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Summer Institute Week 3: Social workers need empathy, understanding and love

Every year at the Summer Institute, an amazing team of experts by experience joins us to share their stories. The experts form an essential aspect of the teaching, which remains in the hearts and minds of participants as they embark on their social work careers. Last week saw a focus on risk, resilience and hope; we asked a few of the experts by experience involved to share their reflections on the teaching.

Kev Curran (left) and Liam ‘Kritikal’ Powers (right)

Inspired Youth engages marginalised people within the community. They use digital media to empower authentic voices, raise aspirations and ignite debate, through film-making and music. This week Liam ‘Kritikal’ Powers (@kritikalyork) came to share his story, accompanied by Inspired Youth Director, Kev Curran (@kev_iy_curran).

Kev: Hip hop and grime artist Kritikal Powers has been making music for over a decade. The artist was a 15-year-old kid looking at the world through the glaze of angry eyes, following the death of his dad to alcohol addiction. As his powerful story descended on the Summer Institute, he told the 2018 Cohort “music saved my life, because it was a vehicle to channel my pain”. Liam’s story silenced the room, talking candidly about how no one noticed the problems he or his family were facing. Liam became an adult in an 8-year-old’s body, taking care for his ill father, changing his bandages, feeling completely alone in the world, when all he really ever wanted was someone to talk to.

So what brings a rapper from North Yorkshire to a university campus in the south? Liam wanted to bring the message that social workers have the power to change lives:

“It’s a real experience they can learn from and apply to their practice as social workers. I hope it makes them think. I hope they remember my story and when they meet the families they work in the future, think, ‘I have the opportunity to potentially change this outcome’. I think it empowers them even more hearing real experiences. One person said to me ‘I’ll take this with me forever’.”

Liam ended his session with a performance of his track ‘Liberation’:

“Performing liberation is hard because it takes me back there, but it makes sense to perform that track because it relates to everything I talk about in the session. There is a stereotype around rap music, people don’t get it until they hear it, but when they see me do it they think, wow that’s amazing, it’s not tokenism, its real, it’s about something.”

As the intensity of the performance drew to a close, the audience looked blown away and everyone took to their feet and applauded him. It was genuinely moving. Everyone in the room took something from Kritikal Powers that day.

“I believe in what Frontline do. I wanted to do that justice. I just want to be real, be as honest as possible, so the students can gain the maximum impact from my story. Your story is so powerful and it can have an impact on people in such powerful ways. It shows you what you have to say is valuable and important and you should remember that.

Frontline students have to learn the procedure, the law, all the professional stuff, but they need the experience just as much. They need empathy, understanding and love to help the future kids they work with. It gears them up for the real world and helps prepare them in some way for the complex situations they will have to deal with in their work with children and families.”

WomenCentre provides holistic support to women in the local community, as well as championing the needs of women nationally by developing policy and raising awareness of issues such as domestic abuse. The Calderdale and Kirklees WomenCentre runs a group for mothers living apart from their children, who made a podcast to share their stories and engaged in a discussion about what is important for social workers to consider in practice. They wrote the following together:

Having listened to the podcast a month or so before we came, emotions were high as we heard the undiluted impact of each other’s experiences. Some of us felt angry. We recognise that good people – good social work students – are going into a system that has caused damage to us and that we want to make a difference to.

The process of the Summer Institute is as important to us as the teaching itself. Coming together as a teaching team allows us the space to work, focus and refine what we think is important. The journey, the eating together and the appreciation shown by the teaching staff, contribute to the belief that the stories being told are of value.

In Our Hearts is a collection of stories, poetry and art from the women, which inspired creations by participants on Thursday afternoon

It’s a big thing for us, going away; the staff look after us and make us feel welcome. We are far away from home and we need that. One of us said “I like doing this, I look forward to it during the year. It’s good for social workers to hear some of the reasons behind children not being with us. I hope that when they go into their jobs they have a different view and are willing to make changes.”

This year, it was the biggest group we have taught. The students were keen to hear what we talk about. One of us said – “When I saw everyone, I was shaking, but after it felt ok – I chipped in. It’s good to work as a team. I was really proud to be part of the mothers living apart from their children group”.

After the teaching we are no longer just a case study but real people that can show the damage that can and has been done to families. We are special, but no more special than anyone that the participants may work with in the future. By being confident people, sat there, proving we can change and thrive, we hope to demonstrate to participants that it is worth putting the time into the women they will work with and that fabulous things can be achieved for families. One of us said “I like talking about my drinking and what it did to me, so social workers can see that by seeing the bigger picture it is possible to make changes”. It might touch people’s experiences and that can only be good.

Read last week’s blog from the Summer Institute here.