Welfare

18.04.17

Our stories should be strengths on which we build

Source: PSE Apr/May 17

Carolyn Wilkins OBE, CEO of Oldham Council, discusses the important role local government can play in enabling and empowering people to tell their own positive stories.

In Oldham, we’re constantly looking for ways to improve in our role as corporate parents. A few years ago, we introduced the ‘Children’s Champions’ programme, pairing children and young people with our senior leadership team and working together to explore ways we can offer more than core services. This has ranged from helping a young person through changing a difficult foster care arrangement, encouraging a love of reading by arranging to meet a favourite author, to sharing in the frustrations and excitement of moving to the first independent accommodation. It includes the council acting as ‘the family firm’ with a commitment to support work experience and apprenticeships. 

Young people shared their experiences of the programme at a recent conference, and I was struck by the contribution from the young woman I champion. I was the only person she had met from the council that hadn’t already read her file. I only know as much about her story as she has chosen to share. This choice was a breakthrough for her; it meant she was to free to present herself in the way she wanted. We focused on her hopes and her dreams, not the worst things that had happened to her. We talked about how she wanted her story to develop. 

There is a fascinating TED talk by Nigerian writer Chimanda Ngozi Adichie highlighting the danger of a single story. She states that to show someone as only one thing over and over again, to create a single story, means that this is what they become. So in our terms, they become a Looked After Child, a patient, a tenant, a victim – and only that. She stresses that “the single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story”. And a case file, even one with multiple authors, is still very much in danger of being a single story.

Changing the service user relationship 

These ideas were further reinforced for me recently when I was asked to speak at our adult social care conference. I had been invited to talk about my leadership journey so far, and had prepared accordingly. It came as a bit of a shock when I was introduced as joining the day to share my views on the main challenges facing social work and wider public services now and in the future. 

There had clearly been a mix up, but that was ok; there are plenty of challenges facing all of us in public services, and social care is no exception. Many of these, such as genuine system-wide integration with health and social care, are also incredible opportunities. But that doesn’t make them easy. For me a fundamental challenge is the need to change the relationship between public services and the people who use them. 

We are working hard across Oldham to develop an approach that is based on the assets and strengths of our people, communities and places. We all need to be seen as more than our immediate needs and problems. We are investing in asset-based approaches, including staff development that builds confidence and competence in areas like strengths-based conversations. We focus on the ‘co-operative workforce’, which recognises delivering on outcomes needs and the contribution of everyone – of carers, of volunteers, of individuals themselves – not solely that of our paid workforce. This co-operative approach is one that connects strongly with stories, with journeys and with leadership. 

My two talks (the one I gave, and the one I didn’t) are actually connected. On the day in question, I had prepared a story of my leadership journey. I’d prepared some examples of challenges faced, but ones that showed how I’d overcome, learnt and moved on. This was to be my story, as I’d written it. Its focus was on opportunities and progress. But of course, this is not my only story. 

How would others write it? What would my story be if it was set out in a case file rather than a CV? Where would the focus be then? And what if your story is not one of your achievements? What if, instead, it is one that sets out all the hardest things you’ve faced, or the worst things that happened to you – how differently would you be viewed? Where would the stigma be? The stigma of ‘being in care’, of a ‘broken home’, of being ill, of living below the poverty line. 

Like many people, my story also includes some of these things. I was adopted when I was six weeks old. My adoptive parents later divorced. My ‘sibling group’ was separated. I looked after my younger sister when we weren’t in school and my mum had to go to work. But I am not defined or limited by these things. I can write my own story. 

Our challenge as leaders of organisations, of systems and of places is to make sure that this fundamental opportunity is available to everyone. It doesn’t matter whether we call it asset based, strengths based or public service reform. What matters is that, at its very heart, our goal in changing how we work, how we connect, is about how we enable and empower people to tell their own positive stories. 

Our stories should be just that: ours. They should not limit us. They should be strengths on which we build.

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