Posted: 16 November 2016
In part two of a three part blog series, Sharon Allen shares her experiences of working in a Women’s Aid refuge and her role as a community development social worker.
In part one of this blog I was talking to the current cohort of graduate management trainees on our National Skills Academy Programme about my career pathway and passing on some tips based on some of the hard won lessons I have learnt along the way.
So my second top tip to this impressive group of prospective leaders came from my experience as a community development social worker, having trained and qualified as a social worker which is about focusing on asset based approaches, believing in people’s skills and abilities, even when they may not recognise themselves. This is based on my experience working with a group of homeless families who had been placed in appalling temporary accommodation.
Working with them to ensure they understood their rights and supporting them to challenge the Local Authority (who was my employer) and seeing them win their right to decent, affordable housing. In particular, I remember one young woman who was struggling to bring up her young baby in squalid conditions, who by the end of this campaign had grown in confidence, was chairing the Tenants Association and had applied to go to college.
Tip three came from my time working in a Women’s Aid refuge and I recall my co-workers and I being delighted following a meeting with the Chief Constable that he had understood that attitudes had to change and that it was not acceptable for officers attending an incidence of domestic violence to say that ‘it’s just a domestic, go and make his tea and it will all be alright’.
Our delight turned to horror and frustration the next time a woman came to the refuge and told us that when the police attended her home after her partner had assaulted her, they had said ‘it’s just a domestic…’ What we had failed to understand is that strategic decisions agreed at senior levels had to be shared and implemented, supported with training opportunities, all the way through an organisation.
Another tip from this time working in a Women’s Aid collective which - for those too young to remember - was the idea that organisations could be structured on principles of no hierarchy and that everyone had an equal contribution and equal responsibility. This way of working was an attempt to address power imbalances and my tip here is always be honest about power dynamics and don’t be afraid to question. For example, the refuge had a house rule that women living there were not allowed to drink alcohol on the premises. What was this about? I went home and would enjoy a can of beer or glass of wine at the end of a day, so what was it that meant these women living in extremely difficult circumstances couldn’t do the same?
So through collective discussion with the women living in the refuge and the workers, we changed this to what it really meant, that it wasn’t OK for people to be drunk and anti-social. My other example of being unafraid to challenge rules was about access for disabled women. The refuge was in a listed building and we had been told it was therefore not possible to adapt the building to make it accessible for disabled women. Initially we accepted this, until talking with a new colleague from the local authority, she asked me ‘what’s more important? A listed building or the rights of disabled women?’
No brainer, so we began negotiations and eventually persuaded those we needed to that together we could find a solution to make the building accessible and comply with the buildings requirements. The result was that six months later the first disabled woman was able to access the refuge.
In part three of this blog to be published on Friday, I reflect on some of the lessons I have learnt after I became a manager right up to my current role as Skills for Care’s CEO.