What are we putting up with that we could change?
Going UpStream…When Arm Bands Are Enough
The story wasn’t complete – I’m developing the understanding that it never really is. In my last piece I shared my experience of “stepping into systems change”. The tug of war between addressing what we are faced with now and stepping away, far enough to challenge it at the source. Drawing on the metaphor Dan Heath uses in his book “Up Stream” to describe the need for such approaches;
Imagine sitting by the river with your friend, you see kids struggling as they float downstream, crying out for help. Both strong swimmers you and your friend jump in to fish them out. More kids come down the river, all struggling and need help. You both keep pulling kids out of the river. You’re both committed but tired. But then your friend jumps out of the river – you’re abandoned – “where are you going?!”. I’m going upstream to stop the kids falling in the river”.
This was part of my personal reflection on the first weeks of initiating an inquiry into;
What systems perpetuate multiple disadvantage for children and young people in York?
And this Sunday evening, the last in January, and the eve before twelve incredible individuals come together, for the first time to collectively explore that question, I am reflecting on what I have observed and learned since November 2020.
Having collated truly inspiring applications in the form of letters, films, love actually moments and even a song, I have been moved by the desire and energy to improve systems for children and young people in York; even while we’re all stretched beyond recognition, adjusting daily to what the pandemic and life brings us.
Twelve individuals who bring passion and energy, skills, experience and ideas. They each draw from different professional disciplines – too many to name and yet not nearly enough. Together we begin to represent the many perspectives of children and young people. Most of the group bring trusted relationships with children and young people in York and a broad network to draw on and feed out the learning from the inquiry.
With all that, it’s hard to imagine where do we begin. Throughout January we have navigated home schooling and Zoom fatigue while completing Lumina Sparks Profiles (psychometric analysis), exploring who we are as individuals, our preferences, core “sweet spot” and how we behave under pressure. Expertly facilitated by the Lumina Coach, we’ve learned more about our individual super powers and how to step into that knowing.
In February, the Lumina Coach will bring the knowledge of our individuality together and help us to go up stream;
- Where might we struggle as a team?
- Who might make good pairings?
- What is our collective strength?
- Where will we make the most impact?
Intentionally starting with who we are, helps us to understand other people. It will support us to continuously seek diverse perspectives.
It does not however, mean that we get to skip the struggles and rollercoaster of group formation and collaboration, and nor would I want to. Life is rich, and feelings are feelings…with an ‘s’. In Untamed, Glennon Doyle says about feelings, “we’re meant to feel them…ALL”. If we’re not feeling, then we are numbing, or at best pretending.
We will take this commitment forward into our systems change work. We must not go so far up stream that we miss the rumble and miss the point. The point at which children were falling into the river. Because we were so busy trying to to be the ones that make things better, we looked too far ahead. My Lumina profile brought a challenge to me – highly “big picture/conceptual thinker” I might, (and have previously) unintentionally, tipped into change for change sake.
If we find the point, or lever for change, (the point where kids are entering the water) we have to understand what’s really going on. Before calling in for help to build a fence to stop people getting too close to the river; before building a bridge to help people over it, let’s make the space to find out that; the children weren’t falling in after all – they were jumping in and having fun with their friends. But, they weren’t strong swimmers so needed a bit of help.
Arm Bands are enough.
Now, in a world where armbands are not yet invented, as may be the case in this inquiry, this might take a minute to figure out, but no need to do it alone. I’m pretty sure if we’d taken the time downstream to ask the right question, and listen, the kids would have told us exactly what they wanted and needed without much more investigation required.
Once arm bands are available for all, before we continue our plight to make the river perfect, can’t we just jump in for a while? Feel the cool of the water wrapping around us, the thrill of the rapids and the joy of sharing experiences with other.
The story doesn’t just end here…
Starting Out in System Change Work…
“What are you doing in your new role?” asked a friend, mentor and general supporter, about a month or so into my new position (Systems Change Partnership Coordinator at Two Ridings Community Foundation). I described the work that would bring people together to inquire;
What systems perpetuate multiple disadvantage for Children and Young People in York?
To which she replied “Oh, that sounds a bit academic for you”. I know that doesn’t exactly sound like support, but support doesn’t always appear in cheer leader form. My friend had challenged me into being better (once again). I had made my role and the work sound “other” and inaccessible; that had to change.
I’ve worked in children and young people’s settings since 2007 – Youth Work, Sports, Arts, Alternative Education, Sexual Health support, Covid 19 response, Funding and Community Development; often using systems thinking but not naming it. Since joining Two Ridings Community Foundation in the partnership role with York Multiple Complex Needs (MCN) Network and Lankelly Chase, in September 2020, I have been emerged in Systems Change work; an inspiring, creative and daunting pool of possibilities. I have attended training, discussed possibilities with people across the City of York, Country and Internationally. I have read life changing books and articles. I have met people who have pulled me so deeply into myself that I have had no option but to rise out differently. Thankfully this change is welcomed and elevated by my loving family.
This journey has also created internal conflict. I have fidgeted with the recognition of my own privilege. Not only am I in secure work, I am also attending training and accessing brilliant development opportunities in the middle of the pandemic. I have felt like I am letting people down… “How can we explore change over here when there are people who need something right now, over there?”. In his book Upstream, Dan Heath describes my tug of war better than I can (we have never met or spoken). His words have helped me to reconcile my position;
Imagine sitting by the river with your friends, you see kids struggling as they float downstream, crying out for help. Both strong swimmers you and your friend jump in to fish them out. More kids come down the river, all struggling and need help. You both keep pulling kids out of the river. You’re both committed but tired. But then your friend jumps out of the river – you’re abandoned – “where are you going?!”. I’m going upstream to stop the kids falling in the river”.
System change requires listening, empathy, understanding and a can do attitude. Attributes that if you’re lucky, you’ll be wrapped in by front line workers, parents, family, neighbours and friends. Yet ‘system’ or ‘upstream’ thinking and its application remains aspirational, somewhere off in the distance or perceived as impossible. And for most, it is impossible, people are stretched and the conditions aren’t right. There isn’t enough headspace to do anything but stay with the kids in the river, and get as many out as possible. But if we never intentionally go upstream, we may always be stretched; and those worn out kids who managed to get out of the river will be too knackered from their experiences to see an alternative. You cannot “unsee” system thinking once given that space to explore it – it encroaches every part of you.
Back to the work in York… I, alone, do not have the ideas, understanding and relationships that will make lasting change for children and young people in York. As coordinator, I will do just that, weave together people, ideas and possibilities, creating the conditions and headspace to enable people to do things a bit differently. Or at least I hope I will… like a lone dancer in a field I’m currently waving my hands and moving my feet to a beat and hoping some brave people get me and “it” enough to join in. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fW8amMCVAJQ
Correction, I am not alone. I’m with the brilliant people from my past whose generous leadership, nurturing souls, diversity and wisdom enabled me to get here. I’m with my allies who have changed my life forever, in the last couple of months. And I’m with the people, organisations and friends who are ready for lasting change that makes the lives of children and young people in York, better, forever. What are we accepting that we can change?
I also ask the sceptics and doubters to join in this conversation. Make it stronger with a different perspective. Be the critical friend that’s challenges us to be better.
This work will look different. It will feel nurturing. It will feel powerful. It will be together. It will feel human.
But we WILL throw everything out of the window, door, out the boat if children and young people tell us we’ve got it wrong. This work is for them. And will be by them.
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