Project Fear? I think not…..

Cherrytree Asset Coach, Mary Power looks at the importance of power dynamics and real world conversations when it comes to safeguarding on the frontline.

Safeguarding – it’s everyone’s business and so it should be, but can raising a safeguarding concern alter the relationship you have with the person you are working with? Can it, in fact, actually improve the relationship? For some of us, the word Safeguarding fills us with dread. Maybe, it’s the fear of how to raise the issue with that person or maybe it’s the fear of how they may react? One thing’s for sure, it can’t be brushed under the carpet and this is how it happened when I broached it with Jen, one of the young people I am currently working with.

The unique way an Asset Coach works with individuals means we have a different relationship with the person than traditional services, one difference being the power dynamics. Therefore, when a safeguarding issue comes to light, how we talk to the person about this feels different and doesn’t need to be feared. This is how I felt when I was working with Jen, who I have been working with for around 6 months.

My initial “fear” was that if I mentioned safeguarding to her (which I had to do, let’s be clear about that!), my relationship with Jen might change, or worst-case scenario, might end. How wrong I was…….. Okay, let’s be honest – the conversation wasn’t easy as they never are, but I had that difficult chat because I felt that I owed it to her to be honest about the issue. I talked to her about how I needed to contact the professional who would be able to help and support her in making safe decisions around her children. Jen was a bit unsure and talked to me about how she hated that professional and she only trusted me. I explained I wasn’t a health/medical expert and I felt she would benefit, as we all do sometimes, from their expert advice. I told Jen I had sought advice from Health Visitors when my children were younger. Jen seemed a little bit defensive, but once again said she trusted me and the conversation was left that the said professional would visit her the week after. I kept Jen in the loop and rang her back once I had contacted the professional to confirm the appointment. The week after my phone call and in fact, the day after the professional was due to visit Jen she called me, unprompted —

“Mary, I am so glad you contacted the health visitor, they gave me some advice that I needed” and so the conversation went on in a very positive manner about her children and what advice the health professional gave her, and ended with, “Mary, can we meet up next week at the play centre?”

My point is, authentic relationships should be based on trust. If trust and authenticity is there, difficult conversations can be had without those relationships necessarily breaking down. So, Project Fear it is not, embrace those real world conversations and don’t be afraid of them. Safeguarding has to be everyone’s business so embrace it, don’t shy away from it. By having a real world relationship with Jen I was able to have, albeit a difficult, but honest conversation with her. Because in the real world we all occasionally have to have difficult conversations with each other, but if the trust is there, a relationship can be preserved in the long run and even improved.

Please note names have been changed.

Subculture of the Frustrated

Mayday Trust Director of Development and Strategic Partnerships, Lynn Mumford looks whether frustration can actually fuel the change that is needed.

I’ll let you into a secret. 4 years ago at Mayday, I handed in my notice. I’d had enough. I felt frustrated that, as the then Head of Fundraising, I couldn’t change anything. I was beholden to processes to bring in money that didn’t fit what was then the beginnings of working in a personalised way. I was trying to tick the boxes for money and feeling the backlash from people delivering the work. A defining moment was one of the managers taking a traditional funding specification, throwing it over their shoulder and saying it was pointless as it would have meant fitting people into boxes. At the time I was cross with them but I got what they meant. I so wish I could have done this myself but hey, we needed the money and I was a ‘funding professional’. I didn’t feel I had any power to do things differently and my frustration led me to throw in the towel.

Luckily, I was offered the opportunity to reconsider based on what I thought needed to change. My response was ‘I want Mayday Trust to be to the sector, what punk rock was to the music industry’. I wanted to have the bravery to take out what we were learning, to challenge the norm and create something that was outside of what we knew as traditional charity- but I don’t think I really understood what that meant until today.

Today I felt frustrated again. Frustrated that not everyone gets it, that progress feels too slow, that I have to still find ways around the system to get what we need to carry on challenging it. But I know now that this is exactly what I need to embrace. Frustration is what fuels change. It’s beyond motivation, it’s a compulsion.

