Podcast Episode: Freshly Squeezed: Jennifer Davidson
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
JD - Jennifer Davidson
Freshly Squeezed is an Iriss podcast which aims to ‘squeeze’ information and inspiration from key influencers in social services in Scotland. Michelle Drumm interviews Professor Jennifer Davidson, Executive Director of Inspiring Children’s Futures at the University of Strathclyde, which incorporates the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland (CELCIS). Inspiring children’s futures has a vision of ensuring that children and young people facing aversity have what they need to reach their full potential. Jennifer is driven by a commitment to ensuring children’s rights have an impact on children’s day-to-day lived experiences, and on the reality of international rights improving local children’s services throughout the world. Her range of leadership positions in child and youth care, social work and professional education spans Canada, the United States and the UK. She has served on national and international committees related to children’s services and was a founding member of the US National Campaign for the Ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
MD Jennifer welcome to Freshly Squeezed.
JD Thank you.
MD It’s fantastic to meet you, you have done a lot for children and children’s services throughout your career. Tell me, did you always want to work in social services?
JD I’ve been thinking about that question for some time, I think I’ve always wanted to help people. I think there’s always been a sense of wanting to help … I would never have known to name it social services until after I left high school so yeah, I think … I grew up in a family that were very sort of science’y and medically and so social services really wasn’t on the radar for us and I knew the expectation was I was meant to go to university so, when it was time to go to university, I had no idea what I was going to be studying. I did a tour of the university in Montreal, where I was going to be studying and I passed the door of the social work building and suddenly it was like this epiphany and I thought, “Oh, my gosh that’s exactly what I want to do.” I’d been doing some work with young people from disadvantaged areas in Toronto and I knew that those young people had social workers working in their life and how important those social workers were to those young people but it wasn’t until I sort of suddenly had this moment of, “Oh, of course I don’t want to do French Translation. Of course, I want to do social work.” And so, it was through this moment when I realised everything that I was really passionate about in terms of wanting to see justice done and wanting to support people during times when things were really hard for them that actually there was a professional name for that and I could sort of justify professionally this was actually a legitimate place I could pour my energy into.
JD I was what, eighteen or nineteen at the time, completely convinced that’s what I wanted to do.
MD That’s brilliant, I love the idea of it being an epiphany for you.
JD It really was, it really was.
JD Yeah, to have a name for what I wanted to be doing was great.
MD Fantastic. And tell me a little bit more about your journey then so, you obviously studied social work at the university of Montreal?
JD I did, at McGillian University. So, I suppose my sister, I have a big sister and I absolutely love her to death, and she would say, “We all knew you were going to go into social work.” Cos when I was very little, I was ice skating and you know as you do in Canada on a Saturday morning, I had skating lessons and I would always … when I was 3 or 4 I would insist on picking up all the dead flies that had landed on the ice and I would skate them over to the side of the … cos I just wanted them not to be frozen you know so, I know social work is about justice and not about just saving people. I really, I do understand that but my sister who is not a social worker would say, “Oh, we always knew you would like this.” But yeah so, my proper journey was that I did study social work, an undergraduate degree in social work and it came from, really, a sense of just absolutely loving working with young people and the more they were young people who just didn’t fit in and a little bit more marginalised maybe from more difficult complicated backgrounds, the more I liked them, the more they would … you know, the more they just bucked the trend and didn’t … you know didn’t want to comply with just whatever authorities were going, you know were demanding. I just think, I really admired their perseverance and I really recognised that loads of times people just misunderstood these young people. So, I so loved working with them and I just continued working with young people through me … during while I was studying, I was working in residential care at the same time and came out of university and moved to Vancouver and then worked with young people who were involved with drugs and alcohol and had real challenges around that and were young people who were looked after.
MD Vancouver’s quite an interesting place, isn’t it? I think.
