Building trust and sharing power: two foundational levers to system change
This blog was written by Mariyam Farooq, Senior Advisor – Programme, Impact and Evaluation at Black Thrive. Mariyam was part of a panel at the Gathering 2018 titled 'Reframing power, impact and change: the role of quality, voice and collective action' and this blog provides a shortened version of her contribution.
When I worked as a teacher 15 years ago, I remember visiting a lab school connected to a major research university in Los Angeles. The students at this school, aged five to 11, had significant autonomy in their classrooms with teachers serving as skilled facilitators of learning. A culture of student voice and agency was palpable at the school: systems, processes and established norms all working to aid how each young person’s curiosity was cultivated and how their learning was self-directed. I was in love with that school and tried hard for the next three years in my classroom full of 11-year olds to do similar things.
Fundamental in the design of that lab school was the belief that children and young people could be trusted (and supported through appropriate scaffolding) to make decisions about their intellectual development. In essence, to hold power on par with their teachers and other school personnel, in the same mould as various co-production and patients’ rights movements in the health and social care sector in which I currently work. This is just one reason why the theme of this year’s The Centre for Youth Impact’s Gathering resonated deeply - a day of critical self-reflection and discussion devoted to the difficulties inherent in shifting long-standing power dynamics in ways that are authentic and long-lasting.
At Black Thrive, a cross-sector partnership aimed at addressing the inequity in mental health outcomes that exist for Lambeth’s Black, African and Caribbean communities, the equality of ownership (shared responsibility between community members and services) across all aspects of our model have been integral. Building a shared agenda for system change in Lambeth around this entrenched inequity has been no easy feat for anyone involved – people care deeply about the issues in question; it is personal and painful. Without adequate time spent on relationship-building and trust, the effort would not be where it is today.
Everything from Black Thrive’s logo to the composition of our governance board to the research questions in our evaluation programme have been made more robust by the thoughtful, lived-experience-informed contributions of our community members. Amongst the toughest areas to gain alignment has been arriving at a shared set of outcomes by which to monitor our progress and measure success. Community members need to feel confident the outcomes they care most about are represented and services need to feel like they have agency to drive changes in practice, commissioning and policy-making. This has meant finding creative ways to facilitate conversations, support capacity-building that is bi-directional and finding new ways to engage people in our efforts – things that I know ring true in the world of the wider determinants of mental health as much as they do (or should) in schools, in youth work and in services for young people.
Years later, I still find myself dreaming of that excellent school in Los Angeles, partly because the young people there left such an impression on me, but mostly because getting to know our Black Thrive community has made me feel like real impact is impossible if it does not include the expert voices of the very people affected most saliently by the issues in question.