Taking a journey out of isolation, having the conversation and opening up the models
By Becca Dove family worker and Head of Service for Family Early Help. Tim Fisher social worker and Service Manager for Family Group Conference and Restorative Practice. Both work for the London Borough of Camden.
Going on a journey
We are writing this in what feels like the all-consuming twilight of a lockdown Saturday night. Options are limited. One thing on our minds as we message each other about PFAN (this website), and our thoughts and feelings about parents’ expertise in the system, is a particular journey we took in pre-lockdown February. You know how it is during COVID; activities are limited and locked down but the memories are not. For us, the feelings and thoughts are running even more so, on setting number five.
The journey we are reminiscing about was from Camden in London to Birmingham for the event Reforming the child protection system: Parents and their Allies Together. The trip was a fulfilling and vivid one for us, and this photo makes us both smile from our respective homes, 100 miles apart.
This is particularly bright in the memory because it was Team Camden travelling all together on the train, staying in Birmingham. It was the first time we had left Camden ‘village’ as a gang and ventured north as a team. Here is a description of the event.
For this blog, we wanted to bring something about our thoughts on the idea of ‘team’, about the responsibility of managers in our human system that provides services to families, and about re-framing the notion of ‘leadership’ and ‘who leads’. The pre-lockdown travels to Birmingham gave us a wonderful opportunity to live that out in real time. In that photo is a mix of parent activists and managers. Unless you knew all of us, you wouldn’t know, nor should it matter, which is which, which brings us to the idea of team and togetherness.
Team roles & responsibilities…
Those to Team Camden…
Our part in Team Family
…and from the gyroscope of lockdown – where everything seems to be changing from a locked position – can there truly be a Team Social Work?
… what about Team Human?
Team social work
This is what parent, supporter and seven-year Camden’s Family Advisory Board member, Sandra Drummond (second from the right in the photo) had to say on Twitter about that Birmingham trip;
“What a day! Great to hear people on the same page, I felt very humble hearing the experience of others on their long journeys against a system that often gets it very wrong. Well done to all and the coming together as one.”
It’s a feeling that Sandra captures so well here, a feeling of active solidarity and the journey travelled together. We would follow Sandra on that, and we might suggest that in the current moment, togetherness is important, and we need to stick and hold. Sticking with that togetherness feeling (figuratively, not literally of course), here is a little film clip of another event, a pre-lockdown conversation, which we also remember fondly. It was talking with people from all parts of Team Social Work; parents, young people, practitioners, academics, practice managers. In this clip Professor Anna Gupta gives the message straight down the line about building the alliance, that forms an essential part of shared and distributed leadership.
Coming out of isolation
How does this shake down for managers like us? Hannah Arendt in her famous book The Human Condition said ‘to be isolated is to be deprived of the capacity to act’ (1958 p. 188) Isolation is a very familiar word at the moment isn’t it in Covid-19 world, isolation is a necessary tactic, as we try to practice physical isolation and simultaneously hang in there emotionally, staying in touch by hook or by crook.
Long-term strategies of emotional separation, like the parts in a gummed up machine, will tell on our relationships. Instinctively we know this, so we have to be ready to position ourselves closer to people when and where we can. Leaders in helping human services can embrace (figuratively for now) the togetherness and answer the call of responsibility. This is not only in the traditional sense of the word but also in the way of ‘response-ability’ – a term reframed by the writer Donna Haraway to describe a more connected practice. This refers to our ability to make alliances and ‘to stay with the trouble’ together. Being response-able, we would seek out more connected leadership and connections to leaders from all over the village, not simply those in the state-run buildings and offices. As the authors of this article in The Conversation so succinctly put it, “now more than ever we need diverse sources of expertise, experience and leadership” https://theconversation.com/recession-hits-maori-and-pasifika-harder-they-must-be-part-of-planning-new-zealands-covid-19-recovery-137763
Leaders in the ‘village’
A while back in Camden, we started to use the term village for the people here, a ‘village’ within the larger city of London. Imagining a ‘village’ serves as a way of seeing the group of different people living and working in Camden as a community. What is happening in Camden, the village, is of course a key question for us helping professionals that want to be remain helpful during and after COVID. That means spending time at the crossroads in the village, the intersection in the community, both physical and virtual (particularly at the moment). Because it is here, outside of the offices and council spaces, that the alliances can be made, conversations had and where leadership is found. Seek lived experience and you find expertise and leaders.
