What does Redefin'd mean to me?
This question was asked of us weekly by our elder Blair during the summer program, and my answer was always the same: Redefin'd to me is a program that challenges the current system. A system, that quite frankly, has failed our young people. They are pushed to make adult decisions at a relatively young age, and during a crucial and confusing stage of their development. This can lead to unhealthy coping, such as drug usage and impulsive decision making.
This is not intended to be an attack on the system, because I do feel it is important that there is a network of support for our most vulnerable. I am also aware with how hard care givers and front line staff work, and how much of themselves they give with very little reward. Rather, these are simply my observations, and how I think we can do better.
I have worked for big agencies for many years, and I have seen a number of successes. The feedback I have often received is that I build strong therapeutic relationships, which is critical in front line work. I was even told that I treat the youth like "equals," like it's something that is so out of the ordinary and deserves praise. I thought to myself, shouldn't that be the norm? It had started to become clear to me, that it wasn't praise, but a criticism. That the language I use is not 'prescriptive' enough, but more natural. It never made sense to me to approach this line of work from a power over/under or paternalistic model, which despite its best intentions, is the current state of affairs. It has been my observation that clinicians and caseworkers feel they know what's best for the young people, and will threaten to take away services and support if they do not comply.
So often, we identify how to work with people, through different theoretical frameworks, evidenced based practice, and a lot of other social work/counselling jargon. While this is important to some degree, we forget how to actually work with people, side by side. When we emphasize theory too much, we can fall into the trap of implementing a one size fits all service or case management plan. This may release some burden on the caregiver, but it is not how the world works, and it is the young person who ultimately suffers.
Where and when does the disconnect happen? When do they start becoming clients, and stop being people? Perhaps it's a wider systemic and societal issue, as we further isolate ourselves in our own neighbourhoods, and we forget that it takes a village.
There is a view that vulnerable people, particularly 'at risk' youth are a strain on resources, and become dependent on the system as adults. But Redefin'd views young people as valuable resources, who have the capabilities and desire to be independent. Their success is in their resilience, and this is achieved when they find a sense of purpose. This is something that is not easily measured. It is not a tangible outcome like housing or graduation, which is what funders and donors typically want to see.
But what we could see is personal growth in such a short period of time. Youth that are normally reserved and quiet in their daily life, opened up their first week, and shared their deepest thoughts and feelings. We also observed that young people take great pride in their work if just given an opportunity to creatively express themselves. Whether it was building the foundation to a cob oven, breaking wood and concrete with their feet, or selling their own recipe of a pineapple jam, the self-regard they radiated could not be missed. Empowerment cannot be measured on a scale of 1-5, but it can be easily seen as they started to walk with more confidence, have a huge smile on their face, and even committing to wanting a better life for themselves. Of course we were not naive to think that every young person would come through our doors and they would instantly change their lives. That is not the reality for anyone, let alone young people who suffered some form of emotional trauma in their lives. Life is not a straight line, there's twists and turns, ups and downs. Rather then focus on their mistakes as failures, Redefin'd created a space where youth feel safe and comfortable enough to share their struggles, and work together to reach their version of success.
I've often told Liz that I feel like I need Redefin'd as much as the young people. I need the reminders that it's not my role to help people, but to serve people. It's also not my job to focus on where they came from, but to understand where they are today. Liz had once told me "imagine being known for the worst thing you've done, that's what is being carried with these guys." In the days where diagnoses and case notes dominate, we easily forget about the person behind the labels that are assigned. I have been guilty of this. We have lost touch with the humanity in human services, and the passion behind compassion. It is time to stop putting band aids on problems, and embrace real solutions. This is what Redefin'd means to me.
Board Member and Volunteer