When I reflect back on the analogy to punk rock, I get it now. It’s about a rising subculture; a group of people within a wider system or culture that differentiates itself from something that it traditionally belongs; maintaining some of its founding principles, in this case to make things better for people, but developing it’s own norms, systems, values and culture grown from the angst, experiences and voices of people experiencing tough times.

Subcultures spring up when more and more people aren’t happy with how things are, who have a splinter in their brains that something isn’t right and are compelled to behave in a way counter to the norm. This could be reflected in the way they dress (ditching the lanyards and professional wardrobe), the language they use (dropping the labels and terms like ‘clients’), their approach to interacting and challenging traditional concepts that don’t fit the new ideology (influencing through doing).

This often means personally feeling the backlash, disapproval, scepticism and dismissal of the parent culture, which from our experience, practitioners in this space have felt in bucket loads. But what keeps people within this new subculture going isn’t purely down to an individual’s resilience. It’s belonging to a wider environment and connection to a group of others that embrace these challenges and experiences and uses them to get closer a shared vision. This goes beyond organisations, authorities or hierarchies and links individual people to each other with invisible strings across the country based on mind-set, behaviour and belief.

These movements start through grassroots experiences, in our case, the Wisdom from the Streets inquiries; listening, hearing and responding to what isn’t working for people. But what comes next isn’t changing what already exists to tweak around the edges of the broken structure, but demands new independent responses, such as the Personal Transitions Service (PTS).

In the case of punk rock, this was new independent record labels, new venues or people starting to do it themselves outside of any structures or systems. The PTS has had to throw everything away and start again- prototyping, not co-producing (co-producing often leads to prescriptive projections and disappointment when things aren’t achieved as first thought) to create the right approach to trying things out, reflecting, learning, unlearning, failing and making sense of it all in retrospect. What’s come out of this isn’t a different or better version of what existed, but a new way of doing things that has completely reimagined the system and models what this looks like in practice.

Taking what doesn’t work and making it look better and using the right buzz words is as effective as your dad dressing up in skinny jeans, safety pins and shouting ‘OI’. It might look and sound like systems change, but without the continual frustration, the real sense of injustice, the pain, or the compulsion to keep going when you know you could be doing something a damn sight easier, failing and getting back up again despite the knocks and sneers – systems change will only ever be reduced to the resemblance of your dad dressing up trying to be cool. It has to be felt, not learned!

Punk was new, bold, brave and unafraid and grew out of frustration rather than running away from it or making it more palatable. I feel that systemic change will genuinely start to happen when we create the right environment that brings together and embraces the frustrated. When it shines a light on the learning and lessons that come out from the painful adolescence of this new and necessary subculture.

Expanding our view and broadening our horizons

Asset Coach Andrew Durman provides a must read blog for everyone working with people going through tough times.

“People can’t see the wood for the trees” This was a reply I received from a CEO of a previous organisation when discussing a different approach based on strengths, sparks and purpose. My initial response was disappointment, both at their closed mind to something different and also the defeatist attitude that is often passed off as being ‘realistic to responding to the work’, I disagree.

Perhaps this can be the case, however if it is and we approach things in the same way, how will anything change. Maybe if we focus on the wood, a path through the trees will appear.

Recent conversations over the past few months have got me thinking. Often it’s actually the professionals that fail to see the wood for the trees when it comes to working alongside people going through challenging transitions.

One of these conversations occurred when I was working with a young man who was successful in gaining funding to go on a life changing adventure. His life has always been and continues to be challenging, however he was determined not to let these negative experiences be a barrier in his future.

For this person planning, looking at the unknown, facing anxiety and going to a country where he would have to rely on himself, was huge. However, although finding things difficult at times, he went to Amsterdam, visited all the sites, experienced a different culture and met a lot of people from different countries. This differed massively from meeting new people back in the UK, in Amsterdam he wasn’t associated with any labels or stereotypes and was free from any judgment as a result.

Back in the UK this person spends most his time around professionals and other people going through their own tough times. Circumstances brought them together, not choice or through mutual interest and personalities. However while away he was able to create an identity in whichever way he wanted. You could say he was being himself.

