“There is deep wisdom within our very flesh, if we can only come to our senses and feel it”.
Elizabeth A Behnke
As an organisation, we’ve been working internally on anti-racist practice for a couple of years now, a journey documented in the anti-racist practice timeline we published on our family facing website last month. Here’s my thinking about the direction of travel, with a note on progress to date
Systemic racism is not immediately obvious to the privileged. Through therapeutic work in diverse communities most of our therapists have supported people who have direct, firsthand experience of racism from other people and within the systems and services available to support them. For them, racism is tangible and whether overt or subtle, limits opportunities. Since the death of George Floyd many more people have woken up to the systemic racism in the US and UK. At the time of this killing a strong feeling was voiced by the therapy team – mainly white and middle class - that we need to proactively address racism. Our therapeutic task directly engages us in our families’ efforts to change: do we fully acknowledge the inequalities they face in seeking to make positive changes for themselves and their families within this society?
SFW has social justice and inclusivity at its heart. This was always the intention: we have articulated from the beginning our mission to enable change for those facing multiple challenges, tailoring our Family Group model to serve families living in areas of high deprivation. We have also been clear that systemic change is required in order that children and families who currently experience marginalisation and isolation enjoy an equal chance of being successful in schools and accessing the services they require. We have been less explicit as an organisation about acknowledging and naming the power inequalities that many of our families meet. Why so? By not doing so, what are we conveying to those families?
As articulated in our Theory of Change, SFW seeks to enable change by working at two levels: individual and systemic.
“At an individual level, healing involves a re-wiring process in the brain, engineered in reflection and activity through relationship. Brain development is use-dependent, so our approach is experiential. We use the power of the group to recognise, analyse, & evaluate existing patterns so both children and adults are truly heard. Simultaneously, through group activities and targets we stimulate, trial and nurture new patterns, opening new relational possibilities.
At a systemic level enabling healing in the child requires a shift in understanding and practice in school and family around the factors that cause and perpetuate strength as well as disadvantage. Through Family Group, and by supporting staff through training and relationships around their care for children, we enable powerful capacities (human compassion, empathy, respect and recognition of interdependence) that will catalyse systemic change.“
Theory of Change, SFW
Our route to systemic change is identified helpfully: through our human connection we are moved to address the inequities in the wider world. And it is a necessary step in the process of healing that inequalities are acknowledged and articulated. If not, the child and family will remain burdened by the weight of something silent over which they have no power. For healing to be possible, It is necessary to identify and name the oppression. It was the horror of George Floyd’s murder that shocked us into recognising our complacency. Our families need to be able to talk about what they experience, and so do we. More broadly, as an organisation, we need to clarify how we respond to the inevitable fact that we are operating in and as part of a society influenced by racism.
Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, our therapy team felt compelled to act. Being therapists, we looked at ourselves first: What do my families actually experience from me in this regard? What could I do differently or better in my therapeutic practice to address racism? What could I do in my organisation? These questions led to a group of therapists meeting under the working title ‘SFW Anti-racist practice group’, and spearheading our journey into what we all knew would be very uncomfortable territory.
An early discussion identified many strengths in our practice. We have a strongly inclusive foundation and good experience in multi-cultural groups where complex situations are co-productively managed. Anti-racist practice is ‘part of our everyday’. However, we all recognised significant room for improvement. Most evidently, our therapists observed inadequacies in their discourse: ‘What is the language to use?’ ‘How am I understood?’ ‘What are we missing?’ We have skilled, experienced therapists, yet our homogenous privileged position, a potential barrier we all consciously seek to diffuse, was acknowledged as significant. Even so, the discomfort around language was unanimous. In our discussions we encountered our clumsiness, our white privilege, our fear.
We’re a couple of years on in our journey now and I’m proud that the ARPG work is embedded in our organisation
Our route in has been through our own bodies. Together, we’ve been able to become curious about what happens inside ourselves when we talk about race; the brain fog that may descend; the righteous internal raging; the dryness in the mouth and the shortness of breath. It’s this looking inward that has been revelatory. Racialised trauma lives in our bodies and impacts us all. Irrespective of skin colour, we carry the charge of centuries of racism within our own bodies.
We’ve always talked about Family Group as a ‘safe space’. In our anti-racist journey so far, one of the many realisations has been that no space is a safe space for everyone. We offer a space: people come and will discover whether it is safe by what they feel in their bodies.
