Joining the Dots: The gift through the fence

In this Joining the Dots contribution, Clare Wightman discusses the importance of relationships in removing stigma and reducing exclusion.

Image result for clare wightman grapevineClare is CEO of Grapevine Coventry and Warwickshire which works with individuals and communities using a strengths-based approach to help them bring about change that will improve their lives and futures. They  strongly believe that relationships solve problems and open up opportunities – for people, for organisations for systems.

To share your thoughts and reflections, you can contact Clare on Twitter @grapevineceo

by Clare Wightman

In 1983 ATV produced a programme about the closure of an institution in Essex. The footage included unforgettable images of a hot summer’s day. A grassy field is edged by school-style, criss cross wire fencing. Inside are about six men. They’ve taken their tops off because of the heat. Wandering or rocking back and forth, picking at their skin, suffering sunburn, some of them approach the fence. Hands reach through to get at the plastic cups of – let’s guess it was orange squash – given by an ‘attendant’.

It occurred to very few that depriving these adults, who had committed no crime and posed no threat, of their liberty was a breach of rights. Here were people beyond the reach of the very concept of rights.

Our only tool for righting this wrong was to pull down the fence that separated us. So Grapevine’s long story started with the disability inclusion movement. That is what led us to focus on relationships, belonging and community participation as the key to removing stigma and reducing or preventing exclusion.

We used associational life, community participation and interpersonal relationships as a way of revaluing those whom society rejected. It is hard for people to see who you are once they know what you’ve been called. And a chance to be known for who you are can therefore only happen through opportunities for real two way relationships in communities.

Stories intro photo

Source: Grapevine website

It was also a way of protecting people. The jaws of institutional living were always open if you didn’t have someone in your corner able to fight and figure out alternatives. If there is no one with you who cares about you then no law, no formal rights, no policy directive will protect you. This is where inclusion and citizen advocacy originally met though they went on very different journeys afterwards.

We saw how, if people saw you differently, your life could stretch and grow.

Rishard was realising he was different. But he didn’t know how to talk about it. Instead he got angry. Very angry. Where others saw an unmanageable aggression we saw acts of resistance. It’s having friends and people you can count on that help most young people grow up happy and able to manage life. Outside of family Rishard didn’t have that. It was people we helped him meet that gave Rishard a chance to become who he really was – an actor and dance artist.

  • Mick, who gave him a job in his bar
  • Rachel who shared a call out for disabled actors to train at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama
  • Stefan, Connor and Paul who helped him get there 3 times a week

Now instead of coping alone until a crisis was reached he and his family had people around them who could back them up, encourage, problem solve, find opportunities. And that’s because there’s is no limit to what people will do for those they care about.

We learned that the same thing that excludes – which is people in community – is also the same thing that can include. The poison and the cure grow side by side like nettles and dock leaves. And we jumped in. Now relationships are at the heart of everything we do and how we do it.

#ConnectingForGood is our social movement against isolation in Coventry. We’ve taken what we know about how energy and capacity flows when you create relationships bonded by a common care – just as it did with Rishard – and we’ve applied it to a challenge facing all of us.

It’s early days. We have to move at the speed of trust, starting with listening. From there we help people connect and gather through the common values and concerns we’ve heard. Then we help them to look at what they can offer each other and do together. People we’ve gathered in this way develop ever stronger ties as they begin spending time together, developing their shared ideas.

About Grapevine

Source: Grapevine website

Already we see five initiatives taking shape. The Independents is a group of local coffee shops coming together to connect people in the city centre including with a fortnightly pot luck dinner. And there are people bringing their gifts and passions to help support the movement – photographers, film makers, stencil maker, cake makers, lift givers, detectorists, vloggers, tea makers, conversationalists, illustrators, swimmers, story tellers, word spreaders, and artists.

We took the gift learning disabled people gave us through the fence and we’ve tried to take it everywhere. Inclusion, friendship, hope, the ability to shape your own life belongs to all of us after all, whatever we’ve been called.

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