Reflecting on this I found that compared to the assets we normally report on, such as problem solving, confidence, self-belief, planning, and negotiating, the experience itself was equally as valuable to this person. It is a story and positive experience he will now be able to tell people he meets in the future. Before this trip was years of difficult and traumatic experiences and when talking to people he had no conversations or identity away from these difficult times. Looking back to when we first met, he used these negative experiences to introduce himself, that’s how he saw his identity.

Now in conversations he has his adventure to Amsterdam to share, something he has achieved and a positive identity on which he can be himself and build on. Ultimately this experience and achievement cannot be taken away from him whatever happens in the future.

Instead of

“Hi my name is Jim, I struggle with depression & my personality disorder. My mum died a year ago after taking her own life”

It is now

“Hi my name is Jim, I went to Amsterdam earlier this year, I joked with a local shop keeper about tourists visiting the city due to the image it has. I also enjoyed seeing how Van Gogh’s paintings developed as he went through his life and the challenges he faced. My highlight was getting the ferry across from the city to where my hotel was every day, it was very peaceful and exciting as when I got to the other side I knew I was going to experience something new and unexpected.”

This experience also helped when he has felt himself slipping into a dark place, he describes himself being able to reflect on his achievement which resulted in “things becoming lighter”. He is less fearful of the mental health challenges he faces and is determined not to let them be a barrier to his future and what he wants to do with his life. The ‘but what if’ fear has turned into ‘if it happens I will get through it’.

Since this trip I have had 3 conversations with other professionals both internal and external. All they have seen is “you’ve enabled this young man to go to Amsterdam for a holiday and smoke weed for a week, I fail to understand how this has helped him. He should be focusing on his mental health and sorting out his debt and arrears – this is what is important to him.” I don’t need to go into details of these deficits and why I do not entertain conversations with these individuals, except to point out what was achieved during this experience – If you are reading this blog and linked with the change the PTS is striving for then it will resonate!

The second conversation that triggered this blog was with a gentleman who requested permission to have a pet, a snake in this case. He had good insight into his own challenges and the barriers that sat between him and his desired future. Having had pets all his life, a snake would have a massive positive impact on him – I won’t go into the reasons for this right now as it could easily form another very long blog!

The barrier in this situation was with his license agreement, it stated no pets allowed. An outdated generic condition that assumes that everyone who has a pet will not look after it, cause a nuisance to neighbours and will abandon it leaving staff to sort out – all the reasons given when initially denying his request. Happily this has been revisited and the right outcome has been achieved for this person and needless to say the snake has had an enormous positive impact in all aspects of his life. People just could not see beyond the snake and that license condition.

This outlook and opinion is something that we constantly face as Asset Coaches and it never gets any less frustrating. Some professionals just can’t see beyond ‘the pet’ or the ‘trip to Amsterdam’ to the bigger picture. They fail to see the knock on affect to a person’s future, the internal motivation it can bring, the evidence of success – I could go on and on. In both of these cases it was not the individuals that could not see the wood for the trees, it was the professionals around them who were there to support them. We must be able to see beyond this, how else can we inspire and make a difference?

This is advantaged thinking. Take the Amsterdam situation, if all you see when you look at this situation is a stoner going to another country to smoke weed then you will never be able to support that individual in a strength based way. We have to see beyond the deficit labels, especially as many individuals identify themselves in this way already.

How can we inspire people to create their own identity away from services if we only see a negative stereotype? In my opinion, if this is all you see my advice would be to go and get a job away from people going through tough transitions.

This short sightedness is exactly the same as the label led system that focuses on deficits and the surface symptoms. Not the bigger picture, what’s possible, the potential, the strengths and longevity away from services as opposed to being institutionalised within them.

What if an adventure or having a pet is the thing that will change a person’s future and bring them happiness? I am certainly not willing to get in the way of that, not in a million years. Even if it doesn’t go to plan, I would rather have tried than stood in the way of something that is important to someone I work with.

My final note:

“If someone can’t see the wood for the trees, they are so involved in the details of something that they do not understand or pay attention to the most important parts of it”.