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Podcast: intersectionality in social work practice

Last updated: 23 Aug 2021 Topics: Podcast

Are you taking an intersectional approach when working with children and young people?

A child or young person’s identity and lived experience can affect how they engage with professionals and services.

This episode features Jahnine Davis and Nick Marsh, founders of Listen Up, where we explore intersectionality and its application within safeguarding practice. Ineke Houtenbos, a senior consultant at the NSPCC, leads the discussion around:

  • what intersectionality is
  • why intersectional thinking is important in safeguarding
  • the impact of not taking an intersectional approach when working with children and young people
  • the challenges in capturing intersectional experiences during assessments
  • how you can apply intersectional understanding to your work and develop your social care practice.

Listen on YouTube

About the speakers

Jahnine Davis, a PhD researcher, has over 20 years’ experience in the charity sector and is recognised nationally as a leader in the field of intersectionality, adultification and safeguarding Black children and young people.

Ineke Houtenbos is an experienced child protection professional with over 21 years’ experience and has provided training and consultancy on anti-racism awareness and anti-racist practice. She is a Senior Training and Development Consultant for the NSPCC in Northern Ireland.

Nick is a researcher and social worker with over 20 years’ experience in statutory settings. Nick’s PhD research focuses on child exploitation and social work interventions. Since 2014, Nick’s work has focused on developing strengths-based approaches and turning evidence in to practice. 

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Related resources

> Learn more about Listen Up

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Podcast transcription

Welcome to the NSPCC Learning podcast, where we share learning and expertise in child protection from inside and outside of the organisation. We aim to create debate, encourage reflection and share good practice on how we can all work together to keep babies, children and young people safe.

Thanks for listening to the latest NSPCC Learning podcast. In this episode, we talk to Jahnine Davis and Nick Marsh, founders of Listen Up, an organisation that engages professionals to critically reflect on approaches to safeguarding children and young people – and you’ll find links to Listen Up on this podcast’s webpage.

The conversation with Jahnine and Nick was recorded in May 2021 and focuses on intersectionality which underpins all of Listen Up’s work. Intersectionality is vital for professionals who work with children and young people to know about, understand and apply in practice.

Jahnine and Nick sat down with Ineke Houtenbos, a senior consultant with the NSPCC, where they discuss what intersectionality is, it’s origins and its importance in safeguarding and protecting children and young people.

Hi, so we're sitting here with Jahnine and Nick from Listen Up and today we are going to be talking about intersectionality. And the question that we really want to cover today is, what is intersectionality first of all and how does it impact on children and young people, especially when it comes to safeguarding and child protection? So it's a lot for us to cover today. Who wants to start? What do we actually mean when we talk about intersectionality? What does that mean to us?

Intersectionality means, ultimately, how we are positioned within society, within the world. It allows us to explore all of the different elements which make up our identities. So that includes our race, ethnicity, our gender, sexuality, our age - all of these areas, our locations, where we live. Intersectionality really is around how our intersecting identities collide, how they intersect, how they come together so that we're not just taking universal approaches or perspectives to understand experiences, but instead we're looking at how me, for example, how my intersections as a Black working class woman, how I'm not just going to experience racism over there, or sexism over there, or classism over there, but actually all of those experiences are experienced simultaneously.

So intersectionality really allows professionals to just be that bit more curious to ensure we aren't just taking a one-size-fits-all approach, but instead we're really looking at those various different dynamics which make up who we are.

There's a quote by Audre Lorde that I really like when I think about intersectionality - and I might not get the whole quote right off the top of my head - but she talks about without intersectionality we're being encouraged to just pluck out one aspect of our character and seeing this as a meaningful whole, as opposed to our complete experiences of who we are. Actually without this, we might take a mono lens and just see a person as a male, a female, as part of the LGBTQ+ community, a Black person, an Asian person, rather than seeing how all these interact and compound one another.