JD Yeah, yeah Vancouver’s a place where it’s the mildest city in Canada and so, if you’re a young person who wants to be sleeping rough, you would just find your way to Vancouver and you’d you know hitchhike or whatever, you know in my day, in Vancouver would have been the nineties there were tons of young people who were sleeping rough, tons of drugs and alcohol. Really problematic, it’s come back to that again, it’s the reality for Vancouver now which is really terrible, very few really adequate services that are addressing needs of young people who are really on the edges of society, unable to quite engage and who are really misunderstood. So, that was the world I grew up in really in my twenties that’s where I was a social worker and through that time so, I was working with families and young people in different environments and while I was doing that I was really keen on also beginning to do some teaching. So, I was doing further education and teaching as well as … in child and youth care, as well as working as a practitioner and … how long do you want my life story to be, but I’ll keep going … and then I moved to Texas which is the little twist in my story, and part of that what was really exciting professionally for me was the role that I had there was working with academics who were doing research that was really not particularly applied and who didn’t necessarily even know how to speak to practitioners. These were sort of theoretical academics and translating, if you will, with them, their research for practitioners who were social workers and child protection services and other services so, I played a really central knowledge exchange role between the universities across Texas and the practitioners who were working across the population of twenty million people. Like really intensive, really hard work to be a social worker in Texas and with very little of an evidence base that was informing their work so, that was sort of my foray from working from youth work into teaching and then into knowledge exchange.
JD And while I was in the US, I was also involved with a campaign for US ratification of the convention.
MD Yeah, very impressive.
JD Yeah, which not so successful yet Michelle.
MD Right, okay.
JD But really important to have children’s rights as a central pillar of social work but isn’t there yet in the US and isn’t there yet in lots of places even. It might be there by name, but it’s not necessarily well understood so …
MD Still lots of work to be done there.
JD There is, yeah, yeah. In ‘79 I was still in primary school when it was the Year of the Child and I don’t know what Canada did so well in 1979 but I remember being completely struck by the importance of rights. So, that was the beginning of when they began to write the convention on the Rights of the Child for the coming ten years so, and my whole upbringing and my knowledge and drive in terms of my work, my profession has always been really focused on rights and children’s rights and the importance of rights playing out in a day to day reality for children’s rules 14.29
MD And then we have the Year of the Young Person as well.
JD Uh huh and I am convinced that we will be speaking with adults a few decades from now who will reflect back in Scotland to this particular year and it will have changed their perspective on the capacity and the power that young people’s voices have. I think there’s so much going on that’s so exciting in Scotland right now that reminds all of us about the importance and the value of young people’s views and how they can shape the world around them in really important ways.
MD Brilliant. So, what took you to the UK then? Cos you worked for a long period of time in the US so, what’s the story behind that?
JD Yeah so, I was just in the US for four years. So, I came fifteen years ago to Scotland for work and so, I sound really Canadian, I realise that, but I must say …
MD I can distinguish, I have to say.
JD … my dad was from Govan and his mum, my grandma, who is such a character, she used to go, “It was Linthouse, Jenny, not Govan.” Which is posh Govan.
MD Some people call it Govan.
JD Yes, I can tell you my dad is pretty down to earth, and he never referred to it as that. So, yeah I’m first generation Canadian and my family was back in Scotland so, I did always feel a real affinity to Scotland and Texas as much as an interesting place that it was and a really formative place, in terms of my understanding of social policy and how terrible places can be for those who aren’t advantaged in … it was a place I was really keen to get out of, and love really. I married my husband and we went to Texas because of his work and then he was appointed a role in Scotland so, we came to Scotland.
MD Ah right.
JD But it was the connection to Scotland that made it a place we really wanted to come to.
MD Brilliant. So, Jennifer tell me, what is it that makes you tick? What get’s you out of bed in the morning?
JD Yeah so, really truthfully my ten year old gets me out of bed in the morning. I have two boys who have been you know, I get the announcement in the morning going, “It’s time to get up now mum.” What’s always made me just really jump out of bed, I think, especially when I don’t have a lot of sleep, is really the sense of today’s a day that I can change the world, you know it’s a sense of what is it that I’m doing? I feel really privileged to have the role that I have. I feel incredibly lucky to be working with amazing people and to be given a responsibility to try and make things better, so services, public sector, how do we … you know there’s loads of things we can be doing better, loads of things we can improve on and I get to think about that and contribute to that on a day to day basis, amazing.
MD Fantastic and do you have a typical day?
JD No, never. Does anyone you ask, have a typical day?
MD Not really, no they’re quite varied.
