Abianda has a unique model of engagement, taking a solution focussed and competence based approach, combined with participatory techniques. When I set up the organisation, I was keen to bring about a culture shift in the way services are delivered to young women, who typically neither felt safe accessing, nor trusted, services. Young women therefore deal with adversity, risk and harm within their peer group, rather than reaching out for professional support. As this service provision wasn’t working for gang-affected young women, I wanted to create something that did work, and so founded Abianda based on three defining decisions:
1. Stand shoulder-to-shoulder with young women
2. Have a model of growth which delivered social impact
3. Work as a business not charity
Quite simply, Abianda shifts the central question from a traditional or deficit approach to recognise survival and skill in the face of adversity: from “what is she doing wrong?” to “how has she managed to survive?” This is a refreshing approach for young women, who start to recognise their strengths, strategies and resources.
Abianda’s model is rooted firstly in youth work theory and principles (drawing on Paulo Freire’s work on power and oppression); secondly participation theory and principles (drawing on Professor Robert Chambers); and thirdly, solution focussed brief therapy techniques. Two principles hold those three strands together – the first is that we position young women as experts, valuing the empirical knowledge and research that she brings from her life. Secondly, we believe that people who are facing a problem are best placed to find the solution to that problem. We are therefore continually trying to tip the balance of power in favour of young women.
Within the team and across our services we have been reflecting on how participatory approaches can help inform contextual safeguarding. At Abianda we believe that context is everything when working with gang-affected young women: understanding how young women’s lives play out in different contexts is essential to understanding the risk and harm they may face, and how to support them navigate those. Furthermore, Abianda works with young women affected by gangs in a range of ways and with a broad spectrum of gang association. Young women across this spectrum of gang association – particularly the most high-risk and high-vulnerability young women – are regularly in locations that service providers cannot reach into. To get empirical knowledge of those spaces, participatory approaches are key to get an accurate understanding of young women’s lives and therefore deliver better services.
Abianda has found that by tipping the balance of power to young women, and using a participatory approach, young women are much more likely to engage and share their expertise on the lives of young women. One example of this in action is Abianda’s work with young women engaged in county line activity, mapping out the routes taken and the different adversity (and sometimes excitement) they might face in different contexts, for example on public transport, or in a trap house in Essex.
We continue to learn lessons about embedding participation as a model of practice within an organisation. I am a youth worker, so I suppose it’s in my blood! Since founding the organisation I have been able to ensure that that these would be the principles worked to: Abianda elicits the views of young women in every engagement, from intimate one-to-one discussions to having a Young Women’s Business Advisory Group that advises at a governance level. It can be challenging to work to those principles, but we continually ask how are we being in service to young women, and are we being loyal to our principles?
Longer-standing organisations may encounter challenges when seeking to embed participation as a model of practice, particularly when working with young people affected by sexual violence. I would recommend prioritising these actions:
Our safeguarding chronologies at Abianda are an example of the way organisations can develop and embed a contextual approach. We work with young women to develop safeguarding logs which explore the context of risks, and build timelines and maps of potential risks. We are now embedding questions about context in our practical tools, supporting young women to expand their critical thinking around relationships or power dynamics into specific contexts. Furthermore, we support young women to consider the context of service provision (as well as peer, community and social contexts), and the risks and power dynamics young women might encounter in accessing services. Moreover, we work to support partners in multi-agency collaborations to think about their decision making and how this might impact on – even increase – the risk to young women accessing those services in the different contexts she moves in. Young women have varying levels of power, agency and choice in the different contexts and social spheres she moves between, where the harm and risk she experiences will largely be out her control.
We have broad experience training professionals across sectors and across the country in participatory and strength-based approaches in responding high-risk and high-vulnerability adolescents. I have co-developed a training programme with Dr Camille Warrington from the University of Bedfordshire on behalf of Research and Practice, looking at strengths and participatory approaches to responding to sexual exploitation. This was delivered to specialist social work teams in Wigan and Rochdale, who then came up with creative adaptations to assessment processes, and creating plans with young people and families that embed participatory and strength-based approaches. For more information about our services and our training and professional development packages, please do get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org or http://abianda.com/training/.
The image used in this blog was taken from Abianda's website.
In this podcast Abi Billinghurst (Abianda) discusses participatory methods, and its importance for Contextual Safeguarding in the voluntary sector.Download Podcast Audio