This conversation is part of our series, Walking the talk, which explores the diversity of the UK’s charities and foundations, with perspectives from both in and outside the sector. Find the full collection here.
The Nelson Trust believe in people’s ability to make positive change. The trust began life in 1985 as a supportive shared residence for people recovering from alcohol addiction. It has since developed residential treatment as part of an integrated service with education and training, family work and supported resettlement housing. In 2004 the trust developed a specialist residential service for women who have experienced trauma or abuse, which is often masked with substance dependency. And in 2010 they opened their first Women’s Centre in Gloucester as a “one-stop-shop” approach to the wide range of problems faced by women in the Criminal Justice System. They provide services for more than 1,200 clients each year in their locations across Gloucestershire, Swindon, Wiltshire, Avon and Somerset.
We spoke with Rose, Lisa and Louise at the Nelson Trust about building an organisation with lived experience at every single level. We talked about what diversity really means, what organisations need to do to support staff with lived experience, creating pathways for service users to become staff, and the trust’s priorities looking ahead to do even better.
As a client I was in need of being heard. Now I’m an employee, I want to give people voice. I am 100% able to do this better because I’ve been in their shoes.
What does diversity, inclusion and equality mean to The Nelson Trust?
Louise: Our workforce is predominately female due to the nature of the work carried out in our Women’s Community Services. Our workforce is also predominately White British which is perhaps in part due to our rural location, but this is something we are trying to change through recruitment. So, you might say we were either not-very or quite diverse. An area of diversity and inclusion we have placed focus on has been in the lived experience of our staff, especially when it comes to the issues we work on here day to day.
Rose: We have lived experience of the issues our clients are facing at every level of the organisation. This has grown organically, but it is also grounded in evidence that lived experience in the workforce is really important to delivering a trauma informed approach.
Our lived experience staff often don’t disclose their own experiences in their interaction with clients, but often clients will know who has that background. It is a kind of implicit knowing – on some level in the relationship they know that you have been there and done it and that you just understand.
We are interested in supporting service users into becoming volunteers and paid employees. We like to have a blend of people who come with lived experience but also from professional training backgrounds. We believe that if you can get that blend right, particularly in our residential rehabilitation services, it improves our outcomes.
Louise: But having a mix of different backgrounds and experiences is also really important. We see it as having a perfect blend of different experiences and perspectives including those without lived experience, but who have the professional experience we need. That blended skillset offers more to our service users.
When I went through the residential, staff might not have lived experience themselves, but you could tell that they had empathy and interest. And if they didn’t have direct experience, they will often have family members affected by the issues we were facing and were attracted to the field as a result.
Are there challenges to having staff with lived experience?
Rose: I’m glad the sector sees the importance of the inclusion and promotion of people’s voices and lived experience. But I think it’s vital to coach people about boundaries, such as when it is appropriate to disclose your own experiences and when it’s not. Once something is said and known about you, it can’t be unsaid or unknown.
When speaking publicly we always have to be conscious that in this time of prolific social media coverage, once something is out there on the internet, they can’t take it back.
If a staff member does disclose their experience it needs to have benefit to the client. Even if you have had similar experiences, you can never assume how someone feels.
Louise: For me, it’s about making sure we have the avenues for staff to talk safely about their experiences. Staff can get triggered in their day to day work; there is always a risk of vicarious trauma because of the nature of their front-line work. We have clear processes of support in place for staff through internal line management supervision and external supervision from trauma therapists and counselling.
How do you create pathways for service users to become volunteers and later employees?
Louise: It can be a really difficult transition from being a client to an employee, so we don’t employ people within their first two years out of treatment within our services. To safeguard individuals, we believe they need some time out to change their role in the relationship, to transition in their own life and to no longer see themselves as a client. But we have volunteering pathways and offer training opportunities during that time with a view to individuals gaining skills and experience prior to progressing into paid employment.
When I was here as a client I had certain relationships where I saw them [staff] as mother figures or supporters. I needed time out to be able to grow up in a way to be a woman in my own right to be able to meet them on a woman to woman, or woman to man level.
How do you support people who have gone from service user to, volunteer to, employee of the Nelson Trust when they move on?
Rose: We had one colleague who came through our services and came back as an employee, but she didn’t want to work in the addiction and recovery sector, so she worked hard to get a job in the public sector. It was difficult for her because of her criminal record but she managed it.
I really wanted her to stay in our employment as she was such an asset to the organisation and brilliant with the clients she worked with but it was important to her to be able to see if she would be able to overcome the barriers she faced to be able to work in a different sector. This can sometimes be a bittersweet dilemma for us as you absolutely want people to move forward and realise their aspirations, but we are sad to lose them.
When people move into a new role that has nothing to do with their experience of addiction or the criminal justice system, they are a really important part of diversity because of their different perspectives, experiences and approaches.
Lisa: I know I would face more difficulties trying to apply for similar job roles in other organisations with the experiences I’ve had. Some people use the Nelson Trust as a stepping point and move onto brilliant things. We are good at training, so people do gain experience and move on, but this is the same for any staff, regardless of their lived experience.
What would be your top tip to an organisation who knows they lack diversity and want to take steps to improve?
Rose: Do your research. Ensure you access appropriate training. Communicate openly and confidently who you are to your clients. Sometimes it may be appropriate to ask the clients you’re working with.
For example, I worked with a woman who was part of the traveller community, I knew very little about her culture, and she spent time helping me understand her life and her context.
People are experts by their own experience. Ask, listen and respond. Let them have a voice. Fundamentally people want to be heard and we all need to listen.