Villagers have long memories. Their stories can offer a context that simply is not available if professionals are isolated from the community. Stories and direct relationships with their tellers are real opportunities to restore, to renew the real feelings, to feel in stereo and move further than the two-dimensional echoes of feedback forms (important though those forms can sometimes be). Clarrisa Stevens is a strident and brilliant parent & relational activist, and her story at the end of this film is important for us in Camden. The whole film gives a strong flavour of the leadership example she sets:
This leadership from citizens is not always formally recognised but we have all seen it at conferences and meetings. Leaders in the room are evident, to be followed and to be listened to. In Birmingham we saw that, as well as in the blogs here on PFAN and in and through organisations like Reframe.
In 2018, Camden parent-activists including Clarissa started a major participatory research project into child protection practices with Annie from Surviving Safeguarding (very well regarded national citizen leader) and Professor Anna Gupta. This enabled parents to talk about their experiences and encouraged them to participate and influence ‘the system.’ https://www.camden.gov.uk/childrens-safeguarding-social-work#wamt
We called it Camden Conversations and its whole ethos has been about talking and trying to create a future together, it offered a means to uncover new and imaginative responses to protecting children and supporting families. Parents and other family members have been at the centre of it; planning it, doing it and making the recommendations. Interviews and group conversations were led by family members – leaders – who were trained as peer researchers.
“It was really powerful. It allowed me to feel and understand how it might feel to be in the position of a service user & to overcome barriers in practice.” (Social worker feedback to Camden Conversations, 2019).
In councils, the frameworks for action and the language of good intention are everywhere. Values have to be renewed all the time if they are not to become misplaced assumptions or platitudes. And to renew professional values authentically and honestly, the community must feel they can share in developing our professional practice. Martin Pratt is the most senior senior manager in Team Camden social work as Director of Supporting People (which includes children’s services). He has often been heard to say that “the Camden model of social work is a journey” and that the “organisation should be held to its values” .
In the film we mention above, you will see Martin side by side with Clarrisa, and how Martin clearly recognises and honours her citizen leadership. What we witnessed that day is that activist leaders like Clarissa, and the many other activists who participated in that event, can shift culture and move even the most earnest and relational professional. That includes us too. Our experience has managers who practice this way is that we found our stance has often changed simply by seeking out those conversations with village leaders and listening deeply.
Taking the journey, having the conversation
Maybe by taking the journey together and having conversations, we refute a kind of deep isolation. We prevent the valorising of the marble figures of ‘professional’ or ‘service user’, inviting in some texture and feelings, and saving the blisters caused by over-thumbing the pages of our professional text books for the perfect diagram or magic system configuration. Instead we suggest trying to open up the models so they are alive and adapting to the changing environment of the ‘village’ and the citizen leaders who live there. This is not sacrificing our responsibility as state-actors or professionals, but instead taking an explicit position of response-ability.
This is not to say that it is easy, or that we do it right, but we try and we learn all the time by trying. What we have to offer is our experience of doing things together. To emphasise this, we share this film of a whole service meeting run by parents and young people (don’t be alarmed, the event was long before social distancing measures came into place). This mixing of people, the removing of lanyards, the deep listening, the acknowledgement of diverse sources of leadership – this is what we’re constantly trying to be true to:
In Camden Conversations, we were building an appreciative consensus around the idea that we are the system.It’s the people in it that have to own it, the harm as well as the good. Leadership is about the ability to respond, and is not confined to professionals with certain qualifications or roles. We must position ourselves to co-create change and value those in the community that can offer valuable experience and expertise. Our responsibility as leaders is to listen to our ‘village’ and take their lead in what we should care about. What they care about is what we should care about, together.