JD Yeah so, I might be doing anything from working in Europe advising on a working group related to changing outcomes for children globally to being locally here planning strategic plan for CELSIS going forward to meeting with other people that are working across the sector, engaging with young people who are working with us. So, loads of different things and that’s probably part of what makes me jump out of the bed in the morning as well is the sense of variety that no day is the same and all days are focused on changing the trajectory for children who need some support for that to be changed.
MD And do you have a motto for life?
JD Yeah, cos I think sometimes things can get really stressful and mottos are really useful, aren’t they? So, I think probably for me, the motto is just that I do my best. If I know I have absolutely done my best, that is all that can be done and somehow that gives me some reassurance, it gives me the drive that I absolutely need to do my best but it also gives me the assurance that I have done my best and that is all that can be asked of me.
MD Okay great, thank you. Do you have a book or blog that you would recommend to listeners?
JD So, I think fiction is a fantastic place to go to understand humanity. I think sometimes fiction sort of gives us insights into people that are sometimes harder to see. So, I’m a big fan of fiction so, I know there probably would be a really nice professional answer here, this is the best blog I see or but actually I would say, understanding humanity is just such a central part of what we need to all be doing in our work and so for me the kind of fiction I love is where there’s really great character development and you really see the interactions between characters so, Elena Ferrante Neapolitan novels, I could not put down, I absolutely … and especially because it was about 2 friends and the life of their relationship through … two girls growing up together and their life, where their paths went, I just loved it and probably closer to home and much more brutal is A L Kennedy’s writing that can sometimes just be so raw, it’s almost hard to read some passages but so brutally honest about the way people can be with each other and so, I just think both the beauty and the rawness are part of our lives, aren’t they? So, yeah so, those are the two probably novelists that I most love to read.
MD Brilliant, okay. Do you have a music for motivation?
JD Oh god.
MD Is music something that features much in your life?
JD Yeah well, you know I was thinking, “Really do I want to tell you who I like to listen to?” I’m just, I’m so bad. Really if I’m just wanting to feel happy, I will be playing completely superficial music. So, here I’m giving you fiction instead of really solid textbooks. You know, I think this weekend I was listening to Hothouse Flowers, just dancing around the kitchen.
MD Oh fantastic, yeah.
JD Uh huh.
MD A bit of Irish music, you can’t go wrong.
JD I think and then I need to come up with something very sensible don’t I so, also in my quieter moments I would you know … Joni Mitchell is one of … as a Canadian I particularly love Joni Mitchell.
MD She’s fantastic.
JD Uh huh and some of it …
MD Do you have a particular tune of Joni’s?
JD Well I love her Both Sides Now album, it’s just great so, yeah that’s the range of play.
MD Both sides?
JD Uh huh but don’t ask me anything about what’s come out recently in terms of music, I think twenty years ago I might have been able to tell you.
MD It’s changing so much, so fast as well, I think.
JD Uh huh.
MD So, who or what are your inspirations in your career? It might be a project, or it might be a person, you might have a couple you want to explore.
JD Yeah, I was thinking about that and it’s probably so, much of this for me is about people so you know the characters in the books I like to read are about people, the reasons I’ve come into social work will have been about people so, I’m going to tell you about people and I was in Kenya recently, about a year ago, working with people there, thinking through how to manage the reality of the Aids epidemic in terms of so few adults to be caring for so many children at the moment. The population is enormous in terms of children and not enough adults to be caring for them so, that’s a very different kind of crisis than what we face here and really difficult so, I met incredibly inspiring people who have essentially just stepped in to find ways to make things work. So, there is an amazing woman named, Mama Florence, who finished her career as a teacher and then found her way to supporting women and helping them to develop healthier ways of being able to earn money from some very unhealthy ways that they were needing to use their bodies to then move into making crafts and selling them for them to be able to care for their children and in doing so then she began to find that more and more women were beginning to live with their children all together in this compound, if you will, and she was just very determined, I think, to make sure that the children that she was caring for and that she was supporting the mothers to care for or as best cared for as they could and she would be the place where when there was a child that was born and that didn’t have a parent or who was abandoned that baby would come to her. So, she created something without even intending to, created an incredible network of caring adults for these children in some of the most dire circumstances in terms of poverty.
MD I was going to say, she probably had quite a lot of challenges herself in terms of environment.
