Podcast Episode: Freshly Squeezed: Alistair Brown
Category: Freshly Squeezed
What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.
MD - Michelle Drumm
AB - Alistair Brown
MD Hello and welcome to ‘Freshly Squeezed’, an Iriss podcast which aims to squeeze information and inspiration from key influencers in social services in Scotland. Today I’m speaking to Alistair Brown, national director of the Scottish Association of Social Work. Alistair grew up in Falkirk and has been practicing in Scotland in statutory roles and as a mental health officer and independent social worker over the last ten years. Prior to this he practiced in and managed youth mental health services in New Zealand for nine years. He has had many voluntary roles at SASW over recent years as a member practitioner, including chair of the mental health officer forum, chair of SASW governance committee, and SASW representative on the British Association of Social Work board of directors. He remains on shift duty occasionally as an emergency social worker, and is a member of the Mental Health Tribunals for Scotland. Alistair, welcome to ‘Freshly Squeezed’.
AB Thanks. It’s lovely to meet you …
MD You too.
AB … and to enjoy the conversation.
MD Great stuff. Okay, can you just tell me first of all, did you always want to work in social services?
AB I always was very interested. My first job on leaving school in Falkirk is I went to work at the Royal Scottish National Hospital, which was in Larbert, a hospital for people with learning disabilities and autism, and so yeah, that was an influence. So I always wanted to be in that kind of helping, but it became kind of clear to me that it wasn’t possible in a care worker role to influence some of the things I wanted to influence, and what I noticed was social workers who were coming into that hospital influencing poor practice and challenging poor practice, and I thought that was quite interesting. Also at the same time my mum was studying social policy. She had grown up in Edinburgh and she, like me and my brother as well, was dyslexic and really struggled, but she was doing social policy at Stirling and she knew a lot of social workers and I was kind of very impressed by them too.
MD So tell me a little bit more then about your journey into the profession.
AB Yeah. So after I was working at the RSNH I saw the ability of social workers to be challenging and influencing and I thought, “This is what I want to do”, and I got myself into the degree programme at Paisley University.
AB So one of the things was you had to do a compulsory economics paper, and I just really struggled with it and I couldn’t pass it and I ended up having to leave. It was a very interesting year. I got involved in a lot of kind of political activism, kind of miners' rallies in London and stuff about NHS trusts and kind of privatisation and that kind of thing. So yeah, very kind of politically active, but I just couldn’t manage all the academic demands and I was working out my own kind of journey in terms of dyslexia and ADHD, which I subsequently was diagnosed with.
MD Okay. Okay.
AB After that I started working as a carer in a dementia residential service and I was studying. I got back into a degree programme at Queen Margaret University.
AB It was really helpful in that they were the only university at that time that allowed you to do every assignment and exam on a computer, and they would invigilate with computers and you could access things at home. So it was very IT-literate and I found that really helpful, and that really made a big difference to my ability to engage academically.
MD And was that easier with your dyslexia then as well?
AB Yeah, absolutely. And then after that I got a job in employee relations with Motorola Semiconductor. They had a massive factory in East Kilbride and there was about 3,000 people working there, and so I was coming in in all the shifts and talking to people who were on the factory floor, wearing this bizarre kind of special clean suit to make sure your skin cells weren’t …
AB … affecting, yeah. So and it was really amazingly insightful in that predominantly women who were working on the factory floor could tell you everything about how it was going, and if you spent time with them you could then go back and talk to the engineers, who were over in a huddle and not really talking to anyone else …
AB … and kind of say, “Actually, all this knowledge to fix things, to improve the quality, is there on the factory floor”, and kind of try and build those bridges as well as tell employees about their rights and help them organise kind of social clubs and kind of funds for people who were struggling, and just kind of a community aspect of the job too.
AB But ultimately that felt a bit hollow because they’re very profit-focussed as a company, so I kind of left that job after two years when the graduate programme ended and started working in homelessness in Edinburgh.
MD Right, okay. So it’s quite an eclectic mix there of different careers and job experiences. Is that what drives you really?
