Showing up for what matters

Rachel Brown is our senior psychologist at Second Step. She’s been with us since July 2019 and works across the organisation with a small but growing team. Her passion is to help us become a Psychologically, Adversity and Trauma-Informed organisation. But what does this mean, what motivates her and how is she finding her role at Second Step?

Please tell us a little about what you do. What’s a typical day look like for you, what do you prioritise?

A typical day for me is a balance between building supportive relationships with staff, and visioning and bringing into reality our Psychological, Adversity and Trauma-Informed Strategy. These two things are inherently interlinked of course!

At the moment, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, my day is often one long Microsoft Teams call! And this is why, I work hard to protect the time to reflect and think deeply about what people tell me and to resist putting too many things in my diary.

I prioritise a collaborative approach so things can take time. I try and bear witness to the process and see the work we do as a journey, as a transformation, rather than a goal or a target.  Whatever the push and pulls of the day or week are, I try to make real my intentions to nurture reflective, inclusive and strength-based spaces.

For me, relationships have to come first. Getting to know people across the organisation, understanding and connecting with the realities of their work and together building a sense of trust. I really believe that strong, trusting relationships are the way in which we can achieve real change. We all need to feel safe, understood, seen, and heard. We all need to feel connected to others and held in empathy and compassion for being a human! These needs get met or blocked within relationships. If we can communicate compassionately we can create ripples that can make a difference.   For me this is an ongoing process, I am hoping as we build momentum in prioritising the quality of our relationships, we can become more connected with each other and as an organisation. This will in turn have very real benefits for the people who use our services because staff will be resources to respond to people’s needs with reflection and curiosity.  

What does it mean to be a Psychological, Adversity and Trauma-informed organisation?

It means that as an organisation we acknowledge the prevalence of adversity and trauma in our society, the context of inequality, and how these experiences impact on how individuals and communities survive.

It means putting this awareness into our everyday language. And this will affect how we talk to each other, what we prioritise, and the way we understand our own feelings and those of the people we support.

So for me, being a psychologically, adversity and trauma-informed organisation means we need to move away from deficit-based language to strength-based language. And it takes courage to do that. Perhaps most importantly, being a trauma-informed organisation prioritises building safe relationships and supporting staff.  Crucially this can start once there is a level of self-awareness and capacity for reflection within staff teams and the organisation as a whole. When staff teams feel held, heard, acknowledged and valued they discover they have that ‘safe container’ from which to offer emotional safety to people using services and the safety to speak up an innovate.  So in a nutshell, it’s about how we create some space, develop as a ‘thinking’ organisation and use our new-found reflective capacity to create safe, inclusive and equitable spaces for people using services and staff providing services. In this way, we can sustain ourselves in these roles; we can keep doing this rewarding and often challenging work and we can keep showing up and shouldering each other up.

This clearly matters to you. Can you tell us a little about what motivates you and how you see your work?

Over the last five months our national awareness of the context of adversity and trauma has significantly increased as we negotiate a global pandemic and start to ask essential and painful questions about structural racism, inequality and white privilege. I am so glad we are asking ourselves these hard questions. For me, these collective experiences represent what Joanna Macy calls ‘the great unravelling’ (https://www.activehope.info/).

I am really distressed by the current structures that organise our society and communities. I believe there is a radical need for us to create a different way of living together – towards a more life-sustaining and connected future. I believe that we are all responsible for making this happen and that we all have different ways we can show up and respond.

We need systems and structures that do not perpetuate privilege for the few and inequality for the many. I believe that to find our way through our current environmental, public health and social crisis we first of all need to acknowledge the origins of individual and collective distress – growth economy, racism, poverty, inequality and a disconnection with the ecological environment.

This is so often the context of adversity and trauma. So for me, helping to develop adversity and trauma-informed practice is one way I can contribute to this wider calling. It is one way we can collectively try and create environments that repair the emotional harm that has happened to people through our social structures and policy.

One way we can try and support each other is to be curious about the power that affects us, or that we hold, ask the tough questions and try different ways of being. I am motivated by ‘holding hope together’. That we can continue transforming together. That becoming trauma-informed is a shared task – it’s everyone’s calling.

This stuff can sometimes feel overwhelming. When I experience this feeling, I find safety in the concept that every moment brings a new opportunity. Every interaction we have with each other, and with ourselves, can either restore or retrigger. This is how I see the work. Ultimately it is about showing up, authentically, compassionately and with courage to bring our own vulnerability.

What does success look like for you? What makes you smile at work?

For me success is in the small stuff. It is a moment of connection with someone. That sense of being in the flow of ideas and creativity, when it feels like the energy created by working with people brings a new dimension. Where you are taken somewhere else. When you move and grow because of something you witness, observe or hear.

I have been reflecting on ‘success’ recently. I like to feel like I have ‘done a good job’ that something I have done has been met with approval or has been ‘liked’ – don’t we all! Historically I have struggled with seriously high expectations of myself and, on reflection, a pretty critical self-review of my actions or skills.  Now I am working on my sense of success, or sustainment, beyond other people’s approval or pre-determined attribution of success. Our ‘culture of striving’ can, in my view, really get in the way of the beauty of life, of relationships and of joy. I do think gratitude and appreciation for effort, skill, and commitment is essential for crafting a strengths-based culture. The stories we tell about ourselves and others create our reality!

I now set intentions to practice attributing ‘success’ to how much I learn, how I support the learning process in others and how I enact courage day to day. Oh, and how I grant myself radical compassion when it doesn’t always unfold as I hoped (and indeed offer this to others).

That’s all an ongoing journey! What makes me smile is the passion and commitment I see in my colleagues and when I witness people doing or speaking about things they care about. Feeling connected to others lets me know I am in the right place with people I can ‘hold hope’ with.

Tell us something about yourself that isn’t on your CV.

Well…recently I have found a love of growing food. The other day I ate a cucumber that myself and my kids had grown and I felt real joy in knowing that we had planted the seed and now were eating the fruits of our labour (before the snails too!). Oh and I have also had a go at writing poetry over the last few months. It has been quite a fun way of expressing my feelings and documenting the day in a short and succinct way! I even wrote one about the snails who tried to eat my cucumber first!

Rachel Brown, Senior Psychologist at Second Step
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