The Music and Change Integrate project came to an end on December 4th last year, after more than 7 years of working with one group in Camden. This transition was a big shift for everyone at M&C, but we were particularly aware of the potential impact on the young people we worked with.
Many of them had been engaged with the project for several years, and throughout a significant proportion of their adolescence. We had formed relationships characterised by strong attachments, and been witness to the highs and lows of a formative period of their lives. We were aware that the ending of the project was likely to be difficult for many young people, and did our best to make the experience as positive, as useful, and as celebratory as possible. A lot has been written about ‘endings’ from a psychological perspective, some of the the ideas we had in mind at this time were about how an ‘ending’ can bring up previous experiences of ‘endings’ and new beginnings; and how everyone has different experiences of ‘endings’ – by attending to the ending we were honouring a key Integrate principle, that services should be psychologically informed.
We started well by starting early. Beginning to talk about the ending around 8 months before it happened meant there was time to adjust, and time to make individualised plans. Despite some fears from the staff team that this might strain relationships, we actually found that, generally speaking, the young people embraced this period as a ‘last chance’ to get things done – to have difficult conversations, to make decisions, and to take big steps. We were able to ‘bridge’ more young people into employment, education and training at this point than we’d ever done before.
We also worked alongside the young people to co-produce fitting ending celebrations for the whole project, and for individual groups and activities. We were lucky enough to be able to set aside enough time and money to make these feel meaningful, and we’re glad we did as the events themselves, and the planning periods of the events, gave us all time and space together to reflect on what M&C had meant to each of us.
We also wanted to find a way to concretely mark the ending, something permanent. As a staff team we agreed that we wanted to write something for each of the young people. Letters, we felt, are a very powerful form of communication, they can be intimate, they show that one has been held in mind and attended to, and they are enduring, they can be revisited, and instilled with new significance.
rite of passage
Following Epston and White (1992), we hoped that the letters could act as a way of shifting the metaphor of loss that might have been associated with the end of the project, to a metaphor of rite of passage – the movement from one status and/or identity to another. Within this metaphor the letters sought to function as documents of reincorporation, bringing together new knowledges and identity positions for each young person:
“Reincorporation brings closure to the ritual passage and assists persons to relocate themselves in the social order of their familiar world, but at a different position. This different position is characteristically accompanied by new roles, responsibilities and freedoms. Traditionally the arrival at this point is augmented by claims and declarations that the person has successfully negotiated a transition, and this is legitimated by communal acknowledgement” – Epston and White (1992)
challenging dominant narratives
Another hope was that we could capture and share our perspective on the progress we had seen each young person make, and to thicken out previously subjugated preferred storylines for each young person. In doing so we hoped to challenge the more pessimistic or negative, often dominant, cultural narratives that young people felt were imposed upon them and their peers, the stories of ‘gang members’, ‘hood rats’, ‘chavs’ or ‘young offenders’.
In keeping with the spirit of MAC-UK’s Integrate principles we started each letter by stating our intentions, something like this:
“We are writing this letter because the Music & Change project is coming to an end on December 4th, and we wanted to find a concrete way of marking this, and celebrating your role in our story. We hope that this will be an opportunity to reflect on how your own story has unfolded since we met, and that this might give you a chance to think about how far you have come, and what has changed since then.”
Drawing on narrative practice principles we went on to map the preferred stories of the young person’s engagement with the project, taking care to draw out those unique outcomes, or exceptions, to the negative storylines they held about themselves (or felt were imposed upon them). It was a pleasure to revisit the many achievements for each young person, and we were hopeful that they would find this as powerful when they read the letters, as we had writing them. We were able to tie these events together with the hopes, dreams and fears young people had shared with us, and by connecting these up over time we gave voice to often unheard stories.
We were careful not to shy away from the darker things in people’s lives, and to use these more difficult events to think about the strengths and qualities necessary to overcome adversity. For instance, by reflecting how “in facing up to both of these challenges you have shown remarkable resolve and determination”.
In this way the letters became part of ‘re-authoring conversations’ (Epston & White, 1990), encouraging the re-storying of the lives of each young person through a prefered lens, by drawing together actions and their identity implications. We hoped that reading the letters would allow the young people to take up what has been called the ‘river bank’ position, observing the sometimes turbulent flow of their lives from a position of distance, which might support the preferred storyline to become more ‘real’.