Brilliant training offered by Robert Downes and Foluke Taylor has shaken us to the core. We white bodies in the organisation have had opportunity to recognise white body supremacy within ourselves and we have begun to dismantle the fear on which it is based. Being less afraid, we can be more curious, externally and internally. We hope to see in ourselves the defensive, rigidity of Whiteness and head it off so, embracing our vulnerability, we can be present and transparent in the work in the room. I would hope that, for those who come to our Family Groups, we’ve got better at demonstrating we have minds that can hold difference. We’ve got closer to a shared language with our families which can acknowledge and hold their experience, so relationship can triumph over inhibition and prejudice.
We’ve also recognised the length of the journey ahead. Sometimes, when a parent talks in Family Group, they observe the patterns in their own childhood experience which Family Group is helping them identify and untangle, such that they can make an active choice not to pass on the muddle to their own child. The root of the issue for the child in the classroom may lie in trauma in the family long before the child was born. With racism, the roots go back centuries. And we all, each of us, need to do the work to metabolize the trauma that disconnects us from ourselves and each other.
Our hope is that our anti-racism timeline may help other organisations which are setting out on this journey. You’ll find links to some of the resources we’ve found most useful. We have a long way to go ourselves, and we’ll be updating the timeline as we move forwards. This work is hard. We’ll be going slowly and looking to make friends on the way. If the journey fires you, please be in touch.
 The first part of this paper is taken from a proposal I made to our Board in 2021 that SFW should set up an anti-racism work stream.
An old friend was in touch this week to tell me that his mother had died. I was saddened. She had been kind to me when he and I were children. Much more powerfully, I was drawn towards him by his experience of loss, feeling his vulnerability. I was moved to support him, instinctively. My own experiences of loss could be used in service to him. My understanding was required. His needs became my priority.
I was delighted to attend the Roots of Empathy annual conference earlier in the week, where the organisation celebrated 25 years of delivering their programme. Their intervention rests on the understanding that it is a common human response to prioritise the needs of someone more vulnerable than ourselves.
Of course, we don’t all always do this. (Just imagine for a moment if we did).
But Roots of Empathy capture and utilise this insight to teach empathy to young school children all over the world, knowing that some of those children will have had a far from ideal experience of nurturing parental care themselves. Those children are vulnerable: they can learn empathy by interacting with someone even more vulnerable. And who is more vulnerable than a baby?
So each week, facilitators bring a mother and baby into school so children can experience over time the developing relationship and themselves develop their reflective capacity, their sensitivity, their empathy.
This same response to vulnerability is one of the crucial elements that powers Family Group, our own school-based multi-family therapy intervention.
Once safety is established in the group, children venture into the space, gradually opening up as they find the confidentially and trust holds from week to week.
As they reveal more of themselves, pre-conceptions and misunderstandings melt away. They experience support, encouragement, nurturing understanding. Their courage and honesty are acknowledged.
They feel the respect from other children and parents in the room as they take steps to untangle patterns of interaction or understanding that cause them or others distress. Their parent or carer is right there, to support, to witness and to learn.
For it is within our closest relationships that some of those tangles are rooted.
In parent time, once the children have gone back into class, the therapist and school-based partner bring the focus back to analysing what the group has just done together.
Now it is the turn of the adults to touch on their vulnerabilities and to receive that same empathic response they’ve offered the children.
Conversations can go way back into the childhood experience of the parent as the group gently untangle some of the transgenerational baggage evident in the parent-child relationship.
Just like Roots of Empathy, the programme is experiential: you get it cognitively but also emotionally. You feel it. And you feel others feeling it.
Bruce Perry commented on this at the Roots of Empathy Symposium earlier this week, a celebration of 25 years of the programme.
Since his seminal 1995 paper “Childhood trauma, the neurobiology of adaptation, and “use-dependent” development of the brain: How “states” become “traits” that phrase, the USE DEPENDENT DEVELOPMENT OF THE BRAIN, has informed my whole approach as a psychotherapist and social entrepreneur.
It’s one of the key assumptions on which Family Group is based: you have to HAVE the experience.
And achieving prolonged, nurturing, ‘good enough’, real-time experience may require an adjustment in the relational patterns Family Group children are caught within. Understanding and changing those patterns takes time. That’s why it typically takes a primary school child 15 months to graduate from Family Group.
