The Winch is a place based charity, founded in 1973 when local activists took over derelict pub and re-purposed it as a community centre. Today that might be called an ‘asset transfer’, back then it was simply called ‘squatting’.
The Winch’s mission is to ‘help every child succeed, regardless of their circumstances’. To achieve this, we provide a ‘cradle-to-career’ support provision for young people aged 0-25, and their families. In revisiting our strategy for our next phase of work, we have encountered some familiar ‘epistemological’ challenges.
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy which explores our ‘theories of knowledge’ –the nature of knowledge, its limits and beliefs. So, if our mission is to ensure ‘every child succeeds,’ then epistemology asks:
Our seemingly straightforward mission statement provokes questions about the processes of knowledge creation and evaluation, and the nature of power between the child, worker and institution(s).
As a result of our work in North Camden Zone, a multi-agency, community-led systems change initiative, we have begun to reshape the questions we seek to address, by asking young people and families more open, exploratory questions. We ask ‘what does a good life look like for you?’
In doing so, we are trying to de-institutionalise and strip back our tendency for technocratic intervention and encourage our participants to reshape the criteria for ‘success’, reframing the nature of our knowledge. We’re working to ensure our beneficiaries are not passive recipients of measurement, but active participants in value creation.
If our mission statement attempt to gives us the ‘why’ of The Winch, our current exploration should aim to amplify the ‘who’. Integral to this has to be an endeavour to promote diversity and inclusion and to enable equity amongst the ‘who’, because it really matters who gets to define what’s needed, who articulates the measures of success and who benefits from knowing success is being achieved.
Our work on systems change reminds us that we are all working in complex, adaptive systems made up of inter connected parts that are continuously interacting with each other. Cause and effect isn’t always predictable in complex systems, and so logically it’s difficult to design and follow a grand central plan to deliver change.
Moreover, systems change very rarely occurs through the scaling of one single project, it more usually occurs when many changes come together over time and build on each other, like successive waves eroding a cliff.
In order to change the system, you have to create the conditions for change and then have the capacity, capability, resilience and agility to follow emergent themes. And this in itself has implications for highly centralised schemes for impact measurement and quality assurance.
Systems thinking encourages us to move from only looking at reactive measures or deficit measures, to establishing some leading indicators, which might suggest changes are beginning to occur. Continuing with the oceanic analogy, a great surfer learns to spot when a big wave is forming so that they can move to catch it in the best place at the best time.
On an individual basis, this also means recognising that individual development is rarely linear, and skilled workers often already possess a degree of social and emotional intelligence and agility in practice. Those ‘enabling’ measures of trust, relationship building, and safety, may be more important than previously credited.
Working in complexity also necessitates that we work collaboratively, building alliance and partnerships, in the knowledge that we are building up capacity across the system with the intention of replacing it or to reforming it. The next move might not come from us, but from somewhere else in the system, and that’s got to be ok.
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