A Journey Worth Travelling

October 26, 2018

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by Ewan Aitken, CEO, Cyrenians

“If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together” may or may not be an African proverb, its origins being uncertain; but it holds a truth which I have seen lived out in a perhaps unlikely but quite delightful group of travelling companions with whom I have the privilege of sharing a journey, not geographical in nature, but of curiosity, compassion, service and ambition.

In November last year I was asked to join this group of medics, academics, third sector colleagues, a social worker/lawyer, a phycologist, NHS Lothian senior leaders and others, not because of anything I had done but because the quality of work of some of my Cyrenians colleagues had impressed some of the group founders. In particular, our work in partnership with the Access Practice, the homelessness GP practice in Edinburgh.

The group’s ambition was to create a Centre for Homelessness and Inclusive Health – in short hand – a long term action research relationship between frontline staff, not just medics but staff across the board including partners like Cyrenians, along with patients and researchers at the University of Edinburgh. Its ambition was to learn from those with lived experience and the wisdom of frontline staff, and use the University’s capacity for thinking, reflecting, analysing and questioning to embed this lived experience and frontline wisdom in policy making to improve the lives of the citizens of Scotland’s capital city who live in the toughest of realities. This would be combined with creating opportunities for staff and students to bring their compassion, skills and talents as resources for the use of the Access Practice, which is now part of the Inclusive Edinburgh programme led by Edinburgh Health and Social Care Partnership. This is not a new idea – it’s been bouncing around a number of third sector and academic conversations for at least ten years – but this group has finally been able to  make it happen

The group have spent a year getting to know each other, understanding our sometimes different versions of the same vision and idea, grappling with working through the opportunities and challenges of the University decision-making system, experimenting with providing services from the University to patients, like legal advice, building relationships with the Council and the NHS, listening and learning from people with lived experience, partners and potential partners and grasping opportunities when they presented themselves. These included deftly presenting ourselves as the solution for the University, which had been challenged to show it was more community minded.

With the help of the Carnegie UK Trust we went through a process to test our collective Theory of Change – never an easy task when our starting points by necessity are different. In truth, those different starting points are why this works. It’s only ever by exposing what we think we know to a different light that we can test our knowledge in a way which moves it to understanding and insight. Difference of opinion is what makes deep understanding possible.

The group has committed itself to creating spaces where learning comes in unusual ways. It held an international symposium where status was left at the door, contributions where from round the table not a podium and ten minutes was the allotted time. Much of the work begins with forming spaces where through the creation of new relationships, new ideas emerge which then become the focus of the conversation. A new master’s module will bring together students from many starting points, not all academic. Sessions will be led by, rather than taught by, a variety of individuals with different perspectives on the subjects. It will not be a linear process of imbibing information which is then repeated under exam conditions, but a reflective process tested and retested against living experience and practical challenges.

The Centre is now, in university governance terms – “a thing”. The group is evolving from a “Steering Group” to an “Advisory Group”. The Centre has its first post-doctoral student and a research fellow, new members will be joining the Advisory Group and much more. Yet what will remain constant is change. As we learn more about the issues faced by those in tough realities, what they see as the causes and the solutions, we will evolve our thinking and our choices about what next. In many senses what I love most about this journey is that we do not know where it will take us, nor should we try to know – other than by continually asking ourselves, does what we do mean more lives, including our own, are transformed in ways which encourage human flourishing and nurture the human spirit. It is this shared question which makes this group’s journey one of deep purpose and hope, a journey worth the travelling even though there is no destination.