We were mindful that these letters might feel like an imposition, and that we didn’t want to position ourselves as being in a position to cast judgment (even positive judgment) on the lives of the young people we work alongside. To this end, we were careful to use the young person’s own words, and those of important people in their networks, whenever we could to ensure that the letters felt like an experience near and familiar. We were also careful to use tentative language like “it sometimes seems” or “we wonder if”. We were mindful to locate our positive responses to our perception of progress for young people in the context of the impact this progress had on us, how we had been moved or influenced by this ‘progress’. Finally we checked in with young people how they felt about a letter being written, and were careful to honor a young person’s wishes if they preferred not to receive one.
We wanted the letters to represent a continuation of a dialogue that had developed throughout the project, and to engage the young people in the ideas we were sharing. We tried to do this by asking questions in the letters. For instance:
“You have spoken about being aware of different versions of yourself, and we sometimes wonder if you have been looking for the ‘self’ that fits you best?”
“what things have helped you to get through your tougher times?”
“We wonder what you would say to your past self from a year ago who set this goal?”
We also sought to promote dialogue by encouraging the young person to not only reflect on the letter on their first reading, but to extend the conversation by referring back to it over time, e.g., “you might want to keep this letter somewhere safe to refer back to it”. A number of young people have shared with us that this was something they found powerful. With this in mind, we gave the letters out well before the end of the project, allowing time to discuss the contents, and change details that they didn’t feel captured their experience. This approach was concordant with the Integrate principle of ‘doing with, rather than doing for’.
Another way we hoped the letters might contribute to a dialogue which developed a prefered story was by encouraging others to join or witness the conversation, spreading the news of preferred storylines. To do this we encouraged young people to share their letters, if this felt appropriate, e.g., “You may also want to share this letter with others”, we learnt that for many young people this was a powerful experience, for instance, one young man told us that his mother had tearfully shared that, amongst a sea of letters of concern, court summons and school reports, this was the first positive thing she had seen written about him.
Writing these letters took time. We began some six months before the end of the project. This allowed enough time to write, then reflect on each document. As well as to give the letters out, and for them to be read, in time for them to become part of the conversations we had with young people around the end of the project.
We took a team approach, acknowledging that each of us held different parts of each relationship with a young person, but that the relationship to the project itself was perhaps most important. After some debate we decided to write in the first person plural (“we”), to privilege the relationship between project and person. Recognising that particular relationships with staff members were also significant we named ourselves where appropriate as being moved by, or remembering, a particular moment. We also revisited documents written by staff members who had since left the project, and incorporated their voices into letters, where this felt meaningful.
Each staff member brought different knowledges and a different style to the letter writing process. For us this highlighted, once again, the benefits of a team approach, and of having a diverse team, in this case comprising clinicians, non-clinicians, and experts by experience. Before we began we examined some papers on narrative letter writing together for inspiration, and, in particular, found Hugh Fox’s paper on therapeutic documents very helpful (Fox, 2003).
Once we got started we shared the drafts with each other, reading them together and alone. We were able to pick up on certain ways of saying things that sounded right (or didn’t), and sometimes to incorporate those into other letters.
All told, it was a powerful experience for staff, and in the end we felt that it prepared us well for the end, both emotionally and practically, allowing us to be more present for the young people at a potentially difficult transition.
Finally we gave the letters to each young person, trying to do so in an environment which allowed us to discuss our intentions and hopes in writing the letter, the contents, and what the young person might do with it (thereby trying to maximise their impact). The young people all received their letters differently, but the general sense was that this had been a helpful part of the ending of the project, for instance, that it had “inspired” a young person to “pursue greater things in life”, that it “would be helpful in holding on to what was good in the project”, and that we had “noticed things” that a young person “wasn’t aware of” about themselves.
And that’s all for now. We hope that reading this has been useful to you.
The Music & Change Team
Epston, D. & White, M. (1990) Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. London: W.W. Norton & Company.
Epston, D. & White, M. (1992) Consulting your consultants; The documentation of alternative knowledges.’ In Experience, Contradiction, Narrative and Imagination (chapter 1). Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications
Fox, H. (2003) Using therapeutic documents: A review. The International Journal of Narrative Therapy & Community Work, 4, 25-35