The return to routines, following welcome disruptions, distractions and diversions over the Summer, prompted a period of reﬂection for us at Brent Care Journeys (BCJ). Over the next couple of months we will publish blogs and podcasts which move some of our private and informal conversations into external and professional spaces.
To kick this off I spent time with our junior project workers. These colleagues are employed on the basis of their lived experience; experience which we are conﬁdent will enhance the mission of our project, namely to constructively disrupt some of what isn’t working in the care system . Part of our role as ‘professionals’ is to tap into their unique qualities, so that their experience becomes something which they can apply as expertise. We do this in a range of ways, from deeply attentive support and supervision, to the provision of bespoke training and learning. We get some of this right, but working in this way remains largely untrodden, so there are rich opportunities for learning as a result of all that we get wrong.
It took a while for Ali to trust me. Things had to get to a tipping point before we had a pivotal conversation. Everything since that conversation has been hopeful, life affirming and exciting. But everything before it was tense, stunted and, to be honest, painful. Reﬂecting on this makes me feel a bit embarrassed because some small changes could have made a big difference.
Ali is very gracious about it all now. In a nutshell I had to push at the edges of my organisation’s tolerance for employing him because of his criminal record. At the time I felt like I was doing my very best. However Ali’s challenging response made me anxious about how he would be in the role. In retrospect, there I was, looking like I look and speaking like I speak; head-to-head, asking him about the detail of his offending and how we could mitigate against reoffending if he came into post; triggering numerous previous experiences of systemic and structural discrimination. Our breakthrough came later when I asked him to grace me with the beneﬁt of the doubt; “try to assume that I want the best for you”. His answer was blunt: “Why would I do that?”.
Fortunately that is now in the past. Now, we get to hang out and work together and have open, interesting conversations which develop us both. We talk about the extent to which people don’t understand the mentality and mindset of ‘the streets’; the places and spaces in which young people are growing up. For Ali and his peers, being young in his community has been deﬁned by learning to cope and how to curate experiences of trauma.
Barnardo’s, like lots of organisations, talk positively about being ‘trauma informed’. Working alongside young people at BCJ really elicits an alternate version of operating within traumatised environments. Ali characterises it as “muscle memory”: helpful reactive behaviour which has aided survival, yet an instinctive response which doesn’t continue to serve us well in more positive situations.
Ali told me that in his view, not being parented (or parented badly) has a lifetime legacy. When that interacts with race and poverty the impact is intensiﬁed. He was reﬂective about going into workplaces with mindsets that belong in previous timeframes or different settings:
“someone might speak to you in a way which makes you feel degraded or you misinterpret them. This could set you o . The outcome would be bad.”
When we talk about what a workplace needs to be in order to employ people with lived experience, Ali spoke about tolerance. He is grateful that he was in a work environment where, when he made a mistake, he was be supported to understand what had gone wrong, how it needed to be different and then held in his growth through it.
Ali went on to deepen my appreciation of what it means to be young right now. He contextualised what he calls “living for appearances”, when the essence of our uniqueness is worn away by the fact that everything is marketed or monetised. He said that the best thing about BCJ - for him and the young people who are part of it - is that, simply, we come as ourselves; we are (in his words) “genuine”. This juxtaposition between prevalent youth culture and the culture we are creating for young people at BCJ gave me pause. Offering people an opportunity to be their authentic selves, validating their experiences, seeing themselves represented – these are inexpensive, essential ways to create profound changes for communities of people.
Authenticity clearly implicates proﬁciency in terms of equality, diversity and inclusion. On this Ali was clear, signalling to the extent to which every organisation ‘bangs on’ about EDI without meaningful implementation or impact.
“Is it authentic or is it just words that sound good? What about me and my criminal record? For many jobs I was disregarded out of hand. That was different here. That’s what meaningful inclusion is.”