AB Yeah. So I mean we could think of these kind of things like dyslexia and ADHD as labels, but we could also just kind of reframe them as personality kind of traits, and I think that’s what I learned to go with and I learned that I needed lots of different stimulus and interest and lots of kind of opportunities in different jobs. So when I actually moved in 2001 to New Zealand where I lived for about nine years, I had this social psychology degree that I’d done at Paisley, and then I did a post-grad in child and adolescence mental health there, and I was working in an adolescent mental health service in the community and then they wanted to promote me to senior in managerial roles, and they said, “You need to become a registered social worker for us to do that”, and so that was a challenge that I had to kind of consider how I would do that. So I used some recognition of prior learning, but the course I actually went on was because they were just starting registration there in 2003 and there were a lot of particularly Maori and Pacifica workers because there’s overrepresentation of those populations with poverty issues etcetera, and that was no different in youth mental health, and so I got on a course that was to grandparent people that were already working in those roles into registration, and it was a really interesting course in terms of quite intensive, in terms of group work and individual work and supervision, and it was really challenging about examining your own values and how you were using them in your work and what your on-the-ground skills with people and unexpected situations were. So it was more rigorous in that way and maybe a little bit less academically rigorous, because it was to grandparent people into the new act and the new registration.
MD Mmmhmm. And so what took you back then to the UK from New Zealand? You stayed there nine years and then?
AB Yeah. Yeah. So I was very religious when I was young and I got married to a lovely New Zealand woman who was my best friend when I was kind of eighteen, but I realised over the pace that actually I was a gay man and that I had to come out at some point and work that out and be myself, and so we still have a very kind of friendly relationship but a lot of things had changed for me. We had a son and he was now kind of fifteen and very focussed on school and out of school activities, and so I kind of felt like I’m going to move back to Scotland, kind of accept this massive change in my life, and then he would come over and visit me and eventually he came to stay with me, but that was a big change …
MD Absolutely, yeah.
AB … and a big re-evaluation, but New Zealand had been great to me and I’ve a lot of close friends there and I learned so much from their cultural way of working and really being immersed in Pacifica and Maori communities, and I really embraced all of that and learned as much as I could from that. Yeah.
MD Yeah, fantastic. Gosh, there’s quite a lot in there! So what really motivates you Alistair to do what you do?
AB I think, so I guess I could give an example. When I came back here I started working in older persons', like in delayed discharge you might say, at the hospital with older people.
MD What sector have you not worked in really!?
AB Then I went into forensic psychiatry for some years when I was a social worker in an NHS team, but I would say that my favourite job of late was a pilot we did with care leavers where I went from being one of two social workers in a hospital team to being one of two NHS workers in a social work team, doing brief interventions, early intervention work, with young care leavers who were, you know, we know they’re five times more likely to end up in prison, have a diagnosis, be in a psychiatric unit, and so those are a big risk group, and this was just after the new act extended through care and aftercare services up to age 26, and so working with a lot of predominantly young men who were coming in who’d had a bit of time on their own and maybe things were unravelling a bit and they were aware of things that they needed to come back and work on.
AB So talking to people about their health, their identity, their emotions, and doing kind of brief interventions. One of the things I trained in was cognitive analytic therapy when I was at the hospital. So I was doing that with a clinical psychologist supervising me, doing individual therapy with people too. So those kind of things I think are tremendously exciting, particularly I think working with that age group, 14 to 25, that I did in New Zealand, and again with the care leavers project, is highly motivational because that’s an age where people are able to embrace change quite rapidly and take on new ideas, and if you can create a real collaborative way of working it can be quite exciting and fruitful.
MD Mmm. You would have brought a lot of your experience in New Zealand to the work with the young people?
AB Yeah, and obviously all my experiences of kind of my own development and kind of challenging values and moving cultures and thinking about identity, and obviously my beliefs changed and I’m now much more secular in outlook and so, you know, being able to just talk to people about those different journeys of overcoming learning difficulties and finding a way to participate in the workforce and finding a way to deal with difficulties in the family and yeah, I can relate to a lot of it.
MD Great stuff. Okay, and tell me what does a typical day look like for you?
AB So a typical day, so I started actually at SASW, as you said in the intro, I’d done lots of volunteering over the years, but I started in October last year, 2018, in the professional officer role three days a week, and that was basically going out to workplaces, universities, and doing lots of kind of talking, training inputs, talking to members, which is really interesting talking to members and I think that’s our big focus is kind of staying engaged with our membership.
AB That’s involved a lot more strategic and policy work, and so that’s the thing, that’s the big learning curve I guess for me at the moment, is becoming aware of that and how to relate to the other agencies on the wider social work scene in Scotland, and kind of thinking about the place of SASW as the professional organisation this last fifty years and the place of kind of democratic frontline voice in social work, and thinking about the fact that the sector is 80% women, and those women still disproportionately unfortunately in Scotland today have caring responsibilities, often more of the lion’s share, for maybe children, maybe parents, and then what we’re hearing about in our survey is them working eleven hours per week extra, and the need to really find ways to champion that voice and to offer support. So yeah, a lot of challenges to just engage with different groups, and so we’re engaging obviously with the British Association, ‘cause we’re under their umbrella.
AB So we’re very involved with what those four country UK campaigns are.
