4.12 Project Conference: "The Struggle of Memory Against Forgetting: Telling the story and sharing the experiences of residential child care"; University of Birmingham, September 16-17, 2011.
4.12.1 The Conference
The project conference offered a unique opportunity to draw all of the different elements of the project together, to connect these to a larger world of work and concerns, and to present all of these in an open public forum.
Speakers, presenters and discussants were drawn from all aspects of the project's and the Trust's work. The two days were excellently compered and guided by Institute for the History and Work of Therapeutic Environments (IHWTE) Chair and Advisory Panel member, consultant psychiatrist Dr. Tom Harrison, providing introductions, linking threads, and comment throughout. Each member of the project team spoke separately about their work. Project Management Group Chair, and new Executive Director of the Trust Richard Rollinson presented an overview of the Trust's work and future direction on the first day; and using toys and objects took the audience on a story-telling tour of the life, work and issues of residential child care on the second. Community member volunteers in the project spoke about their experiences, told stories, and presented their own material. Trinity Catholic School students presented selections from their work-in-progress, having joined in an audience-participation session guided by Stephen Steinhaus in physicalising the story of the issues being addressed by the performers, and how they were being approached. Trustee John Whitwell shared his story and reflections, as the former Director of the Cotswold Community, and Director of therapeutic fostering organisation ISP. Project Management Group member and CEO of the Mulberry Bush School John Diamond spoke in the penultimate presentation of the conference of the wider practical and political context, drawing the themes of the project together into the present situation and possibilities for the future.
A second layer of construction incorporated fellow Heritage Lottery Fund-supported projects, which had influenced the project and formed part of what the project regarded as its larger family. Social historian Elaine Harris of the Kibble Education and Care Centre "Lasting Legacy" project in Scotland spoke on oral history issues, as did Gudrun Limbrick, oral historian for the Birmingham Children's Home project whose new project on the Erdington Childrens Homes grew from it. Project Management Group member Sîan Roberts of Birmingham Archives addressed the issues for archives and archivists, having directed the "Connecting Histories" HLF project, the HLF-supported "Birmingham Children's Homes oral history project", and having begun work on the HLF-funded Birmingham "Children's Lives" project for delivery in 2012.
As part of a third layer, in which the project conference reached out into the wider community, Darren Coyne of the Care Leavers Association addressed the archive and access questions from the point of view of former children. There were papers by medical historian, Director of the History of Medicine Unit at Birmingham University, and Advisory Panel member Dr. Jonathan Reinarz, and by historian Dr. Jonathan Toms, IHWTE Fellow and former Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in the Centre for the History of Medicine at the University of Warwick. Janet Nixon, Senior Heritage Projects Officer at Surrey Heritage, and Mark Smith, Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Edinburgh University helped reflect on the conference and its themes as discussants on day two, joined by Community member and project volunteer David Crane, and child care and organisational consultant Billy Smallwood, who was also a member of the Advisory Panel.
The conference had been put together by Dr. Jonathan Reinarz, through whom the University of Birmingham Medical School CPD Conference Centre was secured as a venue; Dr. Tom Harrison, Chair of IHWTE; Richard Rollinson of the Planned Environment Therapy Trust; and the project director; supported by Dr. Reinarz's secretary Kiran Hallan. The aim was to draw together practitioners, students, performers, former children, and academics to address a variety of questions, as set out in the publicity:
What is the experience of the former 'maladjusted' child recording an interview about themselves? What is the experience of the listening interviewer? What is the effect on the transcriber of sometimes persistently distressing content? How does the child-care archivist cope with the many legal hurdles between the information and the people who need that information to understand themselves? How can we write about it? Where does the Internet come into this intensely contested emotional and legal minefield? How can it be researched? Who should tell the story, and how? How can the stories be told? What can't be told? Why? What are the legal issues? What are the ethical issues? What are the practical issues?
The theme proved unexpectedly controversial on the Child Care History Network email discussion list, one of the child care, social work, therapeutic environment, education, oral history, archive, and history email discussion lists where the conference was publicised. The conference was also publicised in the "Social History of Medicine Gazette", on the Oral History Society website and Facebook page, and on the Child Care History Network website. Following the conference, a selection of recordings, papers and PowerPoints from the conference were uploaded to the project website.
4.12.2 Conference Brochure
One of the unexpected outcomes of the conference was the project brochure, which met the need for an introduction to the project for the delegate's pack, but, put together by the project oral historian and the project admin support/transcriptionist, became a comprehensive guide. As such, and characteristic of much of the project, it took on a wider life, forming the basis for the third project Newsletter, and becoming a general guide and introduction to the project for wider publicity and dissemination.
Feedback on the brochure has been uniformly positive, with one Community member emailing "It is certainly a PETT archival item in its own right that summates so many communities and individuals involved throughout the PETT HLF project".
Feedback on the conference came both in personal communications and through an online questionnaire, which yielded 11 responses. The online questionnaire had four core questions concerning the conference over all - 'What were your reasons for attending? Were your reasons met?', 'What were the highlights of the conference for you?', 'What did you learn that you did not know before?', and 'What could have been improved, and what, if anything, would you like to have seen included?' - as well as a catch-all 'Any other comments?'. There was also a set of questions specifically about the performance, for the use of the Trinity students in reflecting on and developing their work. One comment from the latter, in response to 'Was there anything that particularly stood out to you?' was "The courage and ability of the young people, the excellent music", reflecting a wider sense and responses.