As positive as it is to hear this, I asked ‘what would you change about your experience of working with BCJ?’. He replied:
“..it took too long. When I applied I thought it would be a week. It was six months of processes and checks etc. I get it now for charities, but at the time I could have given up, been disheartened. When someone like me applied for a job it’s because they need a job and they need money – now not in six months time. You should say at the point of interview, clearly, what the time span can be like.”
When I asked ‘what has changed you?’ his answer was refreshing.
“I have more gratitude – feel less alone, I have more in common with more people. I’m grateful to be in community with people who have such important shared experiences.”
Ali’s ﬁnal message for us is that it is essential for us to live and grow in a society which offers mentorship. He is passionate about the need for essential youth services and strongly believes that a decrease in crime would be dramatic if this investment was adequately made. In an ideal world Ali would have liked to see BCJ begin with a primary investment in youth provision which, in time, could have developed groups of young people who are enabled to create change. I think he’s onto something. There is discomfort in having to create community and solidarity with and between people whilst simultaneously pursuing their power to enact change.
I look forward to shared projects with Ali, and when one day we don’t work together I will be the poorer. There is a truth and a vibrance about his work which is energising and inspiring. His skills for engaging young people and putting them at ease are like treasure. This kind of raw talent is a blessing for us all.
Why young people in care are an important part of society.
Foster care is a designed to provide temporary care for children whether it be long or short term. These are children who for whatever reason are unable to live with their biological family this may be due to abuse, neglect, or abandonment. Although the goal is to reunite children with their families on a lot of occasions it may not be possible so other measures like adoption and independent living arrangement are put in place. Now a days it is a common theme that many young people stay in foster care for extended periods of time and when they eventually age out of the system they are faced with challenges of finding stability in areas such as housing, employment, education and support with ongoing mental health issues. Despite the challenges young people in care face, they offer unique perspectives, strength and skills that should be utilised to enrich our society. Here are some reasons why:
• Resilience: young people in foster care experience more disruption than most people can imagine, yet they are able to adapt and survive in uncertain circumstances. Their resilience is an asset when facing new challenges.
•Diversity; foster care is not limited to one race, ethnicity, religion or culture. Young people from every corner of the world are in foster care. This brings cultural richness to communities which in turn enables society to break down stereotypes and build bridges across their differences.
•Empathy; young people who have been in care experience loss, grief, trauma, and isolation. As a result, they often have a deep understanding of and compassion for others in pain and who are suffering. They can offer support to those who are struggling and serve as a source of inspiration for others.
•Advocacy; young people in foster care have, first-hand, been affected by the challenges and barriers that exist with the system. They have the knowledge of what works and what does not, and can advocate for changes that will improve the system for future generations.
To conclude, young people in foster care are an integral part of society - they have unique strengths and perspectives that can contribute to making our communities more resilient diverse, empathetic, and inclusive. As a society, we must create systems and structures that support them in achieving their goals and dreams. It is imperative that we recognise the value they bring and welcome them with open arms into every corner of society.
I was invited to write a blog post about my achievements, but I initially found this to be a difficult task. Recognizing your own achievements isn’t easy and putting them into words is even harder because it’s tricky to guide your mind into everything you’ve accomplished. Especially when you haven’t always received love in life, it’s hard to love yourself. I think an added stress of talking about this for me is that I see talking about my achievements as a way to inspire other people, which can feel like a lot of pressure. It was when I chose to put my needs forward as a priority that I began to accomplish so much, and as a result I have in fact, achieved a lot.
A home is the most important thing. It’s a necessary essential in life. I have survived an extensive history of homelessness due to fleeing severe abuse in early childhood and within multiple family homes. I didn’t want to be homeless, nor did I ever expect I was going to be. However, I knew I no longer wanted to be mistreated. It was very difficult, but the outcome of leaving was that I was going to accept the challenges ahead and not look back in order to better myself by finding a happier path in life. For that reason, I believe choice is everything. If you want a better life, then sometimes you have to choose the things you don’t like. By doing this for myself, I gained knowledge, more positive experiences and an overall peace of mind.
