For the fourth instalment of Madlug Your Voice, we spoke to lived experience leader and director of strategy for The Care Leaders, Luke Rodgers BEM.

Luke went into care at the age of 10, and at 15, was moved to bed and breakfast accommodation. Throughout his time in care, he was moved a total of 13 times.

“People really struggled to take care of me. I had lots of temporary places to live which isn’t uncommon. I was told I was ‘unfosterable” because I was displaying such challenging behaviour. But the reason I was being challenging was that I wasn’t being listened to or taken care of.”

Now at the age of 31, Luke is an award-winning social entrepreneur and was recognised through the award of the British Empire Medal (BEM) in the 2018 Queen’s Birthday Honours List for his work as director of The Care Leaders.

What was the inspiration behind The Care Leaders?

For a long time, I shared my personal story in public and I realised that even though I had other ideas, that was the only opportunity I was being given. Now that ‘storyteller’ is part of my job, it’s fine – but for a young person that might not have come to terms with their story, it’s more difficult.

When we invite people to come and share their story, we often leave the audience thinking “but what am I going to do with that?” It can also leave the young person thinking “okay, I don’t feel very good now – I’ve shared a lot on stage.”

The Care Leaders is all about people being more than their stories. They’re not care leavers – but care leaders. The title “care leaver” is something that’s assigned to you by the state.

Being a care leader isn’t about sharing your story. It’s about allowing your story to drive what it is that you do. For me, I do consultancy and I support organisations that engage with young people, I work in transformation so I help organisations do new things, and I have both empathy (I understand what it’s like for a young person in care) and authority because I’ve created projects that have been successful. A care leader is a kind of balance between those two states.

What are you working on at The Care Leaders right now?

We’re working with a local authority at the moment to develop an app that allows young people to access their rights, entitlement and support when they leave care. Through the app, young people will be able to do things like apply for their national insurance number and write a CV, for example. It’s innovative because of how simple it is to use, and local authorities can give information to young people using technology, rather than printouts that they might not necessarily read.

Staff turnover is also so high that it’s impossible to maintain staff training. If your staff team changes in a year, everything that that staff team knew has now gone. If that thing they need to know is how to support a child leaving care, the knowledge goes with them. If the app is advising the young person, “this is who you go to for this”, or “this is how you do that”, then it can be a useful tool. The plan is to launch the app for this particular local authority in October, and then we’ll hopefully be offering it out to other local authorities after that.

One of the other things we’re doing is The Care Leaders Fellowship. It’s a 12-month programme that’s offering lived-experienced leaders the opportunity to develop their idea, project or business. We facilitate this by giving them a learning programme with seven modules including ‘self-leadership: leading yourself so you can lead others’, ‘storytelling: how to share and pitch an idea’, and ‘working with everybody: how to co-design a project’. We give them social capital through allowing them to connect to our network and to share the work that they’re doing. Financial capital – such as paying them to do some work and supporting them in applying for funding. Finally, providing digital capital which is providing the projects by developing a marketing strategy with them and content to share what they do and who they are.

They’ll also have access to The Care Leaders online, which is going to be our online training platform, they will be able to upload and share their training opportunities to our network through this. In the future we are looking to develop an e-commerce so they will be able to sell their work through it too. We are also hosting The Care Leaders summit – a conference we’ll be running in October. Here, the fellows will be able to pitch their work to various people in the industry. The whole concept is just to elevate them to experience leadership, put themselves out there, and tell people about the amazing work that they do.

Have you seen any positive changes in the system now that you’re on the other side of it?

The people are great but the system isn’t. The statistics speak for themselves. I was reading the other day that 50 percent of teenagers have a placement breakdown. They say the most important thing is finding a forever family but your forever family usually ends when you’re 18. The system is temporary, just by default.

Some of the positive changes that have happened since I left care are delegated authority, which gives foster carers the right to make everyday decisions for children in care. So that decision could be whether they stay at a friend’s house or not. When I was a teenager, if I wanted to stay at a friend’s house, my friends would have to get police checks, and their parents would have to be checked by the police, too. As well as being embarrassing, that could take between 6-8 weeks. That’s if a social worker agreed to do it as well because obviously these things cost money. But now foster carers can make that decision which is great because staying at your mates’ house is a normal part of childhood.

The issue is that just because social workers tell foster carers that they can do that, it doesn’t mean the foster carer feels confident enough to use that authority. If anything goes wrong, they are now responsible and we have this real risk-averse culture.

