Contributed by Peter Greenwood, Research Associate
As a Research Associate I wear many hats. I primarily work on projects under the realm of innovation. One day I may be hunkered down digging into academic research on a specific topic and the next I may be delivering and gathering feedback on Meraki, our new experience initiative. At the end of the day this is a new position, so what all it entails is still in development.
The Journey Starts Here
Way back in the distant past of 2009, in the far away land of Madison, Wisconsin, I took my first job in a group home. I had completed my bachelor’s in psychology and as common with many bachelor’s degrees, there wasn’t a job waiting for me when I graduated. That’s when I decided to take the plunge into Community Living. I thought it would be a stop-gap between grad school or another career. Ten years later and I’m still here.
That first group home gave me a crash course in some of the realities of working front line in Community Living. I observed other support workers sleeping on the job, doing their laundry at the house, making large batches of fried chicken in the middle of the night, and exhibiting a general disregard for the fact that, though this was their workplace, it was also someone’s home. I quickly gained the trust of the individuals who lived there, as I did my best to treat them with dignity and respect. I’m not going to lie, I was happy with myself and felt like I was doing good. At the same time, I had the creeping feeling that while I was undoubtedly providing some form of quality support, things out of my control were preventing meaningful experiences for these individuals.
Questioning the System through Person Centered Thinking
I carried on in the field and this feeling followed me everywhere I went. From a day program in Portland, Oregon, to another group home in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and beyond. Prior to my time at posAbilities, I remember facilitating exercises in “folding and sorting” and spending more time than I imagined possible hanging out in food courts. This is one of only a few places you can be for free, that also happens to have tables and chairs. I’ve been told things like, “This person goes to McDonalds every Friday evening. It’s their favourite restaurant. They’ve been going every Friday for 20 years.” Now, I’m sure this individual enjoyed going to McDonalds, but I’m also certain there are countless other restaurants and times to go out to eat besides Friday evening. I would hazard to guess that this individual would have enjoyed lunch at somewhere other than McDonalds, on say a Wednesday at noon? These experiences do not appear to be the exception though; they appear to be the norm. I’ve observed and been a part of many meaningless and repetitive activities with little to no forethought into simple questions like: Does the individual want to actually do this, or do they derive any joy and meaning from doing this?
I tried answering these questions and coming up with ways to address these issues on my own. I did my best to use humor to bring a little more joy and meaning into whatever I was required to do in my experience managing group homes and day programs. This worked to an extent, but again, I was left with that nagging question: Is this really changing anything? Is this really making anything better? I grew to believe there are many good people working in Community Living, but like myself, we are all absorbed in a system that cares much more about safety and following procedures than providing avenues for individuals to lead dignified and meaningful lives. I’ve been ready to jump ship multiple times, ready to say “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t push someone through another meaningless day!” But I could never bring myself to do it. The amazing people I’ve worked with over the years have kept me coming back.
A Turn to R & D
After nine years of working in Community Living, one day I received an invite to a “Lunch and Learn” about a Research and Development project taking place within posAbilities. In my ten years in the field, I have been Mandt certified on a yearly basis and completed Person Centered Planning trainings multiple times, but never had the words “Research and Development” been spoken in my presence. It was so out of the ordinary, it barely made a blip on my radar. Still, one way or another, the contents of that email invite lodged themselves in the back of my brain, seeped to the forefront of my thoughts and boom, it clicked: Research and Development in Community Living.
I went to the lunch and learn, joined the project and eagerly dove in. A team of Embedded Researchers, myself included, completed numerous hours of interviews and observation at four different programs throughout posAbilities. We attempted to do some research with our persons served and had limited success. We shared our findings with the four programs and did our best to keep the Agency well informed of what we were up to. We had many ups and downs and more moments of confusion than clarity. We didn’t always get it right, but even as we stumbled, we carried forward. We’ll be the first to acknowledge change isn’t easy. While we strive to be champions of it, we are not in favour of running over what currently exists in a race to get to what is next. When the research was completed, we used our findings to inform our development process. We spent days upon days coming up with ideas, tweaking them, throwing them out, and coming up with new ones. All the time doing our best to keep in mind what we had learned from our research. After all, what is the point of research if you don’t learn from it and apply it to future endeavours?
New Possibilities within Community Living
Personally, I went from being completely impassioned about the project, to wanting to bow out, back to being an adamant supporter of Research and Development within Social Services. In my opinion, what has and currently exists in the world of Community Living, is just a small sample of what is possible. If we are going to create new possibilities within Community Living, we need new methods. I believe in the potential of Social R and D as one of those methods as a means to push boundaries and create space for persons served to bring more meaning and agency into their lives, however they see fit. And yet, this isn’t a question unique to our persons served, this a question for everyone: What do you do to give meaning to your life? For me, participating in Social R and D increases the meaning I feel in my life. The funny thing is, one of the main reasons it does so is because of the potential it has to hopefully enable others to bring meaning into their own lives. It seems that is why many of us stick to Community Living though. Now we just have to spread the meaning around a little further.