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Whose Meaning Is It Anyway?
By Steve McKinlay - 13 July 2017
One of the joys of working at Depaul has been the recognition of the role of activity in our core work.
Our Endeavour approach and the Get up and Go Framework have brought some consistency to this in recent years, but it has always been going on – an accommodation service fundraising for a residential holiday, for instance.
At one point there were four sport coaches in the north-east office (one of whom I had previously cheered on when I was a teenager supporting Sunderland FC).
It was, however, typically inconsistent, not reflected everywhere at Depaul and justified on the basis that "it felt right".
Some years ago, we carried out some proper research with young people, called "Making It Matter", which confirmed that it was indeed "right" - young people at risk were saying they needed more things to do, keeping active improved their wellbeing, and mental health. We can now justify activities based on hard evidence.
Somewhere along the line (my recollection is that it followed a government youth funding programme), we added the adjective "meaningful".
This may have seemed sensible in a time when middle-aged people were becoming stressed about the existential threat posed to society by young people playing computer games such as Grand Theft Auto. In this respect I think the term "meaningful" was actually adult code for "not mindless".
There is, however, a growing body of evidence in the housing and support world of the positive effects of Meaningful Activity.
But we must be careful here about how we use the term. The evidence base is coming from the discipline of Occupational Therapy, rather than youth work, and is used with a different emphasis. I will illustrate this with an example.
A person is accommodated in their own flat, as part of a Housing First programme. In keeping with the principles of Housing First, reducing their intake of illegal drugs is not a prerequisite for getting the accommodation, nor is the flat a reward for good behaviour.
Instead, the accommodation is used as a stabilising force in the homeless person’s life, enabling a more likely and more sustained engagement with personalised support services.
Housing First also has a great evidence base on this, but for many the flat and the unconditional support are just not enough in themselves to reduce the drug intake and obtain a better quality of life.
Why? We have to recognise that, over some years, the habitual use of drugs can actually give meaning to many people’s lives. It provides a peer-group of familiar faces with a common cause – a culture – and a daily structure with a purpose – the purpose to raise the funds needed for daily use.
I remember being amused by a group of women telling me they were "going grafting". Graft being, to a working class ear, a noble word indicating an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. They were of course going shoplifting.
When we ask a person to desist from drug-use (and some other patterns of negative behaviour), we are asking them to break free from their friends, their culture, and their daily routine – the very things that give their life meaning.
We have to be alive to this loss and to help the person be just as alive to the possibility of replacing that lost meaning.
Rebuilding relationships with families, for instance, or rediscovering an interest from years past, and helping them to form regular habits which fill a day – fill a life – not just the odd timetabled hour.
This is not to say programmed "meaningful’ activity" sessions are of no value – they absolutely are because people do not build meaning from a single source.
The happiest people I know perform a number of roles – father, brother, son, employee, volunteer, friend… I like to see the support we give help people to envision multiple future roles for themselves, no longer "homeless drug-user" but daughter, mother, employee, boss…well, you get the picture.
Is this unachievable in a practical sense?
As staff and volunteers, we can cope with terms like "provide support" but to "provide meaning" sounds impossible. I think that this is because it is impossible to provide meaning.
But it is possible to create the conditions in which a person can attach meaning to an activity. A final example:
You may have heard that there has been an election. Without knowing that our Prime Minister was to call a snap election, one of our amazing volunteers has been running a regular debate group in Whitley Bay for a couple of years.
I was incredibly impressed on 8June, the day of the election, when I heard that half of the young people in our drop-in had already been to vote before the drop-in had started.
Furthermore, two young people had reported taking their parents to vote for the first time too.
A couple of weeks later I asked one of the young men about voting.
He described really clearly the process of the debate group being, for him, a process of finding out that he had an opinion and that opinion had value.
That is essentially why he voted. I guess we could incentivise young people to vote in the same numbers, laying on a slab of pizza for merely putting an X in a box – and then telling them they have "contributed" to something "meaningful", but would they sustain the habit of voting, without the pizza?
My sense from talking to this young man was that he decided to vote because he had come to realise that his opinion was valued, and he could then attribute "meaning" to the act of voting.
Our volunteer had created the conditions by which this young man could attribute meaning to an activity, and to that long list of roles (brother, friend etc etc) he could now add "citizen", "voter".
If you are helping someone to make progress in their lives by doing any kind of activity, how confident are you that it can, over time, become meaningful to them?
And what can you do to assist this process when designing a support session or activity?
If we get this right, I believe we can truly say we are making a difference.