Systems Change, Relationships and Love

When I was asked if I fancied writing a blog for Care Experienced Week, it wasn’t a tough decision. I enjoy putting pen to paper, because I like to reflect and writing helps me to do that. At Life Changes Trust we put a lot of effort into being a learning organisation, but at the same time we are often juggling lots of competing work demands and so reflection time can be squeezed.

Whether I’m putting a blog together, crafting a Tweet or creating a short journal entry, writing helps me to carve out time and space to take a step back and try to make sense of the world in some small way. I suppose it’s a form of storytelling, and unsurprisingly I’m a big reader too. One of my friends gave me a framed Louisa May Alcott quote that gives a bit of insight into what folk think about me:

“She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain”

I’m ok with this image of me as someone who lives in her own head a bit, as it has some truth, but isn’t the whole truth. The human brain is wired to think in stories – stories helped our distant ancestors share knowledge about how to survive in a hostile environment and became an essential element in the survival and development of our species.

In our work, we have found that giving people the tools to express themselves and tell their own story offers a route to a deeper understanding of what matters to young people with care experience, people living with dementia and unpaid carers. For anyone interested in designing services and supports that focus on what people need and want to live their lives well, this is vital territory.

A couple of years ago the Trust delivered a leadership programme for people who have important connections with the workforce and carers of young people with care experience. The programme was focused on systems change, in recognition that many of the challenges young people with care experience face are caused by system factors such as organisational and service behaviours, public attitudes, market forces and policy decisions and policy implementation.

The leadership programme was set a challenge by the Trust’s Advisory Group, a challenge which spoke to all of the above system dimensions, namely, “how do we put love and relationships at the heart of the care system?”

 

This challenge grounded the programme and set us off on a quest to start writing a fresh story about the care system with young people who have lived it.

 

The Advisory Group is made up of young people with their own unique experience of growing up in the care system, and for three years now we have been building relationships with them, both as individuals and as a group. I now realise that a lot of this has been about being alongside the group as they have developed their story. At the same time, it has been important that we share aspects of our own stories, both as people and as representatives of the Life Changes Trust.

We knew straight away that the group was going to be much more than the sum of its collective care experience, albeit that the perspective of the members, which is grounded in the often harsh realities of life growing up in the care of the state, has been invaluable to us as we have tried to design funding initiatives and create collaborations which truly have the potential to create lasting positive change.

We have learned that as individuals they have multi-faceted identities – including those of loyal friends, hard-working students, loving parents, passionate campaigners, talented creatives, thoughtful citizens and proud brothers and sisters. Their honesty and openness in sharing their experiences and perspectives has constantly inspired us as staff members to open up and connect as human beings as well as people with a job to do.

We took this ethos into the leadership programme and challenged participants to ask some searching questions of themselves – were they really ready to promote a relationship-based approach amongst the staff and carers they lead and represent? If staff and carers who get alongside young people every day are to show caring, loving behaviours, it is essential for organisations to show care for those same staff members and carers.

The leadership approach needed to create the kind of environment where people feel safe and supported to act with empathy and kindness, calls for different qualities to those we may traditionally associate with leadership.

Top down approaches are not helpful, because strong relationships require us to be present in the moment, to be self-aware and alert to the needs of others. In other words, people need autonomy and leaders need to be open to distributing their power. This type of leadership also calls for people to put their organisational competitiveness to the side. Tackling systems challenges requires us to work across organisational and service boundaries while keeping the focus on what young people need and want.

We held a residential as part of the systems leadership programme, and in the first day we got straight into some of this challenging territory. We found that the spirit of openness and honesty which had been present with the Advisory Group from day one was much more difficult to foster in a group of people with decades of professional experience behind them. There were some scary moments when we worried that the whole enterprise was doomed to failure. And of course some of these moments have now become the stuff of legend – stories that we dust off when we meet new people and want to let them know what we’re all about, or stories that lift us when we have doubts.

Ultimately, despite the rocky start, the programme proved to be influential in a number of ways. Rosie Moore, a former member of the Advisory Group which set the love and relationships challenge, was nominated by a member of the programme to take part in the Journey phase of the Independent Care Review, and has gone on to be a Co-Chair of the Love Group. New collaborations have developed, for example between Staf (Scottish Throughcare and Aftercare Forum) and CYCJ (the Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice) in relation to participation for young people with youth justice experience and trauma-informed approaches. Care Inspectorate standards were influenced – with a focus on inspectors assessing the quality of relationships available to young people in care settings. Internally, at the Life Changes Trust, we designed new application processes which privileged both relationships and the perspective of young people.

Perhaps more importantly than all of that, however, is the impact on individuals and the way they approach not only their work but their lives. By challenging us to open up and be honest about our personal traits, the programme gave us a small taste of what it must be like to be a young person who is constantly expected to share sensitive personal aspects of their lives with strangers. It also made us think about the ways young people try to take control of their own narrative and reflect on events as a means of reaching out to others – by knowing ourselves, we have greater potential to know others and build lasting relationships.

At the Life Changes Trust, we believe much of the legacy for the work we have been doing lies in people. Creating better lives is not a mission for someone else – it sits with all of us, every day, as we have the potential to build relationships. Not relationships with stakeholders, or potential partners, or people with lived experience, or funders or anyone else who we may think can help us advance a short-term agenda – but open relationships with other human beings, without judgement or assumption.

This is the true work of long-term system change, and young people with care experience are showing us the way.

Carole Patrick, Director of Evidence and Influencing, Young People with Care Experience Programme