Wednesday 30 November 2016

Gladiators don't always wear suits

Sometimes they wear jeans. And suits.

Scandal is one of my favourite TV series. It's the story of a fixer in the political hotbed of Washington during and after a Presidential election.  It's very good. You should watch it. The point of this is that the head fixer is a girl called Olivia. In the standout moment of the first season, the following conversation happens:

Harrison Wright: I’m a gladiator in a suit. Because that’s what you are when you work for Olivia -
Harrison: You’re a gladiator in a suit. Do you want to be a gladiator in a suit?
Quinn Perkins (nods head).
Harrison: You gotta say it.
Quinn Perkins: I want to be gladiator in a suit.
And Quinn proceeds to be a gladiator in a suit but also a gladiator in jeans. It's never expressly commented on in the series but nevertheless, that's what she is. Sometimes she gets a bit grubby and messy and assassin like. And sometimes she wears a suit. Why am I writing about this?

4 months or so ago I started a new job, It's a regional charity. So yes, I've gone from private sector to public sector to third sector. Some of you are sneering right now. More fool you.

Gladiators in suits.

 You see, the charity sector has had to change as much as the public sector and I suppose if it makes you feel more comfortable you can attribute the culture of the charity I work in to that change, It's not the reason but if you need some preconceptions challenging, then that's fine by me. I'm happy to be the lightning rod and cut you some slack. 

But gladiators in suits.

 We work predominantly with mental health - Improving Access to Psychological Therapies, CBT and counselling but also group work both underneath that banner and without. But it's not quite that simple.

On my first day, I wondered through the door of one of our offices and sat on the sofas in the waiting room. A well dressed lady sat opposite with a cup of coffee and her beautifully fluffy well behaved dog at her feet. She sat quietly drinking coffee, thanked the receptionist for it once she'd finished drinking and departed on her way to carry on her day. I later found out she was one of our ex clients who popped back, just for a coffee. Mental health check ups don't always involve therapy.

 I should at this point also say that we do mental health with a very focused gender approach. It means that at the moment, you are far more likely to hear a group of women's voices raised in singing or laughter, or the quiet murmur of women chatting within our centres. Perhaps because of this, the majority of my colleagues are women.  Yeah. I know.

Female gladiators in suits. And jeans.

But we don't just do that. We also have a criminal justice arm doing some of the most innovative, challenging work with offenders I've come across - and I've worked inside the London Probation Service on a pilot programme accepted at the time as being one of the most innovative projects ever launched. From shoplifters to women in cells, sex workers to organised crime involvement, we seem to excel at picking the hardest nuts to crack and using a cushion to do it instead of a hammer.

Now that's not to say enforcement (or indeed Probation) are not involved. They are. Strictly. But what we do and how we help is different from what Probation do. We think so far outside the cell these women either are in or are at risk of being in that sometimes I wonder why the entire country isn't approaching women at the risk the way we do.

 Do I sound proud?  Good. I am. I'm totally cool with that, Sound like I've drunk the kool aid?

Well maybe I have. I watch this bunch of women who are, in the majority, so self aware because they have been through counselling training themselves and so as a result have had to go through counselling themselves as it's now a requirement of training, wrangle some of the most difficult situations I can imagine. I listen to immaculate ladies with perfect make up, hair, handbags and heels tell me about taking women to hospital who have self harmed, gone to A & E, not been seen soon enough so left to attend one of our centre's self harm groups (Yes I know - but there's a strange logic there all the same, don't you think?) and been taken back to  A & E by this lady...I listen to another lady explain how a woman is struggling with her first ever relationship where violence has not reared its head, a massive huge gobsmacking break through for that woman, a breakthrough we have supported and helped her through, with no more acknowledgement that that is a phenomenal achievement, a magical thing, than to say the postman has been.

It's not that she does't care - she very evidently does. It's that this is her normal and so in becoming her normal, perhaps her superwoman cape has become invisible. This same woman meets with Police Commissioners, with all kinds of very important people and deals with them with the same confidence, elegance and presence that she brings to everything.

 But it's not just about the frontline staff. At our Staff Development Day we were asked to think about how we contributed to a person centred service. Back office staff including myself were very quiet. Then one of the frontline managers pointed something out - how do you deal with some of the most difficult, awful, challenging things you will ever hear, day in and day out? By being greeted with a smile, a joke, a laugh. By sitting through someone having a bit of a splurge about their son doing something silly, or their daughter going to university. By listening, without judgement and with empathy as those gladiators in suits (and jeans) continue to be gladiators. Their job would be much harder if they had to face lions in the back office too. But they don't, and the reason they don't is because perhaps we too are gladiators but in a different way. We are empathic too. Perhaps in some cases, overly so (raises hand) so we can't do what the frontline staff do. And maybe because we know this about ourselves, maybe we are slightly in awe of those who can, maybe we will happily spread glitter, fairy dust and cheer, if it means that indirectly we can help someone have the first non violent meaningful relationship they've ever had.

I think the charity sector contains some amazing stories. Of hope, of determination, of success in the face of such utter life chaos, troubled backgrounds and adversity that sometimes the words just blur a little. I think it's easy when you work inside the charity sector to lose sight, perhaps, of what you do, how amazing it is. How groundbreaking, how crucial, how phenomenal it is. I know some can't acknowledge that because to do so would not sit easy with them - I know of no one within our own organisation who blows their own trumpet.

And so it feels as if it falls to me. I am not a gladiator in a suit. Or jeans. But the day before I started my job I said I felt that finally I was on the side of the angels. Angels with dirty faces, that's as maybe, no one's damn well perfect. If the angels were they'd be useless anyway - how on earth does a perfect person gain the trust of someone who's seen things you can't even imagine? So I accept those imperfections without blinking whilst resolutely believing that if angels walk, they walk in the guise of gladiators in suits. Or jeans.

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