Absolutely because I think the concept gives us the opportunity to really look at a person's lived experience without putting them into boxes because that can be very easy sometimes. And I think especially when we're talking about working with people, whether they be young people or adults, we often want that tick box of '”where do they fit?”. But this concept has the power to encourage us to think about people as more than that. Because there's so much more to all of our lived experiences and this concept really gives us an opportunity to talk about it from that point of view.

Definitely. Especially when we think about child protection and safeguarding because intersectionality isn't new. And I think that's something Nick and I always encourage professional services to really ensure they don't erase the origin and the history of intersectionality. Because intersectionality really was founded within Black feminist activism. That's when we see intersectionality really taking hold to challenge the kind of status quo - the universal assumptions around what feminist activism was - that actually didn't acknowledge or always consider those various different challenges, experiences, that Black and minoritised women and girls encountered.

So when we think about intersectionality, we can't think about intersectionality without talking about Black feminist activism. And the reason why that's so important is because intersectionality allows us to explore how Black women and girls’ experiences of gendered violence have positioned them in ways where sometimes those experiences haven't always been acknowledged. They haven't always been amplified.

So as intersectionality has developed over the years and we have Kimberlé Crenshaw in the late 80s, early 90s from her work, 'Mapping the Margins', talking about intersectionality, actually coining the term intersectionality as a theory - not just as a concept - has been instrumental in Black feminist activism years prior. I think what we're now seeing, which is really exciting, is how intersectionality is starting to take form in safeguarding practice. And I think that's something which is new because, as I said, in the VAWG sector - violence against women and girls - it's something we've been seeing and loving for years. What we're now seeing is how it's now being lifted up in safeguarding.

I think when we think about safeguarding - I'm social worker and I reflect back on my social work, training, my social work degree and even my practice – we’re often encouraged to see young people through a snapshot. So when we think of an assessment, it's only ever a snapshot of a young person's life. But what this can do is pluck them from their social experiences, pluck them from their identity.

Just thinking about age, for example, adolescent development, not every young person fits neatly into our psychosocial theories around adolescent development. We often see adolescent development as, “oh they're ten-years-old, they're now entering adolescence”, rather than thinking, “who is the young person? What are their experiences? What are their family's experiences - intergenerationally and contemporary?”. And thinking that adolescent development doesn't start at ten, it actually is who the family are, it's their experiences - any migration patterns, their ethnicity, class, gender, etc. Adolescent development starts way before the young person is even born so I think we need to start to really critique our understanding and our assessments by thinking more systemically and intersectionality is part of that.

Absolutely. And I think it's really important that we recognise that we already have that language in social work practice. Because we very often talk about capturing the child's views. But that's very different for a child to articulate. And always recognising too that whenever we are in that interaction with a child, there's a level of power dynamic at play. And children are very good sometimes at knowing how to act in certain situations so we as professionals have to ask those questions. We have to ask those difficult questions of, what is life like for you? And what does that mean for you? What does that look like? And because if we're not, how are we ever going to capture their views if we don't understand where they're coming from?

And I think the point you raise comes up quite a lot in terms of those difficult questions. And something I always invite professionals to consider is, who is it difficult for? Because actually these are experiences, I think, how if we're not used to normalising those discussions and we're not used to as professionals having conversations about identity, about bias, about discrimination - they're difficult for us, they're not difficult for that young person. They have been navigating those experiences throughout their life course. I think it's more about as professionals how can we hold space to ensure that these conversations don't only come up when we have somebody from a minoritised or marginalised background. So I think instead it's about how can we ensure that these are just a part of our day to day?

Absolutely. That's just a normal part of being able to explore those experiences with young people. And sometimes that does mean that no matter how experienced you are as a social worker, that you need to go back and check yourself and kind of go, what questions do I need to be asking? And if I'm not asking them, why?

And also thinking around… it's not just about questions. Jahnine and myself were providing training recently and some of the conversations centered around - it was a white professional said, sometimes as a white professional when I raise issues around racism, homophobia, sexism, I feel like I'm making an issue and the other person might not have experienced that. But I think we have to not place as much onus on the young person being able to articulate what systemic racism or systemic social inequality feels like.

