The Women's Charter project came out of Count Us In! Inclusion and Homeless Women in Downtown East Toronto (Phase 1). That project (final report is on our website) concluded with a 10-point Charter for Offering Services to Women, that is, 10 things that an agency or service would do that would allow the women it served, in particular marginalized women, to feel included. What was envisioned was a Charter statement that agencies would post as a testament to its intent to serve women well, much as the gay movement has marketed the rainbow sticker which agencies can post to show they are 'gay-friendly'.
The Charter Project took this the next logical step, which was to explore how organizations or agencies could move toward 'qualifying' to post the Charter. Ontario Women's Health Network (OWHN) negotiated for funding from Public Health Agency of Canada. F&A worked with the Asset Mapping Research Project (AMRP) of the Toronto Christian Resource Centre, Coordinator Adonica Huggins and Inclusion Researchers Farida Athumani and Marcia Jarman, to engage two agencies located in and serving their neighbourhood, the Regent Park area, in the process of self-evaluating and making changes that would allow them to measure their progress toward practicing selected Charter Items.
The project took place in April through June 2008. Adonica Huggins used her collegial connections among Regent Park service providers to recruit two agencies willing, over a very brief time span, to initiate a process of selecting one or more Charter Items and devising a procedure that would allow them to bench-mark the 'friendliness' of their current practice in relation to the Item, and to measure progress going forward.
The two agencies who volunteered were 614, a small social service program run by the Salvation Army; and the Sherbourne Health Centre (SHC), a large, new and rapidly growing health service offering primary care, a broad spectrum of outreach services, and a brief-stay Infirmary for discharged hospital patients who required follow-up care not available in their usual living circumstances.
We were very pleased that two so very different institutions chose to work with us. Because we had the capacity to work with only two or three agencies, it was important that they represent as much diversity as possible if we were to illuminate the process by which organizations become 'Charter qualified'. We are also pleased that two other agencies have indicated interest, and we are at present working with one of them, a large social services office, to explore what can be done to replicate the process with reduced and pro bono support.
The report has been forwarded to the funder and we are hoping there will be an official launch in the fall. OWHN is anxious to get funding to resource the process with other agencies in the geographic region, working toward an understanding of how a network of agencies and organizations that share serving a disadvantaged population comes to embrace (or resist) a change process.
The work was fascinating. Adonica, in the recruitment phase, stipulated that the organization had to be willing to have all levels of the organization -- i.e., governance, management, staff, volunteers and where possible, service users -- engage in the process. This was challenging from a logistics perspective (particularly given the tight time schedule) -- and very likely, the fact that an agency was able to meet this requirement was an indication that relatively good vertical communication and a positive attitude to the intent already existed. We make no methodological apologies: in any change process, one starts with the willing and goes from there.
Our appreciation of the importance of broad representation in the decision-making process grew with our experience. The interplay of perspectives was invaluable in creating a process that could be implemented within existing resources. Our impression was that the agencies we worked with already had a healthy appreciation for the synergy of different perspectives, but it may be that for some agencies, this experience itself would initiate change within the agency culture.
Both agencies had mechanisms in place for consulting with service users, and both of them made changes to the mechanism in the course of this work. 614 has a long-established practice of recruiting volunteers from among service-users and in some cases hiring them as staff -- a kind of 'career path' for some service users. It decided to initiate a more formal quarterly 'village square' meeting with service users to seek feedback on its service delivery, and furthermore, to look at ways to increase participation beyond the core group of service users. Sherbourne Health Centre, faced with the problem of resourcing data collection among women who might be appropriate users of their Infirmary and from service providers who are likely referrers of women to the service, embraced the concept of using women from among their service population to do this work -- a variation of the Inclusion Research model. Furthermore, the AMRP offered to help select and train these women, in conjunction with SHC staff and volunteers. This plan will be implemented in late summer / fall.
An aspect of the work that I found particularly heart-warming was the enthusiasm with which staff embraced the opportunity to improve their service. It's difficult to work with people who are constantly embattled with seemingly insurmountable problems. It's even more difficult to be seen to be doing a good job. Power-abusing happens. So does bad service. And goodness knows, all institutions breed their own impediments to human exchange over time. But many people in the service system long to do their job differently, more respectfully, more efficiently, more effectively. In many ways, they battle with the same problems that plague their clients, albeit from a different perspective. The conceptualization of this project was based in a belief that people who work with poor people would rather do a good job than a bad job, and had expertise they would make available if given the opportunity. That belief was vindicated by our experience. This is another variation of 'start with the willing'.
I also felt quite validated in my long-held belief about the importance of positive reinforcement as a way to create the conditions under which change takes place. We've always recognized this when it comes to personal counselling - I think the current phrase is 'strength-based intervention', but some variation has been around as long as I've been in the business. But we often think differently when it comes to organizational change. Or we act as if we think differently. We attack, embarrass, make a case. But organizational change, like personal change, comes from a belief and a motivation that better things are possible. And that is nurtured by recognition of progress to date, including trying things that haven't worked or don't any longer work.
In any case, this project included the enjoyment of hearing many innovative and creative things that were being tried to make service users feel more included and accepted. The agencies that volunteered were at what a therapist would call the 'pre-contemplation' phase of the work: they'd already recognized at some level that they wanted to improve their service. The challenge as this project moves forward will be to find efficient ways to move recalcitrant agencies into pre-contemplation phase. I think we'll be looking at collegial networks at work, moving individuals and agencies, one at a time, from "wouldn't it be great if we could..." to "we've got what we need to..."
In this project, we were open to working with agencies and services that dealt with men as well as women, even though the original Count Us In! project was very specifically woman-centric. We believe that implementing a Charter for Offering Services to Women would also improve service to men. But to fine-tune the Charter, to begin the process of rooting it in the service network that serves the Regent Park community, to demonstrate that significant change is possible within existing resources, we needed to start in the middle. Which is what we did: what is more 'middle' than a health centre and a church-based social service?
We'll post the report, or a link to it, as soon as it becomes available. If you're interested in what the Charter Items are, check the Count Us In! report.