Here in Tree House Liverpool CIC we have committed ourselves to changing our world by starting where we are. We create as many opportunities in and around our local park as we can which show off the capacity, assets and resources we already have as individuals and as a community: how generous, creative, resourceful, knowledgeable, hard working, wise, clever and kind we can be as well as to remind ourselves how powerful and joyful it is when we are doing something purposeful together to enrich a world we share.
How we do that more important to us than what we do. When we succeed, we create enabling environments which genuinely invite people to come as themselves, to be emotionally vulnerable, to be free from labels and stigmas and the social obligations to put up a pretence, an act, or to conform or fit in. These environments liberate people to reveal their true capacities and to learn, grow and move on. We explicitly engage in open dialogue because, through that we learn more about ourselves and how to better form relationships of trust and respect for and with others. These are congruent conversations through which constructive challenge, about the affect of our behaviour on others, whether intended or not, form an essential part. It is also important that we work to achieve something together. The emphasis on our collective impact is important, partly because it is empowering to see the material and physical changes we are making in the public space we share and partly because this means that the focus is not on the individual but on the difference we can make together to which all make a contribution. This means that issues which, in a conventional therapeutic context, are about the individual and a subject for introspection, for us are real things in the world which can be observed to have real consequences, both for the quality of the relationships we have with others but also for the extent to which they help, or not, us to achieve real, tangible things together.
We have found, through practice, that a couple of ingredients are vital to create an enabling environment. Our practice must be appreciative and we must start with the assumption that everyone has something of value to offer. It must be egalitarian and recognize skills or insights which, in mainstream society, are not afforded equal value. People must be free to choose, and that means choosing how much information about themselves they want to share and when as well as choosing when to come, and very importantly, when they can leave. Nor should anyone be forced to share information about their needs or vulnerabilities. We do not segregate people using these characteristics or assume that what people need in order to recover is determined by some objective and external assessment of what is ‘wrong’ with them. Indeed, our emphasis is on what we all need – connection, self worth, respect, to be truly seen and heard and to be part of something which helps to give our lives meaning and purpose.
Everyone is also invited and encouraged to be part of the process of planning, managing and leading. There is no fixed hierarchy or organizational structure. People come and go. Our practice is shaped by the people who are actively engaged at any one time and what they want to do, develop and help grow. This means that what we do is organic and constantly evolves to reflect the needs and input of those who are involved. This reflects the reality that no one can save anyone else and the route to a greater sense of wellbeing can only be directed from within ourselves. That no one can, in truth, be compelled to change and that real, and sustainable, growth can only emerge when we are actively choosing rather than conforming to the expectations of others. No one learns through compulsion and learning, growth and healing can only come from relationships of genuine trust, compassion and connection.
These ways of working come in part from lessons about what not to do drawn from critical reflection on past and current practices in urban regeneration and the impact of other services which are designed to help people in need. Conventional approaches seek first to identify the problems of a particular client group or community and then set out to solve them. This requires that professionals problematic those people and communities and develop a hypothesis about how, with their greater insight and understanding, they are going to intervene to make things better. With client groups, this leads to an assumption that what is judged to be ‘wrong’ with people in a particular group provides us with a clear insight into how to design a standardised methodology for putting things ‘right’. It leads professionals to label and ultimately stigmatize those groups and, indeed, whole areas as deprived, excluded or lacking in some way. It presupposes that professionals have all the answers and when people do not comply they are being stupid, self defeating or difficult. This is often true despite the fact that many good individuals within the system know that it is broken and that what they are expected to do is at odds with what their professional understanding is of what is right, or effective. Even when it is acknowledged that, to be sustainable, people need to ‘own’ the solution, it is professionals who structure the engagement processes which seek to secure that commitment. People are routinely engaged on terms and using methodologies which seek to educate, to preach, to explain and not listen or engage. Or, at worst, they manipulate participants to come up with the ‘right’ answers to pre-formulated questions. Questions which are predicated on a paternalistic view which sees no capacity in those in need and asserts a vision of what a good society should look like, and what constitutes health or valuable social and economic activity. Consultation is rarely about listening or learning but rather to giving people greater access to a more professional way of thinking about things, a ladder up to a particular understanding of wellbeing or prosperity with very little room for anyone to genuinely shape these ideas for ourselves or make them relevant to the lives they actually live.
