Hyphen-21