Dawn Williams

Elephants need fleas

Blue Cabin board member, Dawn Williams, gives an insight into the start of the Creative Life Story Work project with South Tyneside Council.

Economist and philosopher Charles Handy offered the following thoughts in his essay The Elephant and the Flea: New Thinking For A New World:

“Elephants are the large organizations of business and government. They are established, efficient, settled and predictable. Fleas are the small consultancies and the self-employed experts, and the specialty suppliers that service the elephants. They are independent, creative, innovative, dedicated, passionate and non-conformist.”

The metaphors are ringing in my ears as Blue Cabin, South Tyneside Children’s Service and Child Trauma Intervention Services (CTIS) embark on a piece of work to develop Creative Life Story Work in South Tyneside, as part of The South Tyneside Programme.

Life Story work is the process of helping children separated from their birth families to remember and make sense of their early lives. The ambition in South Tyneside is that Life Story Work will be the very best that it can be. Blue Cabin is passionate about improving the lives of children and young people in care and that creativity will be at the heart of this process.

The invitation to do this work came from a Head of Service who knows that the Blue Cabin way of working will provide a huge challenge for his service and his colleagues. He values the passion and creativity at the heart of Blue Cabin and he knows that we will bring new ideas and different approaches. We will encourage experiments that won’t always work and we will ask questions……lots of questions! What our organisations have in common is that we want to make a difference.

It started off as a small pilot project, but as our conversations with Richard Rose at CTIS and South Tyneside’s Head of Service have developed, so has the ambition of Creative Life Story Work. The scale of what we have said yes to is breathtaking, exciting and at times scary.

We are very conscious of the different scales that our organisations are operating at. We have put time and energy into thinking about how we will best work together. Questions we have pondered include: What do our organisations bring to the table? How we will best work together? Is there a map? Which paths we will take?  Who else do we need to talk to? What is known? What is currently unknown and how will we manage that? What protocols do we need to have in place? The Head of Service has already noticed that a feature of meetings with Blue Cabin is that he has the space to change his mind.

For Creative Life Story Work we have brought together a fantastic group of associate artists to collaborate with us – theatre makers, a print maker, a graphic designer and two clowns  – a veritable army of fleas! Who better to create experiences for children and young people to explore their own stories? We are also working with a designer who is supporting us to think about resources, tool-kits and prototypes to underpin all of this. He asks us hard questions – and is a process geek – what a gift!

Transparency, collaboration, sharing of learning and support for each other is key in developing Creative Life Story Work.

We are currently in Phase 1. Devising and testing ideas with foster carers, social workers, residential care workers and most importantly the children and young people themselves. Next month we refine the ideas further. There are still many unknowns but for the moment we are all happy with that.

In his essay Charles Handy also offers a warning to Fleas – stay on the back of the Elephant and don’t get sucked into the bloodstream. We at Blue Cabin instinctively know we need to remain small and nimble. We are relishing our role as broker and connector. We don’t know what we don’t know, but it is our hunch that Elephants need Fleas.

If you are a Flea who manages to thrive working with Elephants we would love to have a cup of tea and a chat. Alternatively, if you are an Elephant desperately seeking a Flea, contact us jenny@wearebluecabin.com.

Dawn Williams (Board Member)