I know as a LGBT young person, I didn't necessarily know what homophobia was or what I was experiencing might have been homophobic. I, as a child and understanding child development, we know that we internalise these feelings, “oh it's me, it is how I feel about myself. I must be not as good as et cetera”. So we can't always just rely on a young person being able to articulate or pinpoint their experiences. We have to also use our understanding of how the world functions and acknowledge that racism, social inequality, exists, sexism exists, and apply that to our assessments as well.

And ableism as well, you know, from all these different points of view that we're knowledgeable enough ourselves to have those conversations effectively with young people in a safe way. But that's I think again is the only way that we're ever going to really get their views and their voice heard. And we know that from serious case reviews, going back to Victoria Climbié, when we're talking about what was that child going through? Do we really understand that? Who asked? Who stopped to ask “what is life like for you?”. And I think it's very easy sometimes to get caught up in the process, and forget that there is a child with lived experience that really matters. That really matters for us to be able to effectively engage with them and effectively affect change in their life, and we need to understand who they are.

I agree. And I think in order to do that, we have to be brave to know that as professionals, we don't know everything. And there are some things we're going to make mistakes. I think we have to acknowledge, unfortunately, that sometimes due to this kind of blame, this culture of blame, it can make professionals quite... It's quite difficult to say, “well actually, I don't know” or “I can't be knowledgeable on every single thing related to equity, diversity and inclusion”, for example. No, no, you can't. What you can do is be brave to acknowledge what those gaps are so then you know what support you might need to continue developing your learning.

When we think about that work with young people, I think we focus so much on the young person, their identity, their positionality, but we also need to be able to acknowledge our own, that there were various different experiences in that space which are intersecting and coming out and playing out in various different ways. And as professionals, we have our own intersecting identities too, as Nick was just sharing.

When we think about intersectionality, the word itself can feel really quite long and complex. It really is not. We're talking about identity. We're inviting you as professionals, as services, to consider identity on a micro level, in terms of with family, how identity interacts within your familial context, within your neighbourhood, but also what that then means from a macro level in terms of looking at those wider, different elements of structural and systemic inequalities and how they operationalise.

There was a point you raised around assessments and some of the different challenges with assessments. I would say that one of the challenges is that they're still quite universal. They focus on universal experiences based on a dominant group of young people. We might research based on what research is saying, so that what we don't necessarily have are assessments which allow for that intersectional experience. And that's why it's even more important for professionals to use their professional curiosity to apply that to their learning to ensure we are thinking about those different identities. And we're not just saying what we've done this assessment. This is what it is and then we've ticked this box and that's it. How do we ensure that we apply that intersectional understanding to everything that we do?

We have to think about what underpins the assessment framework on our contemporary sort of application of that and also what underpins social work. If we think about the theories, social work learning models and social work theories, we have to think of Bowlby attachment theory, Erik Erickson life-cycle, Bronfenbrenner systems and ecological theory - and although his work in the later years did pick up people's bioecological elements - when we think of systems, they're actually very hetero-normative, Eurocentric and ableist. So instantly our training as a social worker, we have to then apply a critical lens to what we're doing and how our training has been embedded upon us and within us, and how we view young people, how we view child development, how we view healthy relationships, how we view independence, what independence looks like, how we view risk taking. And I think about all of our theories push us down one avenue and then being able to have spaces to critically reflect on that and what that means and how that influences our policies, our interventions, our practices, and how gendered they can be, how Eurocentric they can be and all the other elements of intersectionality. I think what further can compound that is who are our team? Who are the decision makers? Where's diversity within team? Is it front-facing? It is right through to senior leadership? Is it male and female? Who are creating and designing our interventions? And what does this mean when we then apply them to young people?

