Safe Ground

Relationships as agents of change

By Guest contributor 1 March 2013

Safe Ground is a woolly, liberal arts organisation. The outcomes we strive to achieve are as ‘soft’ as they come: we don’t find job placements for offenders on release or tackle substance misuse issues, and we certainly can’t prevent reoffending. At least not directly.

Yet our two decades of experience working with offenders in prison and the community have reinforced a core belief that drives what we do. At the very heart of desistance from crime lies a largely immeasurable concept: the power of relationships, positive or negative, as agents of change. Our approach to relationships is not that they are without conflict; or that they are simple, superficial or straightforward. Rather, we believe that conflict, complexity and confusion are often the elements that make learning and development possible. It is the stamina, resilience and motivation required to survive relationships that Safe Ground promotes.

Safe Ground’s work centres on equipping people with the skills and confidence to form and maintain strong, sustainable relationships. We may not be able to provide employment opportunities, but we have numerous testimonies from programme graduates on how the communication skills they developed on our courses made the difference in job interviews. We can’t make people give up drugs, but our programmes help equip participants with the ability to make their own decisions and commit to them. Offenders don’t go straight because of us, but we know that the family relationships built, repaired or maintained during our programmes can be a critical factor to successful resettlement.

Established as a registered charity in 1993, Safe Ground provides training for people who are affected by or involved in the criminal justice system. In 1999, the Home Office commissioned our pioneering family relationships and parenting programmes, Family Man and Fathers Inside, which have since been delivered in over 40 adult male prisons to over 5,000 men. Following huge uptake of the programmes from 2005, Safe Ground trains Prison, Voluntary Sector and Education staff to deliver the courses nationally.

We are increasingly expanding our work into communities. We are committed to our artistic roots and all our programmes incorporate arts techniques in large group settings to encourage and facilitate learning.  In the last few years we have delivered three major community projects that brought together disparate groups, including older adults, offenders and secondary school children, to work together on arts projects around the themes of identity and community. Additionally we have recently adapted Family Man to be delivered with men on probation and the programme is currently in its second pilot phase in Southampton.

Such impact is difficult to objectively value and even more difficult to measure in a world where demonstrating outcomes and ‘results’ are increasingly vital to accessing shrinking cash flows. But it is because of the nature of our work that regular and robust external evaluation has always been a corner stone of what we do.

We have a large range of academic and practice evaluations, continually confirming that our methodologies and techniques improve not only the confidence, skills and life chances of participants, but also demonstrate a real impact on relationships, ETE progression and even reoffending. We seek, through quality interrogation of our methods, to understand how our approach works, what needs attention and improvement, how we can develop the programmes and why people engage and commit to working with us. We have also engaged in several projects, including two with NPC, aiming to better measure and demonstrate the ‘soft’ outcomes at the centre of our work.

Our On the Run event is one of many ways people can get involved with our exciting work; our website holds full details of that and other opportunities for working, volunteering, joining our Board, fundraising and contributing to our website.

Like most small charities in the current economic climate, our existence is blighted by uncertainty. We know we must continue to evolve, at a quicker pace than ever before, to survive the impact of reforms to the criminal justice system on the voluntary sector. However, at a time when organisations are expected to wholeheartedly subscribe to the oxymoronic mantras of economies of scale and localism, we know we must also remain steadfast in our principles. Real change demands real investment, and strong, meaningful relationships are an investment like nothing else.

Charlotte Weinberg has a background in arts for social change with marginalised and excluded communities and young people. She became the Executive Director of Safe Ground in September 2010.