I have a dilemma. All my working life I have been a “helping professional” in one capacity or another. It was an important part of my identity and yet at the same time I remember it taking me away from being ordinary and although part of me liked that there was another part that struggled with it. When I was a young social worker and lived in Hindpool I believed in community social work. I followed people like Bob Holman and living and working in my own neighbourhood seemed straightforward enough. Somehow over the years as I have completed more training, gained more qualifications and worked for big organisations that encourage us to label families/people “marginalised” “vulnerable” “complex” etc I have lost touch with my ordinary and this, I now realise matters. It matters very much.
Being Barrovian is who I am. Fierce working class pride and goodness learned from others around me. In the 80’s we came together to support the miners. We made things happen, not because we were paid helpers but because we knew we could and we cared enough to act.
Over the last eighteen months, challenges have come thick and fast. I don’t always know what the answers are to the questions that seem to arise. LBf’s has prided itself on becoming a CIC and keeping going, attempting to keep the principles that we set out with. It has been a tough journey. Until 2017 I had always worked in the statutory sector, as a social worker, as a foster parent, as a child therapist in CAMHS. I have taken children away from their families and I have worked with children placed with adopters and foster parents struggling to cope with the consequences. I have seen young people and parents suicidal and desperate. I have been part of serious case reviews where children and young people have died. I’ve been asked to take part in learning lessons from serious case reviews trying to understand what went wrong.
After being seriously ill last year and scaring everyone, including myself, a few things have become clearer. Throwing out many of the theory books I’d collected and stopping to really question my own practice pulled me up short sometimes. Why do other people in my own community have to be “other”? Is it right that some of us label others? And what does it do to them and to us if we do? It’s subtle, not always apparent. Those with the power cannot grasp that the way they behave, without awareness, even with good intentions is nigh on impossible to call out when you depend on them for help and fear reprisal. It’s there between us professionals and families, it’s there between organisations and funders and between employers and employees. It is painful, distressing and hard to tolerate. In LBf’s we often speak proudly of the staff members who are now part of our team after having come to us for help. Through Love Barrow Together we are looking at how we can capture the steps and the learning so that more people can benefit. I have a niggle. It’s why we have to make the distinction. It’s the way in which we are encouraged to measure using the labels that we have applied to these families. Although subtle it feels almost self- congratulatory and separatist. I started to question: if I was a member of staff that was presented as having been a “family member” or “vulnerable” and expected to keep telling my story how would I feel? One of the things that I have become aware of is how much I have learned from being with and listening to my staff team. Those who have not taken the traditional route into the role seem to be more authentic, more able to be themselves in and outside of their work role, more ordinary and wholehearted. When funders or commissioners want to know how many “vulnerable” or “marginalised” people we are helping I find myself wondering would I have wanted to be drawn attention to like that when I was a young mother living in poverty? And what does it do to people? I don’t like it. When I read Frankl’s account of the holocaust one of the things that struck me was the notion that under stress all of us humans resort to the same behaviours. It reminds me of the current interest in Adverse Childhood Experiences and what happens to us when there are too many.
I attended a meeting a few weeks ago where one of my colleagues Andy Travis spoke about his work and the use of ACE’s. What I really liked was the way in which he “showed up” and reflected upon his own life and what had prevented him from following a very different path. He told us that it was love, family, belonging that made all the difference to him. What would it be like for us in Barrow to start to think about advantageous childhood experiences like this and to use it to inform what we do? One of the messages from LBf’s was the significance of providing a sense of belonging for people and the untold outcomes that can arise from this.
I was recently invited to a zoom meeting with colleagues from the 3rd sector and found myself commenting on the emergence of adverts encouraging us to report child abuse and family violence. I think I am qualified to have an opinion about this. The figures of child protection and children in care have been rising consistently in poorer Northern communities like ours and these families are not strangers. They are also our neighbours. Of course we all knew they were going to struggle with lock down, how could they not, should we not be doing something locally to understand and support them? The work that my friend Becca Dove recently wrote about in Camden referred to the local authority not being afraid to talk about love or to be seen to watch kindly over their community and be on tap if needed. Mauricio Miller refers to this as the supplementary role that institutions can play, forming a “dome of protection”. Some of these ideas fit with our work in LBT where we have thought about what it might be like to not do things to people but rather to offer our expertise if and when needed. Our vision in LBT is to make sure that everyone in our community feels that they belong, that if they have reason to celebrate, grieve or worry they will know that someone will notice and someone will care. If the system here believes in the ordinary everyday goodness of our people maybe we can trust families enough to support them all to have equal access to choices that would allow more control over their lives, leaving their pride intact and leading to better outcomes. If we listen maybe they will teach us.
I believe we can do great things here in Barrow and Furness. I know that there are a number of us that want to take this opportunity and run with it. I also know something about how difficult change can be and the fundamental need to move at the speed of trust. Can we share our expertise, skills and care in a way that does not “other”? How can we really pay attention to what already exists and the answers people themselves have? How do the skills and services “professionals” (3rd sector or statutory) offer come together with what our councillors in the borough know and do with their residents? Can we start this journey, knowing that we all have to “show up” be authentic and make our own road by walking it together?
Crittenden P M (2015) Raising Parents: Attachment, Representation and Treatment London, UK: Routledge.
Dove B (2020) Someone to watch over me https://sw2020covid19.group.shef.ac.uk/2020/04/24/someone-to-watch-over-me/>
Frankl V E (New Ed edition 2004) Man’s Search For Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy London UK: Rider.
Holman B (2001) Champions for Children: The Lives of Modern Child care Pioneers. Bristol: Policy Press.
Lawrence M (2019) Love Barrow Together: Take a good rest… www.lovebarrowfamilies.co.uk/category/news
Miller M L (2017) The Alternative: Most of what you believe about poverty is wrong. Lulu Publishing Services.