The quote above was how Lemn Sissay (poet, playwright, author, broadcaster) opened his keynote at the Mind of My Own (MOMO) conference in Birmingham earlier this month. I’d been looking forward to hearing him speak again. I first came across Lemn when he spoke at the Houses of Parliament TEDx back in 2013 – worth a listen whatever your interests. There were a lot of outstanding speakers that day but he was the one I enjoyed the most – authentic, passionate & with a real story that he needed to tell & which deserved to be heard.
MOMO is a fast growing tech for good company that makes it easier for children & young people to express their views & feelings to the people that work with them and the conference was a mix of social workers, care leavers, young people still in care, local authority officers and other interested parties.
Lemn describes himself as a black Mancunian care leaver, although he also wears many, many more hats, including being the current elected Chancellor of the University of Manchester for a 7 year stint. He talked to us on the day about the reality of being a young person in care concentrating mainly on the aspects of family life that young people in care miss out on – the constant reinforcements that happen in every family – and the effect this has on them as adults. What are you going to do when you grow up? When are you going to get a job? Are you going to university? Where are you going to university? When are you getting married? All the stuff that the rest of us remember hating being asked every day by our extended families when we were growing up. Through that consistent and constant questioning and power of suggestion we learn to improvise and this is something that’s missing from the lives children lead in care. His own personal story is a heartbreaking one, but it’s one that we listen to and hear because he has a platform from which to tell it.
Closing the gap
I can’t in this blog replicate the passion & authenticity of Lemn’s keynote, although it was filmed so the link will soon be available on the MOMO website if anyone would like to watch it. I can however collect some thoughts around his key theme which was how to “close the gap” between children in care & everyone else. When you think about it like this, how can it be beyond the collected brain power of all the people that work in and are connected to the care system to make it better and in doing so improve the adult lives of care leavers. He suggested that we need to find a way to fill the hole that’s created by not having an extended family, because even though all families are dysfunctional, they play an important part in turning us into fully formed adults. He described how on his first day back in care aged 12 having been fostered out since a baby, his social worker told him how he couldn’t get emotionally involved in all his cases or he’d have a nervous breakdown. The foster family he’d spent the previous 11 or 12 years with cut off all contact with him.
He talked about how later when he lived in a children’s home with 15 other adolescents, there were 16 red boxes with glass to be broken in case of an emergency. If a box was broken, the process kicked off & the institution sprang into action – but there still wasn’t anyone who could give him a hug. Nobody thanked them for not breaking the glass on a daily basis but everybody understood what to do when the glass was broken – “the keys are jingling, the process is in place, the reviews are done”. The stark reality is that no-one judges their own children by their behaviour, good or bad, on any given day – but that was how Lemn & the other 15 young people were judged. They lived in an unemotional structure that operated along the lines of “if you do or don’t do this or that then X will happen to you” and they were constantly reminded of how far they had to fall.
Good news for Lemn personally
Lemn’s own story is a famous one & one that I won’t cover here but the good news is he now has a fully dysfunctional family of his own, just like more or less everybody else, and whilst he hasn’t yet figured out how to make birthdays better for young people in care he is tackling Christmas day for care leavers and you can find out more about how that works here if you’d like to get involved. Christmas dinners began in 2012 and last year happened on Christmas day itself in 12 cities. Thanks Lemn for the great work you do and for caring about what happens to other people and speaking out.
I realise this is a topic that many people choose not to think about outside of fiction – Harry Potter, Superman, David Copperfield, James Bond, Spiderman, Lisbeth Salander, Pippi Longstocking – but in 2017 there were over 70,000 children and young people in care in England & Wales alone. Surely between us we can come up with some creative ways to improve their lives.