Kindness as the new black?

How can we DO kind?

So kindness is the new black hey? That’s ok, black has always suited me. I have long been an advocate for Kindness as the revolution and a few years ago now, I set up a group called @kindcardiff. We settled on ‘Kind’ because as an adjective it felt accessible to all, yet emotive enough to mobilise. After all, this is about activating people to DO something, not just BE something. BE kind – yes, but DO kind is more important, surely, otherwise aren’t we just accepting, colluding even, with ‘things as they are’ only making them more tolerable with kindness? Polishing the proverbial, so to speak.

I have recently been listening to people who are working in human services and found out what it has been like for them working during this extraordinary time. Kindness has indeed become a currency like never before.  Where there were previously barriers, there is now collaboration and a feeling of solidarity to do whatever it takes to protect those that need to be protected. There is greater trust and autonomy to do what matters, and, guess what? What matters is kindness, compassion and relationships. So, no news there then. The news though is that now fuelled by these we are collectively able to think differently about risk, about ‘anti-social behaviour’ about ‘mental health’ and those other labels we need people to have to be able to help them. It’s like we left our professional identities in the office and emerged as humans at home wanting to do the best we can with what we’ve got to help other humans, necessarily, bringing more of our whole selves to work.

Some habits die hard

I know of ‘blue light’ social workers still ‘rescuing’ children who have “been known to the department for years”, therefore presumably, keeping us all in jobs and secure in our identities as better than the “great unwashed” who travel on buses so they can’t reach offices on the industrial estates (with no reception even if people did turn up).

Kindness in this culture seems to mean being more ‘tolerant’ of behaviours that previously would have been sanctioned, collaboration now means compliance with ‘help’ via tech instead of in person. Trust means trusting women to put up with the abuse because leaving now would not be putting children’s needs first (although this is not new) and autonomy means inviting a woman to a virtual case conference when she doesn’t understand what that means, where she hears other professionals she has never met talk about the concerns they have for her family. She will be so overwhelmed by what’s happening that she leaves the zoom call and her children are placed on the child protection register in her absence.

Just to be clear, I am certainly not suggesting that children don’t need protecting, now more than ever. Nor am I wanting to slate child protection social workers. I can only imagine the empathic strain and responsibility they must feel knowing that vulnerable children are stuck in dangerous and neglectful homes with little access to a world that may offer some respite.

We know that there will be more trauma to help people with once we are on the other side of this pandemic and I know many social workers will be in this queue too. We will need more compassion, more understanding of the social context of suffering and ability to bear witness to this, so if this is called ‘kindness’ then yay to that.

But those old habits, I call them habits, they are cultural barriers to systemic change and they run deep. But, with kindness, can this be the moment to reflect on what those are for us? If we ask ourselves to reflect on: who are we doing this for? This job of work, this role, this function, this purpose? Why are we doing the things that we do?

As an advocate of kindness, this is all confusing, but I love that. Because you know we’re getting closer to the real stuff when it’s all messy and hard.

Covid has brought these questions in to sharp focus for people as the work has got done in amazing ways never thought possible. As people remember why they are doing what they are doing – oh yes we’re here to alleviate suffering, prevent homelessness, listen to what matters and do that, listen to each other, build on strengths, mobilise communities and so the happy list goes on…

On the other hand there’s another answer – oh yes I’m here because I am an expert in my field and I am deeply invested in this role, it is part of my identity and the culture of my profession, to be right, to fix people and their problems. Don’t criticise me because I come to do good, I am doing my best given the broken world and system we exist in. And definitely don’t tell me to be kind because I “already do this”. Ah that old chestnut.

“I already do this” used to really get my back up when I was busy being right and preaching to people about the trauma informed/kindness revolution. If we’re all already doing it why is multi-generational ‘pick your chronic social problem’ still overwhelming public services? I would say. This was back when I thought we could train our way out of the re-traumatising and dehumanising (take your pick) ‘child protection/homelessness/domestic abuse/mental health/criminal justice’ responses.

Now woke, obvs, I can see plain as day that in my role as expert, I could engineer a whole industry of ever increasing training needs and circles to fix the problem of process-driven, public management systems that were fit for services and no one else. Irony not lost.

Now woke, lol, I can hear “we already do this” as “FFS please do not give us another training course telling us how to do our jobs more compassionately! I would not be working in my (mostly minimum wage), mission-led job, if I didn’t believe that healing was possible and I didn’t know that relationships are the biggest tool in my armour.  Moreover, it’s not me you need to be talking to love, we can be as Trauma Informed as you like, and healing as this may be, ultimately, I have little or no power here. No power over the courts, the criminal justice system, the medical profession, the social workers, the police, structural inequality, multigenerational ACEs, poverty, oppression and patriarchy” aka you’re just polishing the proverbial, love. So it seems disempowerment is pervasive in our human systems, felt everywhere and on all ‘sides’.

Kindness can be confronting

As it was once described to me by a sceptical colleague this “kindness shit” is more controversial than you might think. If a kindness lens helps us reflect more compassionately on our own motives for being and doing then that can bring enlightenment, which can, in turn, motivate change, it has for me. Even just writing this blog where stories of oppression drip from my fingers so easily I am reminded how normalised non-kind service responses have become and how overwhelming this is to challenge at a systemic level. But surely a global pandemic is the crisis we’ve been waiting for and national conversation about kindness is a good place to start. So I’m still wearing black.

Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change. When crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas lying around. — Milton Friedman