AB So currently those are anti-austerity, relationship-based practice, we’re also looking at homelessness. So it’s quite demanding because there’s really me and we’ve got two part-time professional officers, kind of full-time policy and comms person, and a part-time admin person. So it’s a little team and so we’re …
MD Doing quite a lot.
AB Yeah. And so we’re looking to see where can we be influencing. Obviously we want a strong relationship with the other agencies and the universities, but we’re not funded by government at all. We’re completely funded by our members. So talking to members, staying connected to members and having that sense of collectivism.
AB Only about 20% of people are members who are registered social workers. So you kind of think about this 80, 20 rule, and you’re kind of thinking what is it about that group? Are they the ones that are more motivated in trying to influence change or are they the ones that are more mindful perhaps of the risks involved in being a social worker and they want to feel that support?
AB So it’s trying to understand all those threads and represent them well. Currently we’re looking at political influencing because as an independent organisation I think we need to be using that freedom to create a wider public discussion, and so currently we’re going to be meeting in January with three different MSPs and looking at whether there might need to be a cross-party group for social work, or whether there are other ways to create a wider conversation broader than government just now about the profile and why the profile of this profession is less than education and health. I understand that these are universal services but we want to see what we can do to lift social work out of being in that kind of darker space that people would rather not think about.
MD So tell me Alistair, do you have a motto for life?
AB I guess I’m an activist and maybe I have to work more at the kind of reflection and theorist kind of parts of practice. So I guess my motto would be let’s try something and learn from that.
MD Okay, yeah. Willing to give things a go?
AB Yeah. Willing to give things a go, make mistakes, apologise, engage with people and see what they feel and try and get feedback rather than getting mired up. I find it quite difficult with committee work and things when people get mired down in details of documents or paragraphs or agreements, and I’m kind of thinking, “Let’s road-test things and let’s create a feedback loop”, and that’s more my style.
MD Yeah, more activist as you say?
AB Yeah, but there are other people on the team that are more reflective, or more theoretical.
MD So that balances out then quite well?
AB Yeah, yeah, yeah.
MD Good stuff. Okay, and what book or blog would you recommend to listeners?
AB So I’ve been reading recently the Steven Pinker’s book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature’, and then he’s just brought out a new book which I actually listened to on my Audible app, which is ‘Enlightenment Now’, and he’s kind of campaigning for a return to enlightenment values or I guess rational values, and he’s commenting a lot about these kind of runaway right-wing politics and kind of these conservative religious notions where moral arguments dominate rather than rational arguments dominate.
MD Okay. So are the enlightenment values, are these more rational?
AB Yeah. So for example talking about the rationality of people that have decriminalised drugs and how that leads to not labelling people as criminals and it makes society safer, and that we know for example that if people are buying illicit drugs they want to have as few transactions as possible so they’ll buy more of stronger substances. So just how policy can be very kind of morally influenced, which is actually creating more harm, rather than a more rational policy which would vastly reduce harm, and so kind of saying that we need to be careful about going back to these kind of feelings-based values and checking them against evidence and what we’ve understood, and so that’s been really interesting. Also talking about social media and this kind of perception that everyone kind of thinks that everything’s getting worse and that there’s kind of just death and destruction everywhere, and he really helpfully charts the very radical gains in eliminating absolute poverty and talking about things like, you know, maybe other countries are just catching up with the advances we had made in the previous hundred years, so in Africa for example over time with life expectancy increasing by 50%.
AB So just kind of thinking about that big picture and that things over the big picture are gradually getting better, but obviously there are a lot of blips and there’s a lot of societal injustice we see, but trying to kind of hold that big picture when we do see things like this kind of move to the rights of politics in the UK and in the US, and kind of while being active about that, while kind of being concerned about that, also kind of seeing that in the big picture things are gradually improving over time.
MD Right, and Alistair, I don’t know, do you like music and what would be your music for motivation?
AB So music for motivation, I’m very into music. I’m very into world music and folk music in terms of I really like learning about other cultures. I used to sing in a lot of choirs. In New Zealand I sang in a world music choir and that was really exciting ‘cause we sang I think only one song in English, and I feel that even at a fairly superficial level you learn, you get a bit of a feeling for other cultural traditions when you sing some songs from that area or region, but if I’m just in the office I would have like Jazz FM in the background or something, to kind of focus and get some work done.
MD Yeah, ‘cause music’s great for bringing communities together as well. I suppose that’s the choir effect, isn’t it?
AB Yeah, yeah. I sing in two choirs. I sing in an LGBT choir here in Edinburgh called ‘Loud and Proud’ and I sing in a men’s Georgian group.
MD Right, okay.
