Working together to plan for the future

Children 1st Director of Strategic Planning and Campaigns, Mark Ballard, writes about how we have worked together to share the stories of children and families, and how vital this will be to repair and recover.

Like all of our Children 1st colleagues, coronavirus forced the Strategic Planning and Campaigns team to rethink everything we do. Our lobbying plans were rendered irrelevant as Holyrood legislation stalled. Carefully written media strategies went out the window as the virus became the only story in town. The assumptions that underpinned our future plans all suddenly needed to be questioned.

As the team’s old priorities disappeared, our workload actually increased, as the whole of Children 1st pivoted to make sure it could help Scotland’s families cope through coronavirus. And I’ve been so inspired by the way my colleagues have worked so hard to find ways to continue to be there for children and families up and down the country, making sure they get the practical and emotional support they need.

So I want to reflect on how communications have changed, and how we have worked together to share the important stories about what’s been happening to the children and families we work with at Children 1st.

Of course, this crisis has seen big changes in all of our use of language. It has become clear who is actually an ‘essential worker’! It is the nurses, social care staff, delivery drivers, supermarket staff and yes, social workers and family support workers, who are actually the people we rely on to keep society functioning.

However, perhaps more subtly, the coronavirus is helping change the national conversation about vulnerability and charity. A big part of our work at Children 1st in recent years has been to challenge the ‘them and us’ narrative – a set of assumptions I often encounter about a charity like ours. The idea that Children 1st exists to deliver services to ‘them’ – children and families who are deemed ‘vulnerable’. Our supporters – ‘us’ – are another set of people who fundraise and campaign for us.

The reality has always been that trauma and adversity affect every single family to a greater or lesser extent. There is no simple divide. Of course, as a charity we prioritise those who need the most help, but as a new dad I also made use of Parentline for much needed advice and support. This ‘othering’ of some children and families makes it easier to apply unhelpful stereotypes, and to assume that there are simple solutions to address the challenges that face a very diverse group of families.

This virus has affected every single family in Scotland (but in different ways). It has shown we are all vulnerable, and that every family has their own distinct story. Everyone’s lockdown experience is different! I think it has made us each reassess our own sense of vulnerability, and recognise we all need support, that is tailored to our own needs. It has shown that the emotional challenge of coping in a crisis can be as daunting as coping with the practicalities. I have heard so many stories, though, about great strength, resilience and resolution from colleagues working directly with children and families.

Yes, all of us need a bit of help when coping gets tough, and that’s why Children 1st is here. We also know that poverty and deprivation can make the situation for some families even more challenging – which is why we are part of the campaign for immediate additional support for families in poverty in Scotland. But we also know that the impact of unresolved childhood trauma can be devastating to current and future generations of children, so our wider societal response to this crisis needs to involve securing the emotional and practical support every family needs to repair and recover.

Over the last few weeks the focus of the Strategic Planning and Campaigns Directorate has been to share the real stories of how families are coping, and how we are helping, with what families tell us they need always at the centre of the story. We have developed and enhanced our Parentline website based on what parents have told us they most need support with. We have made the case to politicians and policymakers for a nation-wide approach to addressing trauma and building resilience for every child.

This means we shouldn’t think of ourselves as delivering services ‘to’ children and families. We work with and for people and communities, and we share their real stories. And we remember that our biggest challenge is to make sure our services reach the families who are easy to ignore or forget, not write them off as being ‘hard to reach’.

And in terms of future planning, we have been imagining a future where we build on the power of the community response to this crisis, where we support the repair and recovery of every child and every family, and where we understand that strong relationships are the key to resilience. It’s been really exciting to think about how we can act collectively as Children 1st to help make that reality happen and ‘build back better’.

So what have I learnt over the past 50 days of lockdown? I knew it already, but I have been reminded again and again about the shared vision, passion and commitment of everyone who works for Children 1st, especially those working directly with children and families. I have been reminded about the resilience of the families we work with – they have often been through a lot but have the most amazing positivity and determination to do the best for their children.

Most of all it is clear how important it is to change the narrative. The stories organisations like ours communicate now will help shape society’s long-term response. We are going to have to keep saying that trauma and adversity isn’t something that happens to other people. That trauma isn’t destiny and, with help, we can all recover. That mutual aid, strong communities and solid relationships will be the key to collective repair and recovery.

It’s been exhausting. Lockdown and confinement has had an impact on my mental wellbeing just like everyone else’s. But the stories I hear from the families we work alongside keep me hopeful and positive. In the midst of it all, we can make the most of this opportunity to transform society to meet the needs of every child and family.