Dudley : Fortifying families
National Lottery Community Fund Knowledge and Learning Manager Temoor Iqbal spoke to our local Funding Officer, John Goodman, and a number of grantholders in Dudley.
They told him how our approach to funding in the town focuses on families and harnessing the community’s togetherness and strengths, with the aims of building resilience, addressing worklessness and setting an example for how the areas hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic can lead the charge to build back better.
“What sets this crisis apart is the many different ways that it is impacting families”, states the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ (IFS) report on the geographical impacts of Covid-19. The report goes on to position family as one of the three key dimensions of vulnerability brought about by the pandemic (alongside health and the labour market), highlighting the importance of the family unit – whether traditional or otherwise – in society’s journey towards recovery.
This focus on families in crisis (or ‘disadvantaged families’ in the IFS report), however, risks framing the process of levelling up and recovery as one of addressing negatives. There’s no doubt that critical, responsive support is essential, but using it as a starting point to move towards a strengths-based, positive perspective may have more potential when it comes to building back better.
This reflects the Covid Recovery Commission’s suggestions in its 2020 report Levelling Up Communities, which recommends that “improving family and community resilience should be a key part of ensuring a stronger and fairer economy post Covid-19”.
One way this is happening is through the government’s Levelling Up Fund and UK Community Renewal Fund, which respectively set out to “give people pride in their local communities” and “harness local knowledge, expertise and social capital”. And this positive approach is also currently in practice through our work in Dudley, which has been named a priority location for both of these government funds, and which was the location of the Prime Minister’s June 2020 speech announcing plans to boost the national economy.
“When assessing funding applications, we use a variety of criteria, including what we have identified as the local priorities for each area”, explains local Funding Officer John Goodman.
“In Dudley, based on local intelligence and patch-based conversations, the current priority is support for families. During Covid-19, families have been a source of strength for many, and a buttress against problems in wider society, even as lockdown has exacerbated existing issues and caused new ones to surface. By supporting projects and organisations that help families, we aim to reduce these impacts within the borough and increase the resilience of families in the face of future challenges.”
Dudley’s particular situation means there is perhaps greater potential for a family-focused approach to be beneficial than elsewhere in the country. The Black Country, of which Dudley is one of the four metropolitan boroughs, suffered some of the worst impacts of the decline of industry in the 1980s. The resultant social and economic changes, perhaps best demonstrated by the conversion of British Steel’s Round Oak Steelworks site into the Merry Hill shopping centre, created large-scale unemployment.
In many cases this is generational, with problems such as poor mental and physical health, low self-esteem and lack of skills compounding within families. At the same time, as the Ideas Alliance found in its 2018 report on the town, Dudley residents take great pride in being “friendly, helping each other out and always having a story to tell”, as well as in the town’s green areas, transport links, community spaces and social groups.
YMCA Black Country’s Wrens Nest Navigator project works to harness these strengths while addressing generational issues in the Wrens Nest area, which is among the 4% most deprived neighbourhoods in England according to the 2019 indices of deprivation.
“We hope this project will change the prevailing narrative by working in a very small geographical area that has been characterised by multigenerational worklessness”, explains John. “Short-term interventions over the years have created a climate of mistrust, so the project will face challenges, but we are hopeful it will spark change.”
Awarded £644,500 through Reaching Communities, the project uses a strengths-based approach, working through 20 local volunteers who have local knowledge, relationships and a trusted position within the community.
These volunteers work with 120 people and their families each year to identify their strengths and support needs, and help raise their aspirations and build resilience to break the cycle of worklessness and develop coping strategies.
Each supported person and family receives at least one visit per week for six weeks, during which the volunteer supports them to access the services and activities required to meet their immediate needs and challenges. These include online creative and learning activities, community social and training opportunities, and a buddy system to provide an ongoing support network.
“We began by speaking directly to families within Wrens Nest”, says Lead Bid Writer Clare Roberts-Molloy. “Experience from previous delivery on similar programmes showed us that a whole family approach has the greatest impact on health and wellbeing, because you gain greater insight from the family and can address some of the causes as opposed to just applying a superficial plaster. Our theory of change is based on a whole-family approach to addressing these barriers.”