Absolutely. And I think too about the concept of being evidence-based. A lot of organisations talk about being evidence-based, a lot of the systems that we use, as you say, evidence-based. And yet we don't necessarily take that time always to critically reflect on who was represented in that evidence and who did we speak to, which voices are being heard on the basis of that evidence. And the work that you've done Jahnine around giving Black girls a voice in CSA research is so important because I don't even think that people recognise that or even ask that question. We just see evidence-based, peer-reviewed, wonderful, let's go. And we're not stopping to go, “actually who was researched here?”. Because that matters, especially when we're talking about all those universal services and all the universal ways that we try to roll out what we do. It's just not always going to reach those communities. And that's my pet peeve about that word of “hard to reach”. Communities aren't hard to reach. They're right there. It's incumbent upon us as organisations and professionals to know enough. To have appropriate conversations. To educate ourselves on all those aspects of intersectionality so that we can go into those communities and have an intelligent conversation about what might be going on for those people.

Language is so important because language in itself can really place a barrier. And from our own learning, if we continue to use language such as, “disengaged”, “not engaged”, “hard to reach” - when actually I think part of that difficult question we were talking about earlier - I think the difficult question is as professionals, as services, asking ourselves, actually are our service is hard to reach? And how often do we look at our services rather than placing the onus and responsibility of traditionally marginalised, minoritised communities to “why are you not coming in?” or “what work do we need to do?”.

There is something about constantly questioning, reflecting and thinking about how our services are reachable. And if they're not, what work do we need to do? Who are our critical friends? How evolved are we in working in partnership with specialist organisations? I think there is something about having to take that additional time to ensure that we are being inclusive and equitable. That it can't just be that universal approach or assumption that by having somebody with a diverse workforce means we've ticked the box. No it doesn't because if that diversity, that visible diversity, is not something we're seeing reflected within middle management, within senior leadership, within the board, then again, we're still perpetuating and mimicking the social inequalities we see happening externally.

So I think it's not just the outside work in terms of how we work with various different young people, especially when professionals are working with young people from different backgrounds to themselves, it's also thinking about what can we be doing within our services to really strengthen our approaches, to ensure that when we talk about intersectionality, we are talking about equity. We are talking about diversity and inclusion. So how does that become just embedded across all layers, not just on the ground where we tend to see much more diversity playing out?

What this says to me Jahnine, just thinking about this conversation is, we have to commit serious resources to this. It can't be at the end of the financial year, you have ten thousand pounds left over, so let's get some EDI training. It has to be integral to everything that we do. We have to have spaces systemically from recruitment, retention, reward, recognition, critiquing our assessments and our tools, our policies, looking through our practices, holding space, having uncomfortable conversations around intersectional experiences. It has to be a real and permanent commitment to this area of practice. To just have it as piecemeal, or something that's nice to do, is really providing a disservice to young people and our families that are from minoritised and marginalised groups.

For sure and when we think about intersectionality, it shouldn't just be wrapped up as this area of “oh gosh, it's going to be challenging or complex”. It's actually an opportunity to just celebrate difference. To celebrate diversity. We're all different. Those who are listening can't see, but I'm just looking at Nick, Ineke, Ali, me, and we all are from different backgrounds, walks of life, some of that's visible, some of it is not, and why are we not celebrating that? Why is it sometimes so difficult just to talk about identity as something rich and vibrant? Something which we should all be very proud of.

And when we think about the work we do, if we're thinking about it being person-centred, strengths-based and so forth, why are we not thinking about having those questions within our sessions? Within those one-to-one spaces with young people? Because it's not just about acknowledging and exploring the possible various different oppressions they may have experienced - or maybe at a heightened risk of experiencing - it's also an opportunity for professionals, especially where you may not be used to working with young people who differ from you in terms of your backgrounds, it's an opportunity just to hear and learn and share. So I think intersectionality allows you to just explore and to go that bit further. To look beyond the universal lens. To think about that kind of kaleidoscopic lens so you're not just having this one-size-fits-all, but actually an opportunity to just explore your various differences and I think that's something we should celebrate.