JD Incredible, incredibly, yeah, so I just see people like her, and she is so positive and so clear about what children need, what the adults who are caring for the children need. I think of her often in terms of what it is that she actually manages to achieve in those kinds of contexts and how she absolutely keeps the focus on children and what they’re needing, it’s very inspiring.
MD It’s hugely inspiring.
JD It really is, yeah and I think for me just through my whole career, you know the young people I worked with. I mean I was 18 when I started working in residential care, it was crazy, you know the young women were 17 and 16, it was ridiculous.
MD Oh right, yeah.
JD Were very questionable in the late 80’s.
MD They were more or less peers.
JD They were, absolutely. It was crazy that I was appointed to these, sort of over night shift jobs but you know I’m still in touch with a number of those young women who I still think of them as young people but actually they are like 2 years behind me in age.
MD Kind of like friends.
JD I know, absolutely and they are now, absolutely and so, the young people I worked with in those days, I got to know and became friends and are now my friends, I think inspire me the most because I’ve seen what they’ve managed through their lives and the struggles.
MD Making a journey.
JD They have and just how well they’re doing, how people can thrive and overcome. I’m just so inspired by, when you just see a slice of someone’s life when it’s really, really difficult or when we’re in really difficult places in our life, it’s hard to get perspective to actually see there are times when this person’s going to be laughing belly laughs, like this might be terrible now but there will be times when things will get brighter and I think having been a part of people’s lives who when I met them they were in really difficult circumstances, really hard, really hard places and just that they’re doing so well and when they’re not doing well they care for themselves and find ways to be okay and it’s okay. I think there’s something really important to just keep in mind the full perspective of the people and seeing the power of individuals and the relationships in peoples lives and just the power of those authentic caring relationships and what that can mean for young people as they grow up. You know, I’ve had the privilege to be that person in a few people’s lives and I count it as just such a privilege to have been a part of peoples lives at that time and it reminds me just of as I see that over someone’s life, a part of someone’s adult life, it just brings absolutely back home to me what we’re hearing through the work from young people’s voices, you know the importance of the one single relationship being just so critically … the importance of making sure that the care system is focused on relationships first, you know that we don’t get caught up and distracted by … are the processes good but actually are the relationships the right relationships for young people to have and how are the processes sustaining those relationships, how do we keep that as the core? I think that’s where I’m inspired by the people that I’ve known in my life that remind me of the relationships being most essential.
MD Fantastic. You’ve lots of experiences working in the sector especially with young people, is there one piece of advice that you would give to those working or considering working in the sector?
JD Yeah, I mean I think probably people considering working in this sector, I think know that this is the right place for you because I think if you come into the sector and it’s not the right place then it’s time to get out. I think there’s just something really important about being sure that you’re doing good and no harm you know, I think there’s a starting point … so, for me, what does that mean for people who are thinking about coming in, I think it’s well this work is just such a big ask and so it starts with the need to have a really big heart and a real commitment to justice both you know a passion for justice cos it requires that to keep going when we see injustice all around us but also just being able to hold people’s pain takes a lot for the caring person, for the person in that role and in any role, professional or otherwise and so if someone is considering coming into being in social services, there’s something about the importance of them being able to listen really well and being willing to hold people’s pain with people to help them get through and so it’s both the justice and the big heart, both that have to come together to make someone, be a really a big asset in social services.
MD That’s a really good piece of advice, great. I know relationships are really important to you obviously, but if you were to name one thing, if you think of things that you couldn’t live without, what would that be?
JD So, I think the evidence would say, chocolate, anyone who knows me would say chocolate, but I have to say there may not be evidence of this but maple syrup …
JD … is a big thing, if I didn’t have maple syrup in my life, I think it would be very tragic.
MD Luckily enough you can get it over here too.
JD Thank goodness, I know. That would limit my choices of where I could live in the world, based on my access to maple syrup.
MD Cool. Great okay so, I’ve just got one last question for you, Jennifer. This podcast, as you know, is called Freshly Squeezed so, how do you like your juice, do you like it smooth or juicy bits?
JD You’re so funny. I would like the juicy bits please.
MD Juicy bits, it is. Jennifer you’ve been freshly squeezed today, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you for your time.
JD Thank you so much, Michelle.
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