A whole family approach has the greatest impact on health and wellbeing, because you gain greater insight from the family and can address some of the causes as opposed to just applying a superficial plaster.Clare Roberts-Molloy, YMCA Black Country
For some local organisations, a family focus marks a new way of looking at their services. Top Church Training, funded most recently through a £354,863 Reaching Communities grant, offers practical support, mentoring and advocacy services.
“Originally, we actually said we would never work with families”, says Karen Fielder, CEO. “One of the reasons for this was that we didn’t want the individuals we work with, who are often younger members of their families, to feel like we were taking sides. We saw with other agencies that a whole-family approach sometimes failed because of trust issues.”
Covid-19, however, sparked a change to this approach, with increased society-wide vulnerability placing burdens on whole families and highlighting that, where young people need support, their parents and other family members often also need a helping hand.
“We were hearing stories of the sacrifices parents have been making, which led to breakdowns in relationships and feelings of failure, with people at breaking point who didn’t know who to turn to for help. This obviously had repercussions on the home environment, with an increase in domestic violence”, explains Karen.
“This led us to naturally move towards supporting families because the whole family needed support. We haven’t seen the resistance to this approach that we perhaps might have in the past, and we’ve actually found that working with families instead of just working with individuals has made our work more impactful.”
This is reflected in Top Church Training’s figures – between March 2020 and February 2021, the organisation reached 85 individuals, but also supported 138 families, making significant headway towards a target of 350 over three years. Support takes a number of forms, including community cooking workshops for whole families, peer support groups for domestic violence sufferers, and mentoring sessions for parents and children.
Of course, this success has had an impact on the organisation’s long-term approach, and it’s here that the move from crisis support to building towards a more strengths-based future is apparent. “We now want to take this forward – we've rethought our plans and we want to focus on families moving forward, to help build resilience and prevent mental health and relationship crises”, says Karen.
“Focusing now on families and family resilience could help the community to make the most of its strengths and move forward positively.”
A strengths-based approach focuses on building up resilience and refocusing on the positive. However, it does not deny the existence of challenges, difficulties and barriers to progress; rather it seeks to address these.
The What? Centre specialises in counselling services for young people aged 9-25, and is accredited by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. However, the organisation has recently expanded to offer family therapy as well.
“Our work with families first came about through a pilot, linked to two members of our counselling staff taking postgraduate qualifications in systemic family therapy”, explains CEO Julie Duffy.
“The pilot was really successful, and more and more families started coming to us for support, but we didn’t have the funding to see them. Now, National Lottery Community Fund support has enabled us to respond to this need.”
The project works with around 60 families per year, and is operated alongside partner organisation Believe to Achieve, which has been funded to offer family therapy in primary schools.
There are two approaches: systemic family therapy and short-term support work, depending on the level of need. The former approach looks at how family members relate to one another, identifying patterns of behaviour that affect each member’s mental health and wellbeing through single-family sessions.
The latter sees groups of up to eight parents and 12 children discuss and work through issues like anxiety, anger management and sibling rivalry. This involves family members working together, families interacting with one another, and parents and children working separately to develop relationships and share experiences.
“The aim of the project is to improve the lives of families, children and young people where families are experiencing difficulties which get in the way of them enjoying a good family life”, says Julie.
“The main beneficiaries are families experiencing disadvantage in terms of, for example, finance, poor emotional health and wellbeing, domestic violence or bereavement. We want to help families who feel they have run out of ideas, or lack the resources, knowledge or skills to cope.”
More and more families started coming to us for support, but we didn’t have the funding to see them. Now, National Lottery Community Fund support has enabled us to respond to this need.Julie Duffy, The What? Centre
The essential support for those who most need it shown in all these projects reflects what is at the heart of our funding approach in Dudley. It provides a safety net and also allows families to focus on their strengths and think positively about how they want to live, how they want their community to be, and how they can achieve their goals.
By working with families rather than individuals, we get closer to how people see their own lives; not as a solo struggle to thrive, but as part of something bigger: a household, a community and a society - all of which embody the idea of family at different scales.
As we move from pandemic survival to pandemic recovery, our funded projects are positioned to drive towns like Dudley forwards, working together and growing as collective, united communities that understand how to work together for shared gain.