Our journey with the New System Alliance.
‘Well, it’s been a strange decade so far. Buzzwords… I’m a great believer that we can judge the times we live in by looking at the words we never heard before in the last decade, that have come to us in the first few years of this decade.’
Billy Bragg was speaking to a rain-soaked crowd, many of whom had sacrificed the price of a festival brolly in favour of another trip to the beer tent. As the water dripped down their faces and into their plastic pint glasses, Billy punctured the air.
‘Phrases like collateral damage… ethnic cleansing… rape camp… Srebrinitsa… Tuzla… Banja Luka…’
This was 1993 and Europe was waking up to the fact that the door had been left wide open for the armed conflict that was tearing the Balkan States apart.
I don’t know whether the words Billy chose that night were part of a carefully planned set, or whether they were part of the political wit and improvisation that have become his signature. But the words he chose are especially interesting.
‘Collateral damage… ethnic cleansing… rape camp…’ These are words which are utterly faceless, euphemisms that hide the atrocities, the destruction, pain and suffering beneath them; words that strip people of their very humanity, turning them into numbers on a spreadsheet; a cynical and hopeless process of collation, categorisation and recording. Words which call to mind Hannah Arendt’s ‘The Banality of Evil’, in which she describes the bureaucratic fastidiousness by which Adolf Eichmann went about oiling the machinery of the Nazi’s ‘Final Solution’.
Contrast those bland euphemistic words with the following: ‘Srebrinitsa, Tuzla, Banja Luka’.
They are the names of places in the Balkan states, where people were born and grew up, places that people called home and where they grew their hopes and dreams for the future. They were places fought over during the terrible conflict, places where war crimes were committed. Places whose stories demanded to be heard, places that refused to become faceless, and where life would once more flourish.
Words are important; words preserve our collective memories; words are the windows through which we see the world.
Fast forward to 2021 and we have entered the second decade of a new millennium. In the years since the Balkan wars, we have seen the advent of mobile technology, the explosion of the internet, 9/11, conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq, the ‘War on Terror’, Obama, Brexit, and the rise and fall of Trumpism. New words and phrases have emerged; jostling for a place in the dictionary like crowd surfers floating above the swirling depths of the festival mosh pit.
Looking back over the last year the buzzwords have been utterly monopolised by the Covid-19 pandemic.
‘Lockdown. Social distancing. PPE. Zooming. New normal. Contact tracing. Bubbles. Unprecedented.’
Except for a handful of epidemiologists, few predicted a pandemic on the scale we have witnessed during the last year. A pandemic that continues to dominate our thinking and behaviour on a daily basis, moment by moment, interaction by interaction. Unprecedented seems to sum it up nicely.
Like so many organisations in the UK, Julian Support has risen to the challenges of providing services to people experiencing considerable hardship in their lives during the pandemic: people who are in custody; on the cusp of admission to a psychiatric hospital; leaving prison; living in isolation; tackling extreme poverty, or targeted by County Lines gangs. The pandemic has held a giant magnifying glass to the cracks in society, amplifying the impact of the problems people are experiencing.
The opportunity to use technology to bring us closer together has undoubtedly been a significant silver lining amidst the dark clouds of the last year. It has enabled us to maintain contact with the people accessing our services in different ways, including one person who found themselves stranded in Poland as the UK went into its own national lockdown back in March. It has also helped us to come together with staff from across Norfolk & Suffolk to talk about the issues that really matter to them. And not just about Covid-19.
At the forefront of these conversations have been the words ‘Black Lives Matter.’
Powerful words made necessary by the sheer brutality and oppression people of colour experience in their everyday lives. Words brought into the mainstream consciousness by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of the police in the USA, and the subsequent failure of the system of law to bring those officers responsible to justice.
Unlike the impact of the pandemic, these deaths were not unprecedented. Far from it; they were entirely precedented. As were the conditions that enabled these abuses of power and the countless others that preceded them to occur: ordinary, systemic and institutional racism. A journey from the days of slavery, the Jim Crow Laws, the Civil Rights Movement, mass incarceration and finally Trumpism; a world in which freedom of speech lacks the foundations of equality and accountability, and where people can therefore act with complete impunity.