The other change is that they changed the leaving foster care age to 21, some of those changes mean you can stay with a foster carer longer. That being said, if you do stay with your foster carer, they get a significantly reduced allowance once you’ve reached 18. So if a foster carer is a foster carer for their livelihood, it can be very difficult for them to keep you on after the age of 18 because you might be taking up a bed another young person needs. So it’s not a simple system.

There are also other conditions, so you can continue to get support until the age of 25. But I think it’s more of a political statement. If you ask young people what support they get, they don’t. Whereas something like The National House Project, for example, they seem to have fixed that problem by their innovative approach to providing young people independent housing and support when they leave care. Young people are much happier as a result of this which is wonderful.

Could you talk about any notable role models you have met along your journey?

Camila Batmanghelidjh, who was the CEO of Kid’s Company (it collapsed in 2016). She was a woman of nurture for young people. Where I was taken care of in my local authority by suits – so people that were applying for clothing allowances so I could have a new pair of shoes, or going through a process so I could stay at a friend’s house, nobody really had a conversation with me that felt nurturing, and nobody really showed me any care at all. But Camila was someone whose only point of focus was how I felt and how I was. I think that’s really impacted my style of leadership.

I always say to our staff, “it’s just work”. Your wellbeing and your mental health is the most important thing. We just have a really nurturing environment. And everyone does a really good job. “Be nice to people and they’re more productive.”

When I was first sharing my story, I decided to find every children’s charity and every university that provided social work as a course. I sent a really long email which was basically my life story, and at the end of it, I said “I think I could share this in public, I think it makes a difference.” And she said, “okay, come to London, come and meet me.” But she didn’t let me share my story – she gave me a therapist. She said if you’re going to go around and share your life story to people, if that’s what you really want to do, I want you to have professional supervision, because that’s what professionals have.” So I went to London every single week from York to have therapy and it was probably the thing that made the most significant difference.

I must have sent about 400 emails and two people got back to me – Camila and someone from Birmingham University. I ended up working with them for three years.

What did you work on with Birmingham University?

They were involving service users in education for social workers and they were named by the Social Care Institute for Excellence as the best social work course for how they involved service users in education, and that was a piece of work we did with them.

We developed a system that had three steps to it. So if you were a service user, you started off by marking a student’s work, so if you see a leaflet that a student has made about mental health services, you would work with a tutor to talk about whether you would find that useful or not. The second step was to co-facilitate training sessions with a lecturer, which helps to build your confidence a bit. And the third stage is to facilitate sessions completely on your own. So it was this programme that really boosted service users’ confidence. It was so successful that we took it to Germany and the Netherlands.

Are other universities doing anything similar?

Nobody gets close to how Birmingham did it. I remember seeing a graph from SCIE who scored universities out of out of 1000 for how good their service user involvement was. Birmingham was 900 and something, and the closest one behind it was about 150. The majority of people who involve service users in participatory activities get them to come and share their story. No one says let’s work alongside you and share ideas which is how we worked in Birmingham.

There are a few things with that – lots of people’s stories are filled with trauma, so most service users will go along and share a difficult story, they get little support after they speak and we all applaud but are left with an uncomfortable feeling about what we just heard. Over my 11 years of experience now, I am playing with the question “is it okay to just ask a young person or service to share their story?” because there are lots of ethics around it. I shared mine for eight years, I know what it’s like and sometimes I question if there’s a level of exploitation or glorifying trauma when we ask young people to share theirs, especially when we just ask them to speak on stage with no experience and no support.

What happens if they get on stage and say something and they regret saying it, they’re untrained? We have an absolute duty to make sure that young people are aware of the opportunity that they’re about to take. And that they’re given an opportunity to develop themselves as well, so being paid or given the training to facilitate keynote speeches before  they speak in public. If they really want to share their story on stage, we need to get them prepared to do that. That’s a really important lesson to teach.

I say to young people, your story is the most valuable thing that you own. Make sure you take ownership of it and I like to believe that part of our work at The Care Leaders is helping them see the power in it.

Luke is an award-winning social entrepreneur, recognised through the award of the British Empire Medal (BEM) in the 2018 Queen’s Birthday Honours List. He has 10 years experience co-designing projects that enhance the experience of children in and leaving care. As a facilitator Luke has worked with the Department for Education, The Fostering Network and in 2020 was invited to be a Fellow at the Saïd Business School, Skoll Centre for Social Enterprise, at the University of Oxford. Find out more about him here.

May 06, 2022 — Emma Gibbins

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