Intersectionality isn't just something we apply to others. It applies to ourselves. It applies to our colleagues, our peers, our senior leaders. Understanding how all of us have intersectional experiences, we're all positioned differently in the world and experience the world differently. And that changes over time, on resources, on climate, so our experiences aren't static either. So it's really acknowledging that intersectionality has a fluidity to it as well.

Some of the questions we don't always ask ourselves or the reflections for me, should be around actually what have we missed? Because if we're not taking an intersectional approach to our work, what does that mean? What's the impact of that? We focus so much on the good intention of everything that we do or not wanting to get it wrong, or being really concerned about saying the wrong thing and language - and yes, let's acknowledge that, let's acknowledge and support professionals to hold space where they can feel bold and courageous to say, “do you know what, I'm worried about saying this word because am I going to be accused of this?”, “I don't know what if I say this?”, “is this wrong?”. Okay, let's have that conversation, but let that not overtake the focus and the importance of acknowledging impact.

Now, when we focus on impact, let's think about if we do not take intersectional approaches to the work we do, what is the impact? What does that mean? Picking up on your point Ineke around my work around Black girls and child sexual abuse, something which always stands out for me is that one of the participants said, “well, who's protecting us? Who is protecting us?”. And that impact, that feeling of no one is seeing us. No one's seeing our experiences. Because services continue to provide this universal approach or services, because of the lack of development or opportunities that professionals have to ignore and explore their bias, they're just seeing us as being angry and aggressive. They're not seeing our innocence, our vulnerability. No one is seeing that. So if we do not take intersectional approaches to our work, we need to be talking. We need to be holding ourselves accountable to say well what does that mean then in terms of the impact? Does that mean that we have young people, children and young people's experiences being disregarded, dismissed, erased? Because that is the impact. So we can talk about intersectionality in terms of why it's important or buy in. But we also need to talk about when we don't buy into it, what does that mean to the children and young people we're supposed to be safeguarding?

Exactly. And it's about what Nick was saying earlier, it's not incumbent on them to explain that to us. Because a lot of the kids that we're working with, in terms of safeguarding, are surviving as best as they can. So it's our job to give them that voice. I think that's the only way that we're able to kind of build that trust. Because in terms of systemic oppression, that's been happening over years and years and years, and the statistics from government websites will show you in terms of incarceration and the school to prison pipeline and all that stuff has been around. Kids know this. They know this. That's the life that they're living. So it's up to us to break down those barriers that they've had to create for themselves in order to survive.

I really like the point you made there. It really resonates with me - the school to prison pipeline. And I think if we had a more intersectional approach to how we understand trauma, how young people might manifest their distress, and we actually started to think around tropes and what we apply to some young people and how it can include and exclude in people. If we think of trauma responses around boundaries, emotional regulation, aggression, daydreaming or disassociation, and we think about how we might apply innocence or vulnerability to some groups of young people and not others, and what we can see in our alternative education provisions, are often whole groups of people, often males. There's an overrepresentation within our YOS and alternative education systems of people from ethnically minoritised backgrounds. And I wonder if we had an intersectional of understanding of how trauma manifests - both trauma in the home and outside of the home, intergenerational trauma, communal trauma - would we have a more therapeutic approach, rather than this punitive and managed approach to how we work with some of our young people, particularly boys, where class, ethnicity and gender and age intersects?

100 percent. I agree. And I think it makes me... as I'm saying this, I feel the discomfort of we're in safeguarding practice, and ultimately our work is to ensure that we are safeguarding and protecting children and young people. But do we always do that? Do we have a perspective or a perception of a deserving and undeserving victim? And who does that look like? And we have to own that. We have to own that. And I think in an ideal world, you want to say, well, you know, we're doing what we can. Yes, we know that there are the background challenges which continue to be there in terms of high caseloads, burnout. There is a context which we mustn't disregard, but oppression, discrimination exists. It exists in our society. Racism is real.

