"Help. A man has just fallen on the floor, has cracked his head open, is convulsing and I don't know what to do," came my 20 year old panic stricken words crackling down a walkie talkie. I stood alone and totally overwhelmed on the third floor of massive rolling shelter in Central London two days into volunteering. Luckily Bill, a resident of the shelter and Charlotte, a skilled support worker stepped in and the person survived.
This experience and others like it had a profound and sobering impact on me. I had thought I would be able to change the world from the frontline. Instead, I realised I wasn't the right person for the frontline. That time left me with enormous respect for the skills, capacity and role of people like Charlotte. It's tough. It's hard. And sadly isn't as valued and respected enough by society.
I opted for a slightly safer route down policy and campaigning before ending up at Lankelly Chase. But ever since, I've focused on how policy at local and national level can be rooted in the experiences of those receiving and delivering services.
I've never had a conversation with a support worker, drug worker, psychiatric nurse or housing officer that hasn't shifted my thought process, or given me new insights. These insights might not come dressed in a glossy report, or delivered with the polish of a think tank or research company - but they come from a place of knowledge, experience and passion.
And because they don't come in this glossy, finessed package somehow their voices aren't sought or heard so clearly when sought. They're dismissed with words such as "anecdotal", "they would say that wouldn't they", "they're not representative" and "they've got a chip on their shoulder".
Instead we need others to translate frontline workers' experiences - making them safe and palatable, but diluted and stripped of the nuance, richness and passion. And I'm not saying there isn't a role for research or think tanks - because both voices add value.
Our repeated ignoring of frontline workers' own voices is, in my experience, creating an unhappy, disillusioned and disempowered set of individuals. How can we expect them to support others to have a voice when they feel powerless themselves?
And if you don't feel you can speak out then dangerous environments breed and grow. Saying you support whistleblowing isn't enough. Challenging the prevailing wind is scary. It can feel easier to say nothing.
Systems Changers was set up by Lankelly Chase as a response to this. Designed and delivered with the PointPeople and Snook it takes frontline workers on a six month journey of observation, exploration and inquiry about the change required. A journey that allows them to question their practice, to explore with others what's not working. The programme marries service design methodologies with systems thinking and different approaches to change. Most importantly Systems Changers is our way of saying that the voices of frontline workers matter.
We hope that through this journey - Lankelly Chase, PointPeople, Snook and the organisations that employ the participants - are giving frontline workers the permission and space to question, to challenge and to dream of a different world.
Programmes like this are valuable, but a culture of constant learning and adaptation where everyone's voice is valued is needed. The insights that I've taken from the contact with people on the programme so far demonstrate just why their voice counts. Insights that show just how powerless they feel, how limiting the bureaucracy surrounding them is, how much their ability to empathise with people is pushed out in favour of navigating a complex web of referral forms, monitoring databases and targets.
We will be sharing more insights and content from Systems Changers and we hope you find it as interesting as we are.
Alice Evans Bio: It was while Alice was working with homeless people that she realised that single approaches to homelessness, mental health and drugs issues were not the best way to help people. Alice found that even though people were often talking about the same person, they were coming at their problems from different angles - help was not joined up, and the person they were trying to help would end up feeling powerless. This insight made her realise the whole system needed reforming, starting with the needs of the individual and their family and working to ensure all the voices can be heard. This is something that she feels incredibly passionately about.
Alice has worked in this area for nearly 20 years and at Lankelly Chase spends most of her time focussing on Systems Change and Place based work.
Lankelly Chase is an independent charitable trust. Our vision is of a society where everyone can lead a rewarding life and people who face severe and multiple disadvantage such as homelessness, substance misuse, mental illness, violence and abuse and chronic poverty are able to participate fully with healthy networks of support. We fund and support innovative practice, policy and research to understand how change happens for people facing severe and multiple disadvantage. Working with people with lived experience as well as the voluntary and statutory sectors, we want to champion lasting solutions to the systems we are trying to change.
We believe through sharing our work and our learning, building relationships and collaborating that we can collectively advance positive social change.
The PointPeople are a collective of strategic designers, social scientists and technologists who design for systems change.
They do quick, high leverage prototyping and thinking to inform how they approach problems and connect and coordinate all types of organisations and people around a theme.
They are committed to driving systemic change for a more equitable and imaginative society.
Snook are an award-winning design agency based in Glasgow and London, helping organisations produce great services by putting people first. Snook put people at the centre of everything they do through research, strategy, design and delivery. Snook offer a range of services to tackle problems, build on opportunities and design solutions.