Creating relationships, not services, by Clare Wightman

Clare Wightman

Clare Wightman

We’ve always thought that the thing people need in life when they’ve got problems isn’t so much services – services have their place – but good people around them. Services are few. Services have limits – walls if you like - around what they do. But there’s is no limit to what people will do for those they care about.

Here are a couple of examples of why focusing on relationships can be so much more powerful than focusing only on service offers.

Rishard was realising he was different. But he didn’t know how to talk about it. Instead he got angry. There was the day he punched the travel escort, jumped off the special needs bus, pushed over the wheelie bins on the street and ran off. His Headteacher called Mel to say they were launching the police helicopter to look for him.

There was help but it didn’t help – it was an offer from a menu – there was counselling for Rishard and a Triple P parenting video for Mel. 

But it’s having friends and people you can count on that help most young people grow up happy and able to manage life. Outside of family Rishard didn’t have that.

It was people not services who gave Rishard a chance to become who he really was - an actor and dance artist.

·      Mick, who gave him a job in his bar

·      Rachel who shared a call out for disabled actors to train at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama

·      Stefan, Connor and Paul who helped him get there 3 times a week

Now instead of coping alone until a crisis was reached he and his family had people around them who could back up them up, encourage, problem solve, find opportunities.

Relationships keep on giving in a way that services can’t. At this point he was introduced to Richard who scouted Rishard a role in No Offence, the channel four series. That was last year. Now Rishard has just secured a role in BBC’s Doctors and he is in a residency with a non-disabled actor/writer at Coventry’s main theatre.

With services life can stand still. It doesn’t grow organically like this. The danger is services would have seen a need for care, support and ‘treatment’. Rishard’s actual need was for a life shaped by his hopes and dreams that could stretch and grow.

We’ve taken the same approach to sparking change on a bigger scale too.

How do you get 1000 people physically active, when 50% are disabled, in 18 months, in lasting ways for £75,000?

Our answer was by mobilising people in community to mobilise others, and connecting them in ways that sustain involvement.

In less than 2 years we’d sparked five initiatives led by local people (e.g. Slow Roll inclusive cycle, Swim ‘n’ Tonic). 1,465 took part and two other initiatives organically spawned (‘Wave Rave’, ‘Feel Good Community’). Now 2 years after we stepped away four initiatives continue with regular meetups and events attended by 20-130 people each time.

Feel Good Community has got a membership of about 500. Katie, with ME, was one of them. She has gone from not leaving her flat, to not talking at meet ups, to showing people individually how to ‘scratch doodle’, to talking at a community gathering about how being creative makes her feel good.

Again I was struck by the richness and abundance that can be tapped when you listen to people, focus on what they care about and understand that it is people’s efforts together that really makes things happen.

A service says ‘how can we provide help to people who need it?’’, but in a community those who have needs are also those who provide support and those who lead.

So there were lots of examples of people just kindly helping each other out - lifts, maths tutors, bike repairs you name it. Value could be far reaching.

And again there was that sense of relationships being able to keep on giving and reconfigure themselves around new problems.

 It seemed to work like this: ‘Wave Raves’ developed out of ‘Swim & Tonic’ for people who didn’t want to swim seriously. They were fun family events with poolside cake, inflatables and a disco. Then they spawned ‘The Big Paddle’, for people who couldn’t swim at all. Andrew helped Tracey get to a Slow Roll by offering to walk to the meet point with her.

I think these examples of increasing accessibility happened because individuals were free to act on their values, without being hemmed in by the boundaries of a project. They were just helping each other out. Allowing them to do that generated more resource, building more capacity and resilience.

But I know there is a flipside to all this that we have to watch out for.

I recently spoke with a former children’s centre worker. His big concern is that the main contact point for children will be stay and plays in a community centre run by a man who he believes to be racist and not welcoming to a new wave of migrants. But that man too is free to act on his values…

And then what of services – it would be very dangerous to undermine their worth and I don’t want to do that.

I want to live in a country where a fairer and kinder society and a more equal and inclusive one is still the business of government and where services do really help people. I don’t want to help create a narrative that allows government to vacate that ground and leave it to ‘us’ out here.

What that means for Grapevine is that we do put effort into making services better together. We’ve created more human and personal ways of people including professionals to come together there because they wanted to be and attempting to solve shared problems. We call them ‘Walks and Talks’ and ‘Ideas Factories’. It’s a start.

It’s our way of creating ‘organisations without walls’ where people and solutions come first, not organisational identities and self interests.

Clare Wightman is the CEO of Grapevine Coventry and Warwickshire and relationships are at the heart of their work. Clare’s particular interest is working in a way that develops and connects networks of local people for mutual help and support.