The online questions elicited a variety of useful and productive responses, positive and critical:
For example, from among 'Any other comments?':
"Pre-conference organisation only suffered in that information was sent out quite late." / "A Brilliant Event" / "None, just thought it greatly exceeded my expectations but I think that was process rather than just content ie great mix of former residents, historians, archivists, staff academics. I was able to ask historians questions about their research process which is different. Also made some really helpful contacts with whom I hope to keep in touch" / "There was a certain amount of feeling of unfinished business on saturday, around but what should we be doing to influence the wider world out there".
From 'What were your reasons for attending? Were your reasons met?':
"To hear about the research and to help me process my own thinking about memory and how we as staff (in my case) and young people in residential care remember. The conference exceeded all expectations (greatly)" / "Nostalgia. Enthusiasm for education that supports the individual above the institution." / "To help spread the message that therapeutic communities are a GOOD THING and MUST NOT be forgotten" / "interest and giving talk" / "I strongly support what PETT is doing, had a small part to play in it,wanted to meet old & new friends, found the concept of the title intriguing, looked forward to the stimulation of the discussions & speakers, & yes, well met thank you."
From 'What were the highlights of the conference for you?':
"The former residents talking about their experiences and how they benefitted from the experience. Also former staff, former young people and academics discussing this together" / "The Yoof." / "Paper by Toms and student performance" / "[Former child] Ian Burley's tale of success, and The Performance." / "jonathon Toms, Chris Long, Trinity school performance" / "This is difficult as each contribution was thought provoking but from a presentation point of view I liked the concept of Richard [Rollinson]s journey through meaning via objects. it was effective in grounding us."
From 'What did you learn that you did not know before?':
"dull history / archives stuff (that will nonetheless benefit my professional development)" / "That the communities other than mine were also successful, but also that there are too many who see this subject as an academic exercise, for interesting study rather than achieving outcomes." / "deeper understanding of the use of oral history as a method of history making. The ability of young people ( trinity) to enact complex therapeutic dynamics" / "Considerable summary of institutional care more generally, and that today's students are such bright prospects." / "It gave us a model for doing such work which I think could be transfered to other settings"
As often happens, responses to 'What could have been improved, and what, if anything, would you like to have seen included?' could be interpreted as pulling in different directions, although the reality is probably far more complex:
"Maybe too many speakers and too much information. Better amplification for some quiet speakers." / "A stronger contribution from the therapists." / "Perhaps more participants discussion from other schools" / "Some more findings from main project would have been very welcome, as would some additional academic papers." / "Less of the academic reading of published papers that could just as well have been circulated beforehand. The musical aspect of the performance was spoiled by poor acoustics." / "I would like to have had longer to discuss the performance with the young people."
The most critical comment, in the negative sense of critical, came in a detailed letter from a Community member, which began "My response to the conference was that I was disappointed" and concluded "I came to the conference hoping to take part in a meaningful discussion with the experts who could take as a given that there was a huge amount of history to draw on, a huge amount of expertise to use and a lot of best-practice to follow - to address the needs of the current period and the future. There was far too much hubristic navel-gazing and I was shocked by the absurd way that the conference was ended" [lunch was shortened, and the second day brought to a close earlier than scheduled because some of the delegates were having to leave early to catch trains]. The letter, addressed to Richard Rollinson and Craig Fees, representing the Trust and the project, was also circulated among fellow Community members, and a productive and useful discussion followed in which differences of expectations and different forms of conference were highlighted. There was too little time for full discussion, as noted by various respondents for different sessions, and especially for the Discussion Session on the second day on "Memory, Listening. Forgetting, Telling". There was also a need for a specific, problem-solving conference of the kind suggested; and perhaps in a positive sense this conference could be seen as preparing the ground for one.
There were others for whom the conference was not as expected. One participant wrote "Last weekend's conference was a huge success. As you know I found it far more relevant to me and my work than I had anticipated and was surprised that I listened closely to every presentation. You know how most of us switch off from time to time to rest our brains, but not this time! I could only wish that at least one of my colleagues could have been there to benefit as well." A Community member commented in another email: "It’s very exhilarating and at the same time moving & cheering to be in the company of so many likeminded people. I go to a fair number of conferences & this is unique. And it’s not just about the feel good factor, There is huge potential & spirit here for influence especially as there is such a diverse group from different disciplines."
Another wrote "Wow. What an intense and thought-provoking couple of days. I have taken so much away to think about and ruminate over and it has sparked lots of ideas that I want to give more thought to and take forward in the future."
The diversity of presenters, delegates and themes formed a common thread in a number of personal communications. One academic wrote: "I thought that the conference was one of the best I've been at. Some seemingly disparate strands tied together very well and there was a richness and depth to the ideas." Another respondent wrote: "I enjoyed the conference a lot, and thought the mix of different talks worked really well. And the Trinity school contribution, for me, just added a whole new, very worthwhile dimension to the conference (not to say the research project and its transmission)" to which was added the comment "It's helped me to feel engaged in a worthwhile way, which, for various reasons, I haven't been for some time." Another respondent "thought the conference was very interesting, vibrant and thought-provoking and had an excellent mix of academics, practitioners and other professionals, care leavers and young people."
Another texted that she "totally loved the Conference", which reminded her at times of a cross between a community meeting and a staff meeting in a young persons' therapeutic community. "Nobody could have planned that it would work that way, but in the very best TC tradition the environment was created where it was possible. Please pass on to everyone what an amazing event was organised."
The creation of facilitating environments as a basic way of working was built into the project design. The project team member's comment "that the main feeling I had during the conference, was similar to the way I felt at the Performance Weekend. The diversity of people, and the exciting things that happened there" reflected this consistency of approach. The conference was, in essence, an amplified Assessment, Training and Advisory Event, in which the way that the project carried out its work - for example in Archive "Weekends" - was simultaneously displayed and shared, as well as used. To the extent that the conference was a success, it was by going back to basic design principles.