“There is deep wisdom within our very flesh, if we can only come to our senses and feel it”.
Elizabeth A Behnke
As an organisation, we’ve been working internally on anti-racist practice for a couple of years now, a journey documented in the anti-racist practice timeline we published on our family facing website last month. Here’s my thinking about the direction of travel, with a note on progress to date
Systemic racism is not immediately obvious to the privileged. Through therapeutic work in diverse communities most of our therapists have supported people who have direct, firsthand experience of racism from other people and within the systems and services available to support them. For them, racism is tangible and whether overt or subtle, limits opportunities. Since the death of George Floyd many more people have woken up to the systemic racism in the US and UK. At the time of this killing a strong feeling was voiced by the therapy team – mainly white and middle class - that we need to proactively address racism. Our therapeutic task directly engages us in our families’ efforts to change: do we fully acknowledge the inequalities they face in seeking to make positive changes for themselves and their families within this society?
SFW has social justice and inclusivity at its heart. This was always the intention: we have articulated from the beginning our mission to enable change for those facing multiple challenges, tailoring our Family Group model to serve families living in areas of high deprivation. We have also been clear that systemic change is required in order that children and families who currently experience marginalisation and isolation enjoy an equal chance of being successful in schools and accessing the services they require. We have been less explicit as an organisation about acknowledging and naming the power inequalities that many of our families meet. Why so? By not doing so, what are we conveying to those families?
As articulated in our Theory of Change, SFW seeks to enable change by working at two levels: individual and systemic.
“At an individual level, healing involves a re-wiring process in the brain, engineered in reflection and activity through relationship. Brain development is use-dependent, so our approach is experiential. We use the power of the group to recognise, analyse, & evaluate existing patterns so both children and adults are truly heard. Simultaneously, through group activities and targets we stimulate, trial and nurture new patterns, opening new relational possibilities.
At a systemic level enabling healing in the child requires a shift in understanding and practice in school and family around the factors that cause and perpetuate strength as well as disadvantage. Through Family Group, and by supporting staff through training and relationships around their care for children, we enable powerful capacities (human compassion, empathy, respect and recognition of interdependence) that will catalyse systemic change.“
Theory of Change, SFW
Our route to systemic change is identified helpfully: through our human connection we are moved to address the inequities in the wider world. And it is a necessary step in the process of healing that inequalities are acknowledged and articulated. If not, the child and family will remain burdened by the weight of something silent over which they have no power. For healing to be possible, It is necessary to identify and name the oppression. It was the horror of George Floyd’s murder that shocked us into recognising our complacency. Our families need to be able to talk about what they experience, and so do we. More broadly, as an organisation, we need to clarify how we respond to the inevitable fact that we are operating in and as part of a society influenced by racism.
Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, our therapy team felt compelled to act. Being therapists, we looked at ourselves first: What do my families actually experience from me in this regard? What could I do differently or better in my therapeutic practice to address racism? What could I do in my organisation? These questions led to a group of therapists meeting under the working title ‘SFW Anti-racist practice group’, and spearheading our journey into what we all knew would be very uncomfortable territory.
An early discussion identified many strengths in our practice. We have a strongly inclusive foundation and good experience in multi-cultural groups where complex situations are co-productively managed. Anti-racist practice is ‘part of our everyday’. However, we all recognised significant room for improvement. Most evidently, our therapists observed inadequacies in their discourse: ‘What is the language to use?’ ‘How am I understood?’ ‘What are we missing?’ We have skilled, experienced therapists, yet our homogenous privileged position, a potential barrier we all consciously seek to diffuse, was acknowledged as significant. Even so, the discomfort around language was unanimous. In our discussions we encountered our clumsiness, our white privilege, our fear.
We’re a couple of years on in our journey now and I’m proud that the ARPG work is embedded in our organisation
Our route in has been through our own bodies. Together, we’ve been able to become curious about what happens inside ourselves when we talk about race; the brain fog that may descend; the righteous internal raging; the dryness in the mouth and the shortness of breath. It’s this looking inward that has been revelatory. Racialised trauma lives in our bodies and impacts us all. Irrespective of skin colour, we carry the charge of centuries of racism within our own bodies.
We’ve always talked about Family Group as a ‘safe space’. In our anti-racist journey so far, one of the many realisations has been that no space is a safe space for everyone. We offer a space: people come and will discover whether it is safe by what they feel in their bodies.
Brilliant training offered by Robert Downes and Foluke Taylor has shaken us to the core. We white bodies in the organisation have had opportunity to recognise white body supremacy within ourselves and we have begun to dismantle the fear on which it is based. Being less afraid, we can be more curious, externally and internally. We hope to see in ourselves the defensive, rigidity of Whiteness and head it off so, embracing our vulnerability, we can be present and transparent in the work in the room. I would hope that, for those who come to our Family Groups, we’ve got better at demonstrating we have minds that can hold difference. We’ve got closer to a shared language with our families which can acknowledge and hold their experience, so relationship can triumph over inhibition and prejudice.
We’ve also recognised the length of the journey ahead. Sometimes, when a parent talks in Family Group, they observe the patterns in their own childhood experience which Family Group is helping them identify and untangle, such that they can make an active choice not to pass on the muddle to their own child. The root of the issue for the child in the classroom may lie in trauma in the family long before the child was born. With racism, the roots go back centuries. And we all, each of us, need to do the work to metabolize the trauma that disconnects us from ourselves and each other.
Our hope is that our anti-racism timeline may help other organisations which are setting out on this journey. You’ll find links to some of the resources we’ve found most useful. We have a long way to go ourselves, and we’ll be updating the timeline as we move forwards. This work is hard. We’ll be going slowly and looking to make friends on the way. If the journey fires you, please be in touch.
 The first part of this paper is taken from a proposal I made to our Board in 2021 that SFW should set up an anti-racism work stream.