Reimagining Social Services: How looking in helped us look out.

How children's books, art, and collaboration helped us get unstuck.

In November 2020, we had the pleasure of working alongside front-line staff, coaches, caseworkers, teachers, and leaders from health and human service organizations across Detroit who are all part of Kresge’s NextGen Cohort. The goal of the project was to improve the intake experience for people accessing services. Today, the experience is often single-service oriented, siloed from one another, and catered towards an individual rather than considering the whole family unit. Many of the services also focus on moments of crisis, addressing what someone needs in that moment, instead of charting a plan to reach one’s goals, dreams and potential in the long-term.

As this work kicked off, a few things started to become clear to us. There is a wealth of knowledge out there about what sets up families for intergenerational mobility, such as ASPEN Ascend’s 2Gen approach, but putting this knowledge into practice comes up against all sorts of barriers. Navigating social services in the U.S. is a daunting and overwhelming experience for everyone involved in the service. Distrust is designed into the way the system operates; overwhelming the people it is supposed to help with endless paperwork to ‘prove’ their situation, for example. As for the organizations that provide these services, there are incentives that enforce ‘crisis-oriented’ solutions instead of more holistic, long-term, whole-family approaches.

Taking a 2Gen whole family approach is more than an exercise for ticking things off for every family members; it’s a mindset and a philosophy geared towards supporting families in their journey focused on generational upward mobility. This takes time.

While most of our journey was guided through the wisdom and understanding of the people we were co-designing with, there were a few ‘aha’ moments where we looked inwards to make inroads into a problem that felt very complex and nebulous to begin with.

Using children’s books to capture human journeys

First, we took a step back. If we close our eyes and imagine, what do we think of when we say 2Gen, or talk about generational mobility? If every organization was able to use a more holistic, whole family approach, then what would that look like in practice? How would it be different from what’s done today? Is it possible to remove all jargon and complexity to arrive at a simple, human story—a story and language we could all relate to?

We asked our partners to do a simple exercise: tell us about your favorite book when you were a kid.

What made the story memorable?
Who were the characters?
What was their journey of struggle and redemption?
What were the learnings and takeaways?

We then used that structure to try to describe what it would look like to take a whole family approach as if they were explaining it to a child. What had initially felt hard to put into words started to feel clear, sequential, and engaging. The exercise also helped us understand the arc of clients’ journeys and how unique it might be to each individual. What if people experiencing services had the power to create and direct their own narrative? What is the personal hero’s journey that individuals want to create?

This was a big moment of learning for us—there is something transformative when something is told as a story that people can really internalize, especially in a space where there are so many structural and systemic barriers. This laid the foundation for us to write a story of what the whole family approach feels like, and the impact it can have on a family or individual.

Using art and music to uncover the gradient of emotions

Doing this work during a global pandemic where we met and interacted with everyone on screen led to moments where discussions and insights felt overly intellectualized and disconnected from the real human experience of a family who is trying to move towards generational mobility in a country and system that is constantly pushing back.

The process of accessing services is not just a series of steps, it’s an emotional journey. From the start of the client’s journey with the caseworkers (where people experience invisible burden, internalized shame, endless defeat) to liberation and new awareness, a moment of feeling seen and then finally arriving at a moment of reconciliation and release. As we were mapping out the emotional states of the journey, we paused and asked ourselves: What are the shades of these feelings or emotions? How are they embodied? How are they different from person to person? We tasked ourselves to find artwork, music, dance performances, or any other medium that embodies for us the emotions we were discussing.

We wanted to acknowledge the emotional complexity of each and create the space for healing to happen. Having uncovered the emotions we hope families would arrive at through this journey, it was clear we needed more than an intake form. Rather we need a mindset change from everyone that is part of that family’s journey, to build relationships in which they are supported and every party involved is committed to healing.

What are the different tools/activities that can happen between client and caseworker that will help them arrive at the desired outcome?

We wanted to create a toolkit that would acknowledge the present moment people are in as well as a vision of the path families wanted to go down to arrive at their dreams—recognizing the people that surround and support them, and what will bring families joy.

The children's book exercise helped us communicate in writing what the toolkit is all about and how it can help/is based on clients’ own personal lived experience, connecting it to the human social services that they need today.

The Whole Family toolkit is a series of activities and prompts can be used between caseworkers and client sessions, within families, or even individually. It allows people to explore all the dimensions of themselves and the human with their personal lived experience. As the whole family approach is not just a philosophy, we hope to help facilitate the foundation of which families can understand, acknowledge, and move beyond their current situation to their future hopes and dreams.

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