In brief

In this Observatory Sighting, Shift’s Innovation Director Tayo Medupin explores the potential of a more people-powered future, and highlights the underinvestment in individuals stepping up and stepping in to help others in their community. We’ll be hosting a conversation on this topic on 15/09 at 4-5.30pm and would love it if you’d join us.

Every single month since April, when the UK entered lockdown, around 50,000 babies have been born. At the same time, as the UK moved indoors and online, thousands of statutory and essential services have crumbled and been stripped away. For many that meant no midwives, health visitors or postnatal groups. For others, less access to support for issues spanning everything from bereavement to perinatal depression.

At the start of this great wind down, Shift were approached by Peter Grigg CEO of Homestart UK to explore what the sub sector of civil society organisations supporting families could do to support parents giving birth throughout lockdown. This was an urgent question at the time, and arguably still is. To contribute to this response Shift worked with Homestart and a network of 16 civil society organisations including Family Action, The Centre for Parent and Child Support (EPEC), Parents 1st, Oxford Parent Infant Partnership to facilitate a rapid(ish) design process to identify what this support could be. 

We were clear from the start that we wanted something that would:  

  • support parents urgently
  • avoid duplicating existing efforts
  • avoid competing for the incredibly scarce resources available
  • support the sector to deliver better support as a whole 
  • sustain beyond our involvement 

Within this work, in light of the creative constraints of the brief, we identified the critical role of independent individuals across the UK who routinely step up to support parents within their virtual, physical, religious, identity-based and experience-based communities.

We were compelled by how often they were referenced as critical to delivering adequate support (especially to parents less considered or understood by formal services) but we were equally compelled by how few resources were made available to these groups. 

This sparked a question that I became obsessed with throughout this work. 

Community-driven activity is more important than ever, so why are resources to support individuals stepping up to do this work becoming increasingly scarce?

I became obsessed because as a design thinker, black person and woman I’m always drawn to the squidgy parts of systems which expose where power sits and the things that hold it in place.

I’m intrigued by signals of persistent inequality, by what we value and what we don’t. I’m compelled by what we perceive as ‘legitimate’ and I am mindful of the fine balance between ‘empowerment’ and exploitation. 

All of these things (to me anyway) felt present in this question because across the UK hundreds, or perhaps even thousands of people*, are stepping into community caring roles in a society which typically undervalues care. 

*often people identifying as women, often black people, often brown people, often migrants, often religious groups, often people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trangender, queer, intersex or asexual, often people with disabilities, often people living on a low income, often people holding trauma and often people who have tremendous experience of being refused power, prominence and parity of access to centrally funded support, often people very familiar with feeling exploited

Over the next few months, as we all grappled with the impact of COVID-19 and the civil rights movement spearheaded by Black Lives Matter, we reconciled with the fact that if we couldn’t do something fast, we could aim ourselves at something systemic. We ran an open design process (which you can follow here) to explore why it’s important to demonstrate recognition and support to those who look after parents in their community, and what it could look like if a sub sector truly embraced the importance of individuals who care. 

Through this work we tested many ways to achieve this. We explored four initial concepts co-developed with collaborators and brought to life by the talented Harry Hurd from Clear Honest Design

Within that mix of concepts (many of which I would still love to explore if anyone’s interested) the one that we became collectively compelled by was Parent People – a look at how we could recognise, support and place power in the hands of those trusted individuals who support parents through everything from one on one support to campaigning and advocacy. 

We like this concept because, while challenging to the sector because it exposed legitimate fears about safeguarding, delivering support not based on evidence, and the risk of undermining the importance of professional services, it felt generative. It felt as though it had the potential to unlock the capacity the sector needed to support the families of the 600,000 babies born each year and invest in the infrastructure required to drive parent powered practice.

It felt like it addressed structural imbalances between those who hold community trust versus those who hold institutional power and resources. It also felt like it could address (or at least start addressing) what one ‘parent person’ described as “an exploitation of trauma* with none of the thanks”*.  

*This trauma she described is often the currency used to build trust and is one of the reasons why community care is so successful in engaging and supporting parents. 

Take a look at this systems map by Dartington Service Design Lab (commissioned for this work) which explores why supporting individuals who care for parents is important and how it could unlock system capacity to drive change. 
So, with the help of Clear Honest Design, Dartington Service Design Lab, service designer Rebecca Birch and our network of collaborators we continued to interrogate what we could do to meaningfully offer this recognition and support, and place power in these new hands. Led by Rebecca, we (again) explored and tested various ideas before becoming compelled by the idea of self-care. A small but powerful signal of what it might look like if we placed care and value on those who care. 
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” – Audre Lorde

While this idea is just a small nudge in the direction we want to travel we loved the politics and subversion in this innocent offer. The act of using the personal pleasure and self-care as the political, something that has been written about and documented by activists, black feminist and African American writers and since the 1930s. We also loved the simple care of it.

The idea of acknowledging, appropriately valuing and supporting the work of advocacy, of campaigning, of supporting, holding, helping, calling, signposting, texting, shopping, listening, posting, streaming, sharing and reassuring. Valuing and supporting the work of care.  
The care package we’re designing is due to launch later in the year.  You can view the entire design journey so far at Connected Studio, the virtual open studio space we set up and used throughout this work. 
We’d love to hear from others also grappling with similar questions and exploring ways to ensure community-driven activity is equitable, valued, free of exploitation and fair.

Join us on Tuesday 15th September to explore: 

  • What resources do individuals who provide community care need and deserve? Where have you seen these sorts of resources being made available? 
  • What could a future look like where resources are more abundant and available to those who are stepping into caring and community organising roles? 
  • When does community-based action become exploitative? What does this mean for our most vulnerable communities? 

We hope to see you there. 

This work has been generously funded by grants from Nesta and Catalyst