If you’re interested to know more about Roots of Empathy but missed the symposium it’s worth going to the post-event site where you can access some of the Café events which were recorded.
If you’re interested to know more about Family Group well, get in touch and let’s have a chat!
This blog is written by Mark Griffiths, CEO of The School & Family Works. To get in touch with Mark, please email email@example.com
School & Family Works is the trading name of Transgenerational Change Limited, a social enterprise whose purpose is evident in the name. Through Family Group, our aim is to enable change for children from families where the status quo sets the child at school on a trajectory towards poor outcomes. Through creating a true collaboration with parents and school we generate insight into the presenting situation so that a new understanding arises and new possibilities open.
Building on the family context
Family comes first
Schools build on the developmental experience of the child within his/her family system. It is the parents who first set about promoting emotional wellbeing, building resilience, and establishing and protecting good mental health. Schools play a supporting role. Schools need to recognise that the familial level of belonging is primary. Belonging to the class or group or school comes second. Strong, positive relationships between school and home act as a bridge, supporting the child to manage the daily transition between these two support systems. The child will experience difficulty where there is tension between the two systems.
Moving between systems
Schools have an important role in helping children experience belonging to systems other than the family and helping them understand how to move between systems easily.
Throughout our lives, we face the challenge of moving between systems. Each system has a framework, has norms, taboos. Transitions – periods of negotiating and accommodating changes in systems – provoke stress and anxiety. Good experience of managing transitions in early life is a protective factor for good mental health. Commonly, the first major transition for a child is moving between home and school. When the relationship between home and school is secure, most children easily learn how to be flexible, to adapt, and to develop the skills that enable them to belong to more than one system. To facilitate the development of this lifetime skill in the child, teachers need to respect the child’s family and culture. The family system comes first: It is home. The child will be enabled to move between systems easily when home and school demonstrate respect for each other.
We are all quickly preoccupied with events or issues that lead us to feeling unsettled or insecure within our families. Dissonance/difficulty with child in school may be understood as a call from the family system. There is something unbalanced at home, and as a loyal member of the family, the child is pulled to support the system. At such times, it is important for school staff to support the child’s position even when it pulls against the norms of the school.
Consequences of exclusion from systems
A common characteristic of the families we support (those sometimes described as facing severe and multiple disadvantages) is that they have been excluded from many systems. This often goes back a generation or more. Many of the parents we support struggled as children. As children, they may have had experiences that shamed and isolated them, immobilising them within their family of origin, cutting them off from any support available within their schools. For some, communicating their need for support triggered the engagement of services that intervened incisively into their family system, cutting members in or out, raising issues of disloyalty, transgression, guilt.
It is common to find that Family Group parents had difficulties at or were themselves excluded from, school. The positive experience of moving between two systems remains foreign, unknown. With few qualifications, inadequate family support and under-developed relational skills, negotiating a way into the working world is often difficult. A common experience is of being the outsider: rejected. Withdrawing into isolation, loyalties become fixed: patterns set. Opportunities to experience difference reduce. Opportunities reduce for the supported transition from one group to another.
Loss, rejection and transgression combine with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness: ‘this is all I’ve known and I’m stuck with it’. From a place of isolation, change, which means the loosening of belonging ties, the opening to ‘other’, can seem impossible.
‘I’ll do it for my child’
Parents come to Family Group spurred by a desire that their children thrive in school. They come for their children. Their selfless desire to support their child takes precedence over their own entrenched patterns. This admirable parental aspiration trumps the anxieties of individuals who have felt stuck; it is a triumph of hope over experience. Parents make a huge commitment; they will come for ‘as long as it takes’. Some take time off work, unpaid, weekly, for months on end. These heroic folk are addressing the task of breaking negative transgenerational patterns. This is hard work and needs support. By joining Family Group they forge a support community and enable the experience of belonging for themselves and others.
The Family Group intervention creates communities, new belonging groups of disparate individuals joined by the desire to ensure their children experience success in school. Parents share skills and experiences, resourcing each other with support and challenge, in a group endeavour to make a difference for the most vulnerable group members, the children. This enables and maintains good mental health for isolated, marginalized adults, and provides strong, healthy models, relational skills, and support to children at risk of poor outcomes.
Written by Mark Griffiths, CEO of The School & Family Works
Use the calendar or list of months to view entries made on those dates.