My dad, who is in his nineties, tells stories about what it was like growing up when he was a boy. He paints pictures in words of a tenement block where everyone knew each other. A place where the kids were ‘oor weans’ with the emphasis on the ‘oor’. A back close with a gathering of women hanging out washing or picking up a crying child who had skinned a knee playing some non-PC game. A community where folks knew each other and were known – a place where you really could get a ‘piece’ at anyone’s door. He tells stories about how, nearly 30 years on from there, he and my mum set up home in a new ‘maisonette’ where everyone else had weans. They became the goto auntie and uncle where kids would come for a second dinner or, better still, a pudding or a bit of home baking. What he describes is community – a place where folks do life together. It wasn’t an easy existence. There was poverty – poverty that today would probably have some kind of sanction created to eradicate it but even in the midst of poverty and hardship, the community wasn’t toxic. It was, I would argue, therapeutic – although no one would have even thought of that then.
Therapeutic communities are communities which are conducive to healing. In much the same way as plants need the right conditions to grow, so do people. Much is being said about Adverse Childhood Experiences right now, and rightly so but sometimes I wonder if we are actually looking for the antidote to ACEs in the wrong places. Yes, education has a part to play but it’s not the whole story. You can create the most supportive culture imaginable within an institution but if you then send the child back into a toxic community, you simply perpetuate a vicious cycle. This is not simply a learning issue it’s a cultural issue and shifting a culture is a much more difficult job than shifting a curriculum!
Is it all doom and gloom? No it’s not. We have amazing champions in our communities – ordinary folks who care and who would be the change makers from the bottom up. They probably don’t have ‘degrees’ and would tell you that they didn’t know what the new policy on this or that was but they play an integral part in the community. They are just waiting for an invitation from ‘the institution’ to get involved. They don’t need told what to do nor do they need targets to meet but they have so much wisdom to offer if we will give them an opportunity to use their voice. It won’t be tidy or, sometimes, dare I suggest, it won’t be PC but it will be real. This week, be on the lookout for the ‘back close’ where real change happens in between the drying washing lines. That’s where a therapeutic community is emerging.