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    Voices that should be heard

    In the week we launched our new participation strategy our Head of Participation, Bez Martin, took some time to reflect on what meaningful youth-led change means to her.

    Within these reflections she also offers some top tips for organisations who are looking to step up meaningful engagement, what our new way of working will mean for Anna Freud and more importantly, what it means for the children, young people and families whose lives we aim to support and improve.

    Since my career in youth work began, almost 25 years ago, I have been focussed on the democratic involvement of young people in the processes and practices that affect their lives.

    My driver has always been the recognition that young people were not simply citizens in waiting, but rather individuals ready to have their voice heard and able to contribute to the important decisions and practices that impact their lives. From improving the areas where they live to the services they receive or the people who lead many aspects of their lives at the local and national level, their voice and experience matters.

    It was when my career shifted from youth services to social care that I really began to see the difference participation could make to the lives of vulnerable families in particular. I saw the tension that arises when processes become more important than people and where professional language can alienate rather than reassure.

    The focus of my practice then shifted. I began to ask myself, how do we work towards services where all children and young people can have a say, all practitioners have a responsibility to listen and act and all managers could seek assurance that participation was central to the experiences of those families we work with?

    I have been working with the rights-based Lundy Model for a number of years now. Initially this model liberated me as a participation youth worker, it set the foundation for why we should do what we do, and it gave me leverage to bring colleagues with me.

    Joining Anna Freud in 2022 represented another shift in my career. Courageously, this vibrant, complex and fast-moving organisation has not only afforded me the time and space to grow my own understanding of the Lundy Model but has embraced and committed to it in our new Participation Strategy - launched this week to mark the ‘My voice matters’ Children’s Mental Health Week.

    The Lundy Model, with its four domains of Space, Voice, Audience and Influence gives Anna Freud a way of working that all colleagues can apply. It’s also simple enough for us to overlay our systems and ways of working. You can learn all about it in our new Participation Strategy.

    Effective participation, like our strategy, starts from a place of honesty and transparency. It’s a recognition of what’s working and what’s not working well. It’s a move from the desire to be better to a commitment to change.

    I am very proud of the work we have done at Anna Freud with our partners, our young people and families to create this new strategy – its production truly reflects the essence of the Lundy Model in a way I’ve never witnessed before and for this our organisation should be proud.

    What I’ve learned on the way

    Key learning for me is an acceptance that it won’t be quick. It takes time and effort to identify the right people. Getting agreement for adopting a rights-based approach to participation and implementing the Lundy Model meant offering training, delivering workshops, meeting teams and giving presentations in various forums. You need to apply principles of participation to the development of the strategy, itself, and the teams around you. You also need to work closely with young people, parents, carers and colleagues so they can make informed contributions and be assured their contribution mattered.

    Our vision is clear, to promote and protect the rights of children, young people parents and carers to have a say on our work, to shape the decisions we make and for us to tell them how their voices make a difference.

    Through our strategy we recognise participation is equally about relationships, building trust with those we work with, sitting comfortably in uncomfortable spaces, and not being afraid to admit when we get it wrong. Participation is partnership, and like all partnerships they take time and effort to maintain.

    Anna Freud has participation running through its very core. We have skilled and talented colleagues working hard every day to ensure children, young people, parents and carers shape their work and this new strategy should give us all a platform to enhance our practice.

    But the strategy launch is only the beginning, there is much work to be done to make our vision a reality. However, I have always believed that if organisation-based participation is done well, the outcomes will evidence themselves, and at Anna Freud we are firmly on our way to achieving this.

    Some dos and don’ts

    We hope our new Participation Strategy can be the impetus for other organisations to more meaningfully involve young people – and people with lived experience – in their work. Put simply, services can only improve with authentic voices are the forefront. Here are a few tips if you’re hoping to improve your participation:

    DO have children’s, young people’s, parents and carers involvement actively supported at the highest level possible. Senior managers, executive members and trustees should all be trained and be advocates for participation.

    DO be clear and transparent. Be honest when you get it wrong and make quick and visible moves to fix things.

    DO listen to those you’re hoping to participate with. ‘Listen’ and ‘silent’ are spelt with the same letters and there is a correlation between participation and a professional's skills for active listening.

    DON’T be tempted to pressure children, young people, parents and carers to get involved too quickly. There is a very clear relationship between rushed involvement and their experiences being a disappointing one.

    DON’T be afraid to change your initial plans for their involvement.

    DON'T be scared of what we might hear even when its painful. You can’t ask children, young people, parents and carers what their views and wishes are and only select the easiest to hear or the most palatable.

    As I look to the weeks and months ahead, where there will be successes and challenges to navigate, my professional mantra comes to mind - ‘to listen is to love’. My hope is that our participation strategy and the work we do to implement this, contributes to children, young people, parents and carers feeling validated, safe and understood.

    Learn more about our work on our Participation at Anna Freud webpage or get in touch with the team directly participation@annafreud.org.