You’ll be unsurprised to learn that Your Own Place hasn’t always gone to plan. As far as there has ever been a plan, a good deal has been jettisoned and I’ve not always even admitted it or had time to reflect.
Thanks to the extraordinary (and mostly hugely positive) experience of leading a team in London where almost everyone had ‘lived experience’, this was the early ambition at Your Own Place. On arrival in Norfolk eleven years ago this was not common – or maybe people just weren’t talking about then. They are now and rightly so.
Whether you call it ‘participation’, (my favourite), user-voice (yuck!), client engagement (double yuck) or any other euphemism, listening, including, inviting and responding appropriately to those with mixed and lived experience, as equals, is fundamental. Lived experience is a euphemism too, of course, and covers a vast spectrum rather than a binary ‘them’ and ‘us’. Be in no doubt that many of us have trauma and support needs that remain unaddressed and unhealthily play out in the workplace.
What participation of those with lived experience of homelessness can’t and shouldn’t be is the only voice – any more than than those without lived experience or any other exclusive experience.
Faced with the dilemma of wanting real participation and inclusion in the business and some pretty tough moments from south London still resonating hard, it was with this ambition that I started Your Own Place. in 2013 it wasn’t about including people in strategy, finance, the Board and marketing, rather in direct delivery. The very first funded course at Your Own Place saw five young people trained (brilliantly by The Participation People) to be TILS+ trainers. This was to be a fabulous virtuous circle of people gaining job skills whilst being the most authentic and credible in delivering our workshops.
Sadly, the lessons of London remained pertinent in their readiness to work (and the business’s readiness to give them work too!). Making the judgement about when people are ready to work with you versus just how much resource your HR department (me!) has to support people facing many of life’s challenges, remains as much of an enigma now as it was then. Still committed to employing and involving people from all backgrounds, we also have to be honest that some people (as with any member of any team) simply won’t make it in our particular line of business.
The sector, our customers and commissioners need to start being honest about this or we set people up and let people down. We are not in the business of, and neither do we have the resource to, ‘fix’ people. How then do we decide who is ready, well enough and happy to join our team? If they self determine this, is that enough? Can people ever know enough about a role and full-time work to know they are ready for it? These questions are no different to any of the mysteries of HR and recruitment. It’s a very imperfect science with potentially damaging consequences.
When you’re ‘keyman/woman dependent, as a small business is, these are huge decisions. The risk isn’t only to the business, but another potential ‘failure’ for the individual involved as well as ending up with a bunch of colleagues who look and sound like me! No thanks – there’s way too much of that already!
Working in this way remains the ambition. However, at the moment it is mostly a stretch too far. Having said that, we have some superb peer volunteer mentors acting as people who have walked in tough shoes. As a route into employment, this is a brilliant one. Mostly though, people deserve better than employers doing it badly. We all deserve the right help and support to get to where we need to be – to be well and happy. It therefore requires the right resource, universal and Board commitment and skill.
Instead, our Your Own Place Advisory Board (YOPAB) contributes in other impactful and important ways, gain the benefits of doing so and we’re resourced, for now, to making it work. Thanks to Covid19 delays, we are seeking ongoing temporary funding with a view, long term, to investing our profit in doing it our way and better. Whether commissioners will pay for this, that they apparently hold in such high regard, remains a moot point.
So my top tips for meaningful participation after all this time (still) are:
- Value your people by rewarding them
- Make it a win-win – the organisation gains as much as the individuals
- Be patient – members come and go
- Make it inclusive for people to get involved in a way that suits them
- Have a variety of projects people can get involved in so that there is something for everyone
- Reflect in 1-2-1s between meetings and learn from member’s feedback
- Have progression and exit routes – paid work, if desired, should be the next available step
- Believe they can do anything – our aspirations should never be the limitation