Uncomfortable questions: a snapshot of bootcamp

Sam Black writes about his early experiences of Year Here

‘How could I help to improve the quality of your life?’

This was the question in the back of my mind as I spoke to Lincoln, a resident at Rose Bush Court, a sheltered housing scheme for older people.

This was day one of my Year Here Fellowship and day one of ‘Kickoff Bootcamp’, a head spinning tour of the questions, topics and people that make up the Year Here experience. We had been tasked with identifying opportunities to improve the wellbeing of the scheme’s residents

My conversation with Lincoln was rich, and as it started to deepen and move through the challenges of his life, I found myself very aware of the complexity of the brief we’d been set. To take into account the full and colourful range of his own fundamental needs alongside  the context in which he lived now would be a mind-boggling task. How could I even begin to develop an intervention that would have a meaningful impact on his life?

A day later a similar question raised its head as a team of us dived into the issue of youth vulnerability: the current situation in the UK, the factors that lead to it and the innovative approaches that were being developed to tackle it. The need was great and the statistics were harrowing, but I felt hopeful seeing those organisations who were responding imaginatively to the challenge and starting to identify where new progress could be made.

Fast forward to later that afternoon and I’m in a workshop trying to get my head around the meaning of a ‘social enterprise’ and finding myself forced to ask the question: do I even agree with this model? Can money be made through the provision of a social good? Should money be made through the provision of a social good? My mind struggled to find a position upon which to agree or disagree, but I had none.

These are just three moments over the course of my first few days as a Year Here Fellow. The first at eye level. The second a scan of the horizon. The third charting our conceptual landscape. They provide a flavour of a Year Here bootcamp. In each instance we were challenged to reject silo thinking, to hold all three of these levels in our mind and work with the tensions created between them.

All of us – 16 Fellows with backgrounds as diverse as petroleum and cyber espionage – arrived on the first day of bootcamp with a desire to have finally answered the questions that for months had buzzed around our minds and been hurled at us by friends and families.

And over that week these questions were answered. But what we didn’t bargain for was that they would be immediately replaced by bigger and more uncomfortable questions – questions that are alive and remain forever open, questions that we can only try to navigate – not answer conclusively.

  • Can I create a meaningful and lasting improvement to another person’s life?
  • How do we deal with the moral dilemmas thrown up by social enterprise?
  • Will my desire to help actually hinder the effectiveness of my efforts? Is the road to Hell paved with good intentions?

These questions sat uncomfortably in my mind. The last hit the hardest. I thought back to the four months I spent mentoring an asylum seeker in Nottingham and wondered: whose needs was I trying to meet? Was I truly acting for his benefit, or was I only trying to help myself by helping him? The answer was obvious, and humbling.

As I arrived at City Gateway College, my placement for the next five months, I had even more questions about my motivations for working in the social sector, and some of the more romanticised reasons that brought me to Year Here in the first place.

Looking back now, I believe this was an unspoken purpose of bootcamp. As in the military, the week sought to dismantle any illusions we had about working on the frontline. In battle, those with illusions of grandeur die and risk the lives of their fellow soldiers. In the social sector, the stakes aren’t quite as high but the consequences are certainly still dire.

This is not an area of work for would be heroes or the self-righteous. It is an area, I believe, that requires humility, self-awareness and a certain lightness of attitude. It may stand to reason that the more serious the work you’re doing, the less seriously you should take yourself.

So it was that I came out of my first bootcamp slightly less sure as to exactly why I was about to start working with vulnerable young people, and conversely, much better prepared to do it.