However, it was the reaction to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, both in America and in the UK, which was unprecedented. A groundswell of activism; people marching in solidarity, demonstrating, chanting, holding vigils and toppling statues.
At the same time, staff at Julian Support were talking to us about their own experiences of racism, and about how we needed to do more to challenge ordinary, systemic and institutional racism in our own organisation and in the communities where we work. In response, we have been working closely with staff and a consultant to develop our strategy, starting with deep conversations that challenge our perceptions, assumptions, attitudes and language. Words are not enough though, and our strategy will help us to bring about the systemic transformation that will ensure Julian Support is a better place to work and that we can be better allies to people in the communities where we work. And, it is a transformation that will continue as we develop our conversations with staff across the organisation about gender inclusivity and other characteristics.
In December 2020, at the end of a relentless and challenging year, Julian Support was invited to take part in the New Systems Alliance launch, which was marked by a week of online discussions. The New Systems Alliance calls for a paradigm shift, locating the problem in the system, a system that often works against the very people it was designed to support. Billed as a series of open-minded, brave and thought-provoking conversations, the launch was timely for Julian Support, on the back of what already felt like a year of brave and challenging conversations. Importantly it gave us much needed space for reflection.
We had endured ten years of competitive tendering, winning contracts, losing contracts, winning some more. Sometimes coming second to big national providers with turnovers and reserves that we could only dream of and having to console ourselves with that fact, in the recognition that there would be no second prize.
Coming together in a virtual space with members of the New Systems Alliance who had been on a similar journey it was fascinating to hear the conclusions that they had formed.
What I heard was people talking about how they had come to the realisation that the system had become about fixing people; identifying the problem and prescribing the solution. How people had lost their identity to words like ‘service users, the homeless, patients, clients, personality disorder, drug users, addicts, alcoholics.’ They were no longer individuals with unique personalities, strengths and talents. They had become faceless, caught up in the system.
The New System’s Alliance described how the system had become parental and self-serving. It lacked the ability to listen anymore to the voices of the people who were going through tough times. The options available to them had become narrowed down to a number of pre-defined points on an outcome measurement tool. I imagined the conversation, “Ok, so you don’t have an offending history but never mind we can score you a ten for that anyway. See, you’re already doing great. Now how about Motivation and Taking Responsibility?”
I also heard how the New Systems Alliance were pushing back against the dominant paradigm, how they were listening to the people they were coming into contact with, people who were going through tough times and calling for systems change. A movement opposed to delivering the same standardised services that never really got to the root of the problem.
‘Systems fail, you don’t fail yourself.’ To Have and Have Not, Billy Bragg.
With the New System Alliance, there was a welcomed sense of optimism and inclusivity in the virtual room, rather than the commercial sensitivities that we had been used to as the charity sector had become more and more competitive in recent times. And at of the conversations, a rejection of systems and language that have kept people subjugated.
Julian Support is going through tremendous change, not just in terms of the environment we are operating in, but how we feel about that environment. Conversations with Mayday Trust and the New System Alliance have enabled us to think more deeply about this, about our purposes, and fundamentally the words and language that we use to describe what we do.
Reflecting on these conversations I have found myself turning Billy’s methodology on its head and wondering instead:
‘What are the words that we have heard in previous decades that we should no longer be hearing in this decade?’
Words matter and we should choose them with care.
About the author, Ben Curran
I am the Head of Operations & Development at Julian Support, a charity working with people who have experienced trauma in their lives and have found themselves in the mental health and criminal justice system. We assist people to create the future that they want for themselves. We have services in Norfolk & Suffolk. Outside of my day job I am also the CE/ and Curator of the Museum of Drugs, a charity aimed at challenging the inherent discrimination in drug legislation and societal attitudes, which continues to adversely impact lives at every stage of the production, supply and use chain throughout the world. We exhibit our collection and deliver lectures. Change is at the core of everything – there is never a better time than now.