Social worker Rebekah Pierre is looking to hear from fellow care-experienced people to contribute to a new book, ‘Free Loaves on Fridays’. In this Q&A, she talks about why their voices are needed more than ever
For care-experienced social worker Rebekah Pierre, the current narrative about the care system is dominated by people who “either haven’t worked in it themselves or have no personal experience”.
Pierre, who, outside of being a social worker, writer and activist, is a professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers, is working to change that. She is editing an anthology of stories that will give a voice to those who are care-experienced, and is currently looking for contributions from care leavers of all backgrounds.
‘Free Loaves on Fridays’ will be published in 2024, and its proceeds will go to children’s charities Article 39 and Together Trust.
What is the story behind Free Loaves on Fridays?
Earlier this year, I‘d been contacted by a publisher who had come across a piece I had written for The Guardian about my time in care, asking if I would edit an anthology of care-experienced stories.
After some thought, I agreed, only on the basis that there would be a no-rejection policy: every contribution would be given the care and respect it deserved.
The title, Free Loaves on Fridays, is a throwback to when I lived in an unregulated hostel in care. Every Friday, we were given a donation of free loaves from the local bread factory. It was always the same old leftovers: thick-sliced white bread, plain and loaded with cholesterol.
The title is a way of reclaiming that experience, allowing an element of choice for once, if not about bread, then at least about the way the public perceives us.
The support we have received, from crowdfunding to finally being able to accept submissions, has meant a great deal to many of us. One individual said that they had never knowingly met another care-experienced adult before, and this process had helped them feel less alone.
The book’s slogan is “the care system as told by the people who actually get it”. Who do you feel gets to talk about the care system?
The vast majority of sector decision makers are not care-experienced. Many bring the valuable experience of working within children’s social care to the table (whilst others, it must be said, do not), but living in care 24/7 is quite different to working in a care setting nine to five.
As a practitioner, even if you’ve had a difficult shift, you can clock off at the end of the day and leave it all behind. But if you’re living in a dark, filthy bedsit with adults who have just gotten out of prison, then there is no escape. Existing in any care setting is a full, embodied experience that never leaves you.
What would you like social workers to take away from the book, and what influence do you hope it will have on practice?
This year, I made the terrifying decision to read my case files from my time in care. As a social worker who genuinely understands the pressures of the job, I expected some parts may be rushed or absent. But little could have prepared me for their content. Quite frankly, I was shocked and horrified by what I read – as detailed in my open letter to the social worker who wrote my case works.
I realised from this experience that there is a disconnect between social workers and the people they help. This book is about giving care-experienced people the same opportunity to be heard.
It is entirely plausible that many social workers have only ever spoken to a care-experienced person in the context of a meeting, assessment or procedure – not necessarily through any fault of their own. So, I hope the book can show who we are outside of these clinical settings – show that we’re just like everyone else underneath it all. We are human beings who long for love, care and community; real people with strengths and talents, not just challenges, who cannot be quantified in an assessment framework.
When describing the book’s purpose, you have said in the past that it will give care-experienced people “the final say”. Could you elaborate on what you meant by that?
When do we have the first say, let alone the final say?
So often, care-experienced people are only roped in as a tick-box exercise – sought for research, surveys or policy issues.
Major reviews and reports released this year have been critiqued for not meaningfully involving the care-experienced community. This feeling of being written about, but not with, is all too familiar. Now it is our turn.
But I earnestly hope that Free Loaves on Fridays will not be the final piece of the puzzle, but a springboard for many unheard writers in the book to go off and publish their own stuff. The conversation is only just beginning.
You have mentioned that you are hoping this book will help change the public’s perception of care-experienced people. What do you think needs to change?
The media is inundated with negative stereotypes and sensationalist headlines regarding care-experienced people. Is it any wonder so many of us do not disclose?
What we need is positive and humanising messaging to counter this. That’s why Free Loaves will explore not just the negative, traumatic impact care can have, but also the life-changing difference it can make when done well. It will highlight the unspeakable resilience of this wonderful, yet often misunderstood, community.
I think that, had representation like this existed when I was younger, I would have felt seen, heard and validated. This is what I hope the book will provide for younger generations.
Fostering allyship with the public has never been so important. Care leavers are less likely to end up in positions of power, yet are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, are more likely to experience premature death and are twice as likely to end up homeless. If we can raise awareness of the above, people will be better equipped to make a difference.
You have said before that writing had been a very powerful tool for you during your time in and outside care. How are you hoping the act of writing will help contributors?
When I was in care, writing was the only real positive coping mechanism I had. I kept a diary that I would write in even when I couldn’t afford to top up the electric meter. It was a safe, creative space to channel feelings that were often difficult to manage.
There is something about putting pen to paper and narrating your version of events, unfettered by the opinions of others, that is unspeakably powerful. I mentioned earlier about having received my case files this year – I would be devastated if this was the only record I had of this period of my life, written by someone else’s hand and full of inaccuracies.
By sharing their words for Free Loaves on Fridays, I hope others will also fall in love with writing, and that it will open up doors for them. Not only to be published and build self-esteem and a sense of achievement but also to be heard for who they are, and to express themselves creatively. Hearing that your words have power can be life-changing.
It doesn’t matter if people have no writing experience whatsoever. All that counts is that someone has something to say and the will to share it, even if that is with the help of a professional or loved one.
Do you worry that writing about their past in care might be too painful for some contributors? How do you deal with this?
I know from first-hand experience that, whilst writing can be rewarding, it can also be intense and at times difficult. Our submissions guidance has a section devoted to this very topic, with suggestions around what steps contributors can take to look after themselves when writing about potentially painful topics. Another section signposts contributors to places they can access further support.
I advise that anyone who is contributing should put themselves first. Writing for Free Loaves on Fridays may not be for everyone – or now may not be the right time. There are other great writing opportunities for care-experienced folk, and some are listed as alternative options at the end of the guidance. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
On a personal note, with time, I have learned to develop boundaries around my own writing. I try to think about the best time of day/environment to write in (which may not be possible for those in unsafe or abusive situations), and what triggers to avoid.
I find that small things, like taking regular breaks, doing a grounding activity afterwards or having a reminder of the present nearby, can help. As I edit the book, I will also have the help of an art therapist, who will help me to process the work I will be doing in a safe space. I only wish all care leavers had access to therapeutic support. This should be the bare minimum in one of the wealthiest countries in the world – not a privilege.
Do you have a story to tell?
Submissions for Free Loaves on Fridays are welcome from anyone who was in care for any period under the age of 18 and would like to help change the public’s understanding of what it means to be care-experienced. You are welcome to submit regardless of your age, background, or level of writing experience.
Each contributor will receive a copy of the book and an invitation to the launch.
To contribute, please read this document for submission guidelines, information on how to submit and safeguarding considerations: Free Loaves on Fridays – Submission Guidance.
The deadline to submit your story is 15 January 2023.
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