For me, mental health is a very pressured, sensitive topic to talk about openly, especially because I’m only really starting to begin to understand my own relationship with it. I was living in a very low mood; nothing was making me get up or want to do anything. Felt so isolated with my thoughts, I felt like no one wanted to hear or that I would be a burden / ridiculous for wanting to talk to anyone about it. But I knew I needed help, and I wanted help. So I went to the first place that I could think of, which was the GP. This was the first time that I spoke to someone about how I was truly feeling, not about my problems or what happened to me, but just that I needed help. Although it was a 5-month waiting list to speak with a therapist, I felt relieved because finally someone was going to listen to me, be on my side and help me. During this time, I navigated the housing system and found safe accommodation. This was huge in changing my mood because being in the right environment allowed me to speak freely with people who were there to support me and who actually want to hear how I felt. Mental health is an obstacle which can distract you from self-care, nurturing and finding a job. By tackling my own mental health challenges, I was able to take better care of myself which put me in a place to undertake professional accomplishments.
Professional / Academic Accomplishments
Having moved through many countries in my childhood and teenage years, I felt my education was impacted because I had to learn a new language and often felt like I was behind in my learning. Along with this, there was a lot going on in my life, so I struggled to focus. All of this made feel like I wanted to give up. When I moved back, I hoped that England would be a place of opportunity to help me grow as a person. I took myself to the job centre where I interviewed for an internship at Barnardo’s, a charity geared around supporting. I was accepted onto this programme and completed the ‘Kickstart’ Scheme which supports young people claiming Universal Credit.. This was an invaluable experience as it gave me a new insight into how support can be received from an organisational perspective, and I still talk with the people I used to work with.
Further, during my time at Barnardo’s, I completed my English writing and reading GCSE. It was hard because I didn’t even think I had the ability to complete it. But, I wanted to move forward in life and I wanted better things. I received a 90% mark and feel immensely proud for achieving this.
Last week, I showcased a film that I authored, directed and recruited actors for. It’s called ‘The Elephant in the Room’ which is about a social worker and a young person; how they interact within the care system. In the course of the film we realise that their issues at lie not with one another, but within the system which is never addressed.
There’s difficulty in recognizing your own self-worth in a society that places immense pressure on you to do well, especially when you’ve faced adversity throughout your life. It can feel like you’re built for failure when you’ve had to overcome various challenges with only yourself to rely on and congratulate. Nevertheless, it’s important to take time to reflect and acknowledge what you’ve achieved because this is a form of self-love and care towards yourself. Going forward with my life, I want to extend what I have learnt about overcoming trauma and difficulty in order to serve what has been served to me, and to carry forward the support that I have received because everyone matters. I am passionate about using all that I have experienced and achieved to inspire others and to show them that things can change.
There are so many things about my care experience that make me incredibly lucky. That doesn’t change the deep and sharp bursts of pain that creep up on me, or the ultra-vigilant anxiety that has become a constant companion, but I am fortunate to be a voice for the power that can come with adversity.
Requiring ‘care’ is absolute vulnerability. In that powerlessness as a child my thoughts mostly focussed on what I wished I could change. As an adult however, I am more often able to find the things that I would not change - mostly the relationships and values that I wouldn’t have otherwise had. I have places that I do not biologically belong, but that show me a love and compassion that I really need.
For a recent birthday, one of my carers wrote some words for me. They sting with truth and validation. They pointedly parody the sentimentalisation of care that the mainstream tries to sell us. They are precious and private to me but, like I say, this is all about vulnerability, so I will share an excerpt with you here:
We did not find you on our doorstep
in a shoe box.
We did not win you in a raffle
or claim you on a station platform as an evacuee
or a duffle-coated bear, with a label.
you melded into our family
as each of us grew,
The passage goes on to say how there is “.. no true, accurate or proper word..” for a child who needs the care of people beyond their family and how, at the time, some people wondered if I was the “home help”.This dislocation hits hard and stays with many care-experienced people for their whole lives.
I know that my experience is exceptional, so my plea is #ifyoucare can you do more?