Something me and Nick always say in any learning and development workshop we go in, we're like, “look, we're not here to decide or to discuss if racism, as an example, is a real thing. We know it is so we're not going to converse on that. What we're going to now look at is what does that mean in terms of your practice? What does that mean in terms of the individual responsibility that you take in terms of working with young people from ethnic minoritised communities? What does that mean on a systemic level?”. And these are the things we have to consider when we think about intersectionality.

We are inviting professionals, as I said, to step outside of their own experiences in terms of, “well this is the work we do, we work with young people”, we might have a service for young boys. That's great. But again, if you're still just saying a service for boys, and you're not thinking about those intersections, so touching on the point school to prison pipeline, well then, look at that from an intersectional perspective. Let's talk about why we still have Black British Caribbean boys still three times more likely to be permanently excluded than their peers. Let's look at why Gypsy-Roma Traveller boys are still more likely to be temporary excluded than their other peers. Let's talk about attainment in terms of White working class boys and why that’s still playing out.

So we can take an intersectional approach to really allow us to see between the lines rather than just saying, “we know in education we have this issue over here” or “we know that boys are more likely to experience punitive responses”. I would say let's look at girls. Let's look at girls from minoritised and marginalised backgrounds because I think you see something similar playing out. When I think about my research, I see Black girls saying, “we're getting punitive responses because no one is seeing us”, “we're being criminalised because no one is understanding our trauma because everyone is responding to what they think our trauma is”, “or seeing our trauma as an issue and pathologising our experiences rather than just acknowledging that we are children who have experienced abuse”. So intersectionality is broad and encompassing but ultimately, I would say it allows you just to explore bias, identity, positionality and inequality.

How can we support practitioners to start thinking more around intersectionality? What would you advise?

I guess there are a number of things. First, educate yourselves. There's so much resources. You just type in intersectionality and you'll get a plethora of resource. And I guess that leads to my first point that when we think about intersectionality it's so important that we remember its origins, so that we don't possibly erase or dismiss the experiences of Black women and girls, that by implying intersectionality, again, allows us to be really explorative and curious. But we need to also acknowledge that Black women and girls still bear the brunt of sexist, racist and classist oppressions. And we must not forget that because those experiences still exist today. So we must ensure that as we amplify other experiences, we always remember to also amplify those too.

And let's take action. Thinking about the work that you do, use those reflective spaces, whether that's in supervision, whether it's group supervision, to really discuss them and think about how intersectionality can strengthen your work. Or if you're already applying it to your work, to be able to explore how it's making an impact. So if you want to do some dip sampling, looking at some of your various different case files, thinking about the groups of young people you work with and explore how often identity is explored in your discussions, in your intervention. And again, think about how you apply your interventions and the work that you do and how often you explore your implicit and explicit biases. How do they play out in your work? Not just with the young people you support, but also with your colleagues as well.

But in order to do that, you must take responsibility. We have to be responsible for our own practice. Yes, we are in a system, and let's think about those systemic barriers and challenges, but we also need to think about us as individuals. What can we be doing differently often? How often do we reflect, review and challenge what we read? The research which we look at, who that research is for? Who the dominant voice and experiences are and therefore, how does that possibly influence how we understand other experiences which might differ outside of those spaces? And again question, how can intersectionality really help inform your work?

Most importantly, speak to young people and families. Hear directly from them. Be brave. Be bold. Be courageous to ask questions about their identity, their experience, celebrate that. Explore how young people experience the world. Shape your interventions, the work you do around that. Ensure that you're really being strengths-based and person-centred by not only just exploring perceptions of behaviour or the behaviour we feel young people may be presenting - especially those who are minoritised or from marginalised backgrounds where we know they're at a heightened risk of experiencing those negative stereotypes. How do we ensure that we reflect on behaviour as an indicator of something else - of possible trauma - rather than assuming it's just a negative stereotype based on who we think those people are. Let's hear directly from young people and let that guide and shape the work that we do.


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