09 January 2007

Christmas and Street Angels reflections

This started as a reply to Kez Lama's post on the subject, but became too long and I felt in the end it would be inappropriate to post as a comment. I also wanted to be able to post these reflections here as they were interesting to write and are relevant to this blog. It's also relevant to my earlier post about Street Angels.

It's really about professionalism in different contexts, and about trust, so it should make sense:

From an anti-capitalist and anti-christian perspective, but as someone who is dedicated to different experiences of community and sees ritual and ceremony as important parts of life, christmas is a strange time.

I had a similarly communal and voluntary experience, and I've enjoyed many christmases with various diverse groups of people over the years. This year I spent the day with Urban Space again. I really felt I spent the day with lots of old friends, and they really are friends, even though I've met most of them 'professionally' through their lack of capacity to deal with problems in their life and their involvement with local services and support groups. The great thing was its unpretentiousness. Everyone just seemed to feel free to be themselves, and happy to be together talking and having fun.

I also enjoyed being a Street Angels volunteer, meeting other volunteers, talking to people in the streets, joking about Ru and the Bishop going into Wildcats, and seeing that we clearly provided a useful service that should continue. It was interesting to be in the city centre at that time of night but not being out, as it were. I usually like to think I'm quite aware of what's going on around me when I'm out (I've had a few lapses), but wearing that huge fluorescent yellow coat, coupled with our responsibility to be observant and learn how to blend in and operate effectively still impressed a new perspective on me. I think the main observation I made was that life on Westgate is actually much more safe and enjoyable than I expected. I'm not so sure about the music policies generally, but I'm much more likely to go out in Wakefield after this experience (and avoid the hassle of travelling to Leeds).

I think my conclusion as I write this is that perhaps we should understand professionalism as a sort of stealth movement... That if we are professional enough at our work then the 'professionalism' should become invisible, disappear: whoever we are working with will feel comfortable, should see us as just another (albeit friendly) person, and feel that it's worth their while talking to us; the more familiar barriers of professionalism, often including a mixture of suits and formal clothing, jargon and other formal language, potentially multiple caveats about what we do, who we are, confidentiality and when we break it, complaints procedures, equal opportunities policies, etc., and other more personal barriers like never accepting a cup of tea, not liking dogs or being vegetarian — all these other professional barriers should disappear. Then our dislike of dogs is dealt with professionally and unobtrusively and no one even notices, we will be able to sense when it would be appropriate for our client's comfort to accept a cup of tea from them, and we will be able to slip in the necessary bits about confidentiality exactly at the right time so it's not too mechanical and can be listened to and understood... Maybe we can't get there yet, but it seems to be a reasonable direction to try to head in.

Now is the time to reflect on the experiences of Street Angels, to think about how we worked, what worked, where the gaps or problems are, and how we respond to all this and prepare to start again. I'm sure you and I are not the only people to recognise the specific role Street Angels volunteers found themselves in, and I feel there is an opportunity to capitalise (if I can use that word) on this experience by encouraging volunteers to 'blend in', to be able to give professional support when required, but to make the people they are working with feel comfortable with whatever support we're giving them.

The other thing that comes with this approach is trust. Blending in requires intuition and flexibility, and people will practice it in different ways that suit them, but trying to regulate this in formal procedures doesn't really work. I don't really see this as a big problem though, as we already have a pretty good team of reliable people and we know we can work together. There are various points for discussion, and I think the idea at this stage is to have another Sunday afternoon gathering soon where we can all share feedback and start to plan for the future. Hopefully we can find a way to build on this experience and support and develop our good practice rather than impose too many procedures and expectations that may only serve to create more unhelpful barriers before the people we're trying to work with.

I can't finish without saying something more about trust. Many people say we are living in a less and less trusting society, I don't know if this is true but it certainly seems trust is an attitude that is sorely missing. I see it in the police, who spend so much time being lied to they hardly know anything else and rarely seem able to trust people; in benefits agency and job centre plus staff who are under pressure to stamp out benefit fraud; from mental health professionals who are constantly doing risk assessments; from social workers who think advocates are going to complain and make their lives a misery; from service users who are so used to the veil of objective professionalism and the repeated disappointments over the years that anger often comes out instead of trust... the list goes on.

The sad response to the lack of trust today is often to add more layers of bureaucracy and professional and moral policing to try to cover for the lack of trust, but surely it's obvious that not trusting people breeds distrust and untrustworthiness. On the other hand trusting someone almost always helps to make them feel at ease, and the more responsibilities you trust them with the greater their chance of growing in confidence and skill. Once you trust people, management becomes a collective process of observation, feedback and analysis that provides its own safeguard and lets project coordinators identify issues and resolve them.

Hopefully Street Angels will be able to continue to capitalise on its trust in people and get back out on the streets as an effective and satisfying experience for everyone.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Henry,

I have to say my experience of Wakefield is very different from yours. I last went into Wakefield on a Friday night in November with an old friend, where we witnessed the following:

1. An man was attacked from behind by a doorman (yes - the very people meant to keep the peace in the pubs and clubs) in an alley at the top of Westgate. Two police officers heard us shout them as the doorman walked away after having kicked and punched the man repeatedly. We offered to give statements only to be told we would be arrested if we didn't go away! We waited at the end of the alley to ensure the man would be helped - but the police just looked down at the man laying semi conscious on the floor and walked away! We returned to the man and helped him to the Police Station where the Police Sergeant was most reluctant to take any details.

2. We witnessed a young woman collapse in a nightclub. She was immediately surrounded by the door staff, who stood in a circle staring. We approached to offer help explaining that we are both qualified first aiders only to be threatened with sentences such as "F*** Off before we F***ing batter you".

I do not believe the general public are the real menace, it is the lack of training and vetting and regulating of Door Staff.