The result of all of this activity and investment is rarely sustainable benefit for the communities or people intended as ‘beneficiaries’. If we look across the country at the areas which we currently judge to be deprived, they remain largely unchanged from similar maps going back 30 or 40 years. While professionals set out with good intentions, their hypotheses of how to effect change have clearly failed on the ground. The practice when this happens is often simply to reduce expectations and to start ‘playing the game’. In part mainstream services hide the reality of failure behind focusing to producing the appearance of success by focusing on things that can be readily judged, counted or seen, such as the numbers of people participating or improvements to the built environment. These measures of ‘success’ focus on the short-term (numbers of people completing a programme or gaining a certificate) rather than the sustainable impact of those processes over all. The fact that the same individuals return, again and again, or that the broad picture remains the same falls from view. As does the need to see an individual as complex and unique. In the long-term, this has resulted in an increased scepticism among ‘beneficiaries’ and communities and a growing distrust of professional expertise and any insights they might actually have into health, healing or growth. As the BREXIT vote suggests the communities which have been the subject of regeneration initiatives are now populated by people whom have a deep suspicion of professionalism, kind words, promises and reasoned arguments. That they are hurt and angry and feel stripped of pride and purpose. Before we judge that anger we should perhaps ask ourselves if it was not the case that the majority of benefits from the millions and millions we put in these investments over the last decades have accrued not to the needy or the vulnerable but rather to the property developers and the professionals?
These ways of thinking and doing persist. Current service silos and funding regimes continue to place emphasis on the solutions professionals bring to the problems they perceive. Funding applications invite those seeking investment to set out their assessment of the issues besetting the segregated client groups or communities we work with and the methods we will be using to respond to them. They require us to set out, in advance, solutions to the complex needs of individuals we have never met. We are invited to present fictional processes which can be easily enumerated for which the underlying assumption remains that people who experience the same kind of problems will benefit from preformulated solutions they have little or no role in shaping. Arguably those in the most competitive positions are those who are most willing to pretend that complex, dynamic and unpredictable communities can be forced to comply neatly with a pre-conceptualised regime. Once funding is secured services will be held to account largely for those things which can be readily measured – how many, how much and how often. To provide that evidence it is necessary to compel people to immediately reveal their vulnerabilities and deficits and conform to those generalised set of assumptions in order to qualify as beneficiaries. Forms must be completed, ones that emphasise their deficits and force them to comply with processes that express organisational convenience and professional prejudices. In doing so, we would isolate them from their friends, families and communities in an infantilising process which results in them feeling worthless, broken and inferior. These standard practices and processes create people who are, as a result, more dependent on us and, therefore, much less likely to have a sense of self-reliance and autonomy or be able to find ways of moving forward which require that they possess these qualities. The price of these processes is whole groups of people and communities whose identity has been subsumed by the label which professionals and funding bodies have attached to them who have condemned to a life of dependency.
The work Tree House Liverpool has been doing in Newsham Park over the past couple of years hints at a different way of doing things. We are beginning to collect evidence of impact. Where it works, our practice has helped people develop a stronger sense of their own sense of worth. They regain a sense of agency and an identity which goes well outside that of the label attached to them at their crisis point. They have connected to a wider world. They have taken responsibility for themselves and have begun to initiate solutions which work for them because they have emerged, with support from others, from their individual experience and understanding of the world. Rather than thinking of themselves as an addict, a mental health patient, an unskilled or sick person, they begin to be able to describe themselves in terms of their unique capacities, insights and skills. This transformation does not occur in a formulaic way and each person’s journey is different. Part of that journey is the recognition that their past experiences, both positive and negative, are a resource for them in thinking about how to move forward. This process of ‘honouring the pain’ values all of them and their experiences so that there is a feeling that they have been seen, valued and wholeheartedly been accepted as they are. Through acting with others, they are able to experience themselves as a person of resource, of capacity and agency who is worthy of respect. Whilst the conditions which foster that self-realisation are often frustratingly intangible, we know the feeling of energy and authenticity which accompanies it. And yet to conform to the demands of those from whom we so far tried to seek support would be to destroy much of what we do which is powerful and poison the wells we have already dug. We would have to enumerate, segregate and seek to hold ourselves to account using proxy indicators which bear no relationship to the priorities we know we need to have to continue to develop this precious practice. What we hope for is that more and more people will begin to seek to understand it on its own terms even if it requires them to develop new thinking. That there will be those who help us to continue to grow, learn, develop, evolve THIS difficult to describe, manage, run but powerful ‘thing’. Because all that matters is what REALLY happens and what we do works, here. Because in a world of make believe this is for REAL folks!