Posted on: 23 November 2017 by Ruby Robinson in Posts
Each time I re-read Theresa May’s infamous speech on citizenship, I’m left with no words. There are many eloquent responses on this blog to May’s speech. If I may, I’m simply going to use this space to let you know about a project which I think exemplifies the actual meaning of citizenship.
Lemn Sissay MBE is a care leaver, poet and Chancellor of Manchester University. In 2013, inspired by the Topé Project (named after a 23-year-old care leaver who took his own life in 2010 and which works to combat loneliness and isolation amongst care leavers), Lemn created a community project in Manchester that would go on to expand to ten towns and cities in just four years. This project mobilises local communities to come together to care for care leavers on Christmas Day. I’m writing from Sheffield, where we’re hosting our first Christmas Dinner this year, following Lemn’s guidance and with the support of the wider Christmas Dinner community.
Care leavers are people who spent time in the care of the State as children. They are some of the most vulnerable and excluded people in our society who, after a childhood of loss, trauma and instability, are left with far fewer opportunities and much less support than young people who have a family network. (Notice that May’s speech used ‘the family’ as a touchstone for her concept of citizenship, taking for granted that the ideal of family life applies to us all.) Without the social capital afforded by extended family contacts, the reassurance of a safety net (and a home to return to) in order to take risks and follow aspirations, battling to manage legacies of trauma and loss, often managing without practical or emotional support, these young people begin adult life precariously. Adult children who have family continue to depend upon their relatives into their mid-twenties (or later), whereas, upon entering adulthood, young people who were once wards of the state (to whom we are all corporate parents, in fact) have a huge task ahead in order to see themselves, and be seen, as citizens, equal to their non-care experience peers. It’s hard to reconcile the challenges that care leavers face with May’s ‘us and them’ rhetoric.
As Emma Bennett writes in the Guardian: “We know care leavers are over‐represented in national statistics of disadvantage and social exclusion (pdf), including among adult prisoners and mental health service users (pdf), and they are often paid low wages or are unemployed (pdf).” What’s needed to attend to the harm that care leavers experience is a social attitude of care, acceptance, understanding and empathy. When I heard May’s speech, I heard manipulative threats about the concept of belonging. I heard a matriarchal cult figure. Someone desperate to uphold her own status by delegitimising others, and by inspiring fear and hatred by creating an illusion of belonging.
Growing up in care can be a hugely stigmatising experience, feeling unwanted, being looked after by someone whose job it is to be your parent. Some foster carers and institutions that look after children in care are wonderful and provide genuine, nurturing and healing relationship for children. However, this is not always the case. Children often miss out on the unconditional positive regard and love that many people take for granted as part of growing up. They may feel they don’t ‘belong’ in a world where other children have a ‘real’ family. Surely true citizenship, then, is about inclusivity. It’s about having the confidence to feel that by listening to others, lifting others up, we don’t lose our status, we gain a relationship, we share in someone else’s experience, which is a joy and privilege.
Christmas can be a particularly painful and isolating time for care leavers, many of whom, living independently, have nobody to be with on the one day of the year that emphasises the pleasure of a happy family life. Some care leavers who come to The Christmas Dinners may never have had a pleasant Christmas before. They may never have been shown true care and nurture.
Lemn Sissay’s project, The Christmas Dinner, had a vision to change this; to include and cherish care leavers and show them that their communities care about them, value and respect them. Even without much understanding of the impact of childhood trauma on a person’s adult life, it’s easy to see how much potential may be lost in each young person who’s not loved, nurtured and encouraged to be who they want to be.
Radio 1Xtra recently featured three young care leavers’ stories of growing up in care and using their extraordinary creativity to turn their lives around. One of the project’s mentors, Louise Wallwein, herself a care leaver and good friend of Lemn Sissay, is one of the core volunteers on The Christmas Dinner project. The care leaver community is really rather special. People, like Louise, who have experienced loneliness, trauma and distress seem to feel compelled to use the privileges they find later in life to help others, to try and break cycles of mistreatment, to lift others up.
The Christmas Dinner is not a charity or social enterprise. It’s not about exploiting the misfortune of others. Everyone involved in the project understands this is our community responsibility to care for the care leaver on what is possibly the most difficult day of the year, for many. Our Christmas Dinners treat our guests as the VIPs they are. We ensure each guest feels welcome and cared for, valued and respected as equals. Citizenship is about using our status, our privilege, as citizens to include others and affirm their status as fellow citizens alongside us. There should be no hierarchy in citizenship. We listen to one another, we work together, share what we have and take what we are offered, with thanks. That’s the beauty of The Christmas Dinner. In five years, Lemn’s inspiration from the Topé Project has led to ten areas hosting Dinners for a total of up to 500 young people who might otherwise have been alone. With your support who knows how many other communities will come together next year? Citizenship, rather than division, fear and cognitive dissonance, is really rather simple. It’s about reflection, relationship, intention and action. Lemn reflected on his experiences, took inspiration from others, formed a community with a clear aim and got to work to demonstrate care for others.
To find out more about The Christmas Dinner and how to support, please visit the Crowdfunder page.