AB Yeah. Done that for about ten years, and I’ve been over there a couple of times and so it’s just a very, very rich polyphonic singing tradition where the harmonies are very close and can be a bit tricky, and they like this idea of having a real clash in the music and then resolving into something sweet.
AB So it’s a bit different from western music that might be sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet, and it kind of reflects life maybe there as well being a bit harsh, and I kind of think for me I think I’m connected to that kind of there’s this kind of dark and discordant part and then it resolves into something beautiful.
MD I like that. Great. And tell me, who or what are your inspirations in your career?
AB I mean I mentioned earlier skilled social workers that had really impressed me and kind of brought me into the sector, and past supervisors that have been amazing and really helped me develop. Members of SASW now who take time out of their demanding jobs to kind of contribute to consultations or tell us how things are going or to get involved in our committees, that’s impressive, and just generally I’m more and more I guess maybe as I get a bit more mature I’m holding things maybe a bit more lightly and less kind of critical and maybe just more impressed. So when I work on an out of hours shift I’m just impressed by the way that the person whose job it is to be the call handler deals with a thing sensitively, passes it over, and then maybe I have to get in touch with a foster carer or in touch with the police or whatever, and that the way that kind of people kind of work together in spite of difficult circumstances, in spite of really limited and reduced resources over the last decade and the bite of austerity, which is super tough in our sector.
AB But the way that people will be creative in trying to get round limitations to resolve problems. That impresses me.
AB The good will and the heart around me impresses me.
MD Resilience I guess as well, isn’t it?
AB Yeah, absolutely.
MD Brilliant. And tell me, what one piece of advice would you give to those working or considering working in social services?
AB My one piece of advice would be self-care, would unapologetically be top of the list, and I think that that’s because in my experience, and I might be projecting here, but I feel like social workers are often, even compared to other helping professions, not making time for ourselves and not looking after self-development and not thinking about the effect of vicarious trauma over time, the effects of this kind of focus on wider injustices, and I guess the kind of bubble we can be in with news and media kind of looking at the difficulties going on. I think we really need to make sure, ‘cause I think a lot of people are very politically aware in social work, and we need to make sure that we’re not getting dragged down by all of that and that we’re looking after ourselves, looking at the bigger picture, taking time to reflect, celebrate the work that we’re doing. SASW were doing our own awards for about fifteen years but recently the government’s started doing the Scottish Social Services Awards three years ago.
AB So we don’t want to be in competition, so we’re trying to join that and make sure it’s something that works for our members too, and that has more statutory social work in it ‘cause it’s in past times been big representation by the third sector.
AB So we want to kind of get involved in doing that together and being collaborative rather than competing, to make sure social work and social services are celebrated and that we can try and use that as a Launchpad to share that message with the public …
AB … and just kind of lift the profile of the profession, but yeah, if it was the one thing it would be self-care, self-development, and I think we’ve all got experiences, I’ve already shared a bunch of mine, that have brought us into the profession, and those things are good motivation but we need to make sure that we’re looking after those parts of ourselves along the way.
MD Yeah. Good piece of advice there, and I think absolutely, self-care. And Alistair, if you were a castaway on a desert island what’s the one thing that you couldn’t live without?
AB It would probably be a radio. I really enjoy listening to different things kind of about experiences. So I listen to kind of yeah, I love jazz in the background, or kind of folk music programmes. There’s a great programme, but I think they’re stopping it, on Radio 3 called ‘Late Junction’. ‘Woman’s Hour’ on Radio 4. How can you live without these things?
MD I know. The podcast app though as well, you can get ‘Woman’s Hour’ there.
AB Yeah. There’s even more to learn, and now Audible. So somehow a kind of device or a radio where I could listen to other people’s voices, stories, songs, and feel connected, ‘cause I think I would really struggle to live on a desert island.
MD I can imagine you would actually, ‘cause you’d probably miss people too much I think, would you?
AB Be a bit like Tom Hanks when he gets the volleyball. He draws a face on it.
MD The volleyball!
AB Wilson. I would be that. I would be talking to the …
MD Talking to the football. Brilliant!
AB Yeah. Yeah.
MD Alistair, it’s been a complete pleasure speaking to you today. It’s been really interesting to hear about your life, your journey into the profession. As you know, this podcast is called ‘Freshly Squeezed’.
MD And I ask all my interviewees at the end of each interview, how do you like your juice? Do you like it smooth or with juicy bits?
AB Definitely smooth.
MD Smooth for you?
AB Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
MD Right, well I’ll give you smooth. Alistair, you’ve been ‘Freshly Squeezed’ today. Thanks so much for your time.
AB Thank you. Cheers.
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