At Changing Lives, we support women who face the most disadvantage in our communities. We support women who are repeatedly abused sexually, physically and emotionally and then often described by other people and services as the most ‘complex’, ‘challenging’ or ‘difficult’ women to work with.
For over 10 years I have been trying to figure out and design a model of care within our women’s services that helps women recover from trauma and all the awful things that happen to them, whilst supporting women in complex situations at the same time.
Moving away from conversations that fixate on negative behaviours is important. These conversations put huge pressure on people who are struggling, and if we focus too much on ‘issues’ we are at risk of creating a victim blaming culture. It’s paramount that we develop services that provide a healing journey, a journey that is caring, loving, non-descriptive and is non-judgemental.
I always thought that to help a person overcome trauma they must eventually get to a point where they feel able to access specialist programmes of support. This might include behavioural therapies and structured trauma groups that get to the root of the trauma as a starting point for people to start healing. But now I think that I was wrong. For so many women this type of support just doesn’t work, and that’s ok.
As part of Changing Lives’ theory of change (Being, Becoming and Belonging), we deliver structured trauma and recovery programmes. Some of these are co-delivered by experts by experience: women who have experienced the programmes themselves. These approaches are successful, but not for every woman we meet.
There will always be women who find it hard, for many reasons, to access this type of support. This is not a failure on the women’s part, nor for the dedicated staff who work in our services. I’ve learnt that for all those women I supported over the years, patience and lending a listening ear were some of the most important offerings I could make. I didn’t realise this at the time, but every day we spoke or met was a day of recovery.
So, at Changing Lives, we also deliver regular groups, hubs, drop-ins and 1-to-1’s that are all centred around ‘doing nice things’ such as arts, crafts, exploring heritage, technology, theatre or even just having a cup of tea and a catch up. They may be seen as ‘fluffy’ but they are the best attended sessions we offer nationally, with women turning up every week: on time, excited, and ready to engage with the activity of the day. And we see real change emerging from these sessions.
Being part of arts and crafts doesn’t mean you need to disclose what has happened in your life; instead it’s flexible and feels comfortable. Organic conversations happen in these environments and connections are made, new boundaries and emotions are explored. Women feel part of something that builds their confidence and recognises their strengths and abilities.
I have been working with Dr Angelika Strohmayer from Northumbria University for over 5 years on different projects that involve crafts and technologies.
Our current partnership is a collaborative arts project is called: ‘Sewing Through the Pandemic’. Originally, it started as a small craft research project that would inform the development of our trauma pathway. The aim was to explore the importance of crafts in women’s recovery. We were one week into the project when lockdown hit, so our first thought was to suspend it until we were back to normal. But then we paused and thought: why would we step back at a time when connection and hope for the future is needed more than ever?
We asked colleagues in our projects if they thought women would be interested in having a sewing pack posted out to them because we couldn’t deliver the sessions face to face. We will then collect the finished sewing back in and make a collaborative work (hopefully with women participating directly as lockdown is lifted). This allows the women involved to be part a collective sense-making around how the pandemic has impacted lives.
Angelika pulled together 10 sewing packs ready to post out but within a couple of days’ word spread and we had 80 women plus staff who wanted to be part of the project.
Women across the North East, Yorkshire, Midlands and the North West, are coming together to use sewing to share how they are feeling during the pandemic. This includes women who have experience of the criminal justice system, women in recovery from addiction, women living in our women and children’s unit, women living in our accommodation projects and women who are unable to access our usual community programmes who are at risk of domestic abuse and sexual violence. And the feedback already is amazing.
We’ve always known that craft is an engaging activity and people really enjoy doing it, but what we are hearing, loud and clear, is: crafts are helping to contain, heal and overcome trauma. Craft shouldn’t be underestimated and seen as the beginning stages of support: they are a part of recovery which lets women express themselves and be heard in different ways. They build on strength, skills, talents and help women to recognise these things in themselves and build a different future.
Our Sewing Through The Pandemic project is ongoing and we’ll be posting more updates as the work progresses. If you are interested in finding our more, please get in touch.
Laura McIntyre and Dr Angelika Strohmayer