PLA case study #2: Charlotte Weinberg, Executive Director, Safe Ground.
What does Safe Ground do?
Safe Ground designs and delivers arts- based programmes for groups of people in prison and community settings. Our work focuses on relationships, parenting and identity and uses creative, therapeutic models to engage, encourage and enable people's critical thinking and reflection. Our methodology is very well researched and we have evidence to demonstrate how effectively our programmes engage people who often don't access education in a traditional sense and who are unlikely to use other services. Taking part in a Safe Ground programme has an impact on reoffending rates and improving family ties and relationships. Our work strengthens people's abilities to relate, be they people in prison, Prison Officers, family or community members.
Why is this important?
Our work is important for various reasons. Prison is a very authoritarian and by its nature, oppressive environment- creating the space with people to think, challenge themselves and each other constructively, develop new ways of experiencing relationships and trust, friendship, support and achievement can all be vitally important. Our work gives participants opportunities to experiment with new ways of thinking, to experience other people's perspectives and to use character and drama to 'rehearse' experiences or alternative responses. We believe our work is important because it offers a genuine opportunity for people to experience conflict in positive ways, to engage in meaningful group work and to transform often long held negatively expressed opinions and beliefs into strengths, qualities and clear assets.
What is your role at Safe Ground and what were you doing before?
I am lucky enough to be the Executive Director at Safe Ground. Before that I spent nearly 20 years working in youth and community settings, supporting families and young people in crisis, developing arts and relationships interventions in the UK and internationally.
What are you busy with at the moment?
We are currently working a range of things. We are celebrating our 21st birthday this year, so we have a series of events planned for July and September. We are developing a range of partnerships across community and prison settings where we continue to deliver our suite of programmes; we are working with South and West Yorkshire Consortia to deliver 'Man Up' to young men in the region, with Greater Manchester Reform Group to pilot and evaluate our women's programme, 'Our Own Stories'. We work with individual prison sites to ensure the quality delivery of our 'Family Man' and 'Fathers Inside' programmes. We continue to see how and if we can work with the CRCs and we are in the process of writing a chapter for a book with some academics and practitioners through the University of Essex.
Can you give an example of someone who has benefited from your work?
We have a group of programme graduates that we call our 'alumni'- participants from our programmes that have wanted to keep in touch and continue to contribute to our work in a wide variety of ways. My biggest impression of the people we work with is that once there is a real expectation of engagement and involvement in a clear and honest process, people really commit. What they have got from the work has been a level of reflection and questioning that has been unusual, an expectation of honesty and openness and a consistent approach from us that has meant people feel able to stay involved.
For many of our graduates, completing any kind of group work is a first, and having the support and attention our methodology allows really gives people the opportunity to express themselves and feel acknowledged in ways that prison and the criminal justice system makes difficult. I am thinking of men who have never managed to stay out of prison before, one of whom now runs a youth violence programme for Charlton football club, another of whom has just secured his first independent tenancy and others of whom are living with partners and children, working and participating fully in a range of community and social activities. Some of our alumni are still in prison or on probation and of those we know about, many are progressing well, accessing the support available to them and building links and networks that can be sustained long term.
We believe our work is important because it offers a genuine opportunity for people to experience conflict in positive ways, to engage in meaningful group work and to transform often long held negatively expressed opinions and beliefs into strengths, qualities and clear assets.
What is the biggest challenge you face in doing your work?
The biggest challenge we face, much like the people we work with, is the constant uncertainty, lack of control and change that seems pretty constant. In the last five years the criminal justice system has been through significant and fundamental policy, funding, administrative and operational change, all of which have big impacts on the work we do. Managing that and driving clear, effective strategy through it can be tough; but that's the creative fun we get as senior managers who often have to give up a great deal of face to face involvement.
How do you feel about the future of the education offered to prisoners?
I feel lots of different things all at once, but I think the Coates review mentioning arts and relationships as key factors in education is acknowledgement we have wanted for a long time and will hopefully strengthen the holistic approaches to education in the secure estate. The commitment to higher education can only be a good thing and obviously, a programme of professional development for staff is always a great cultural ambition for any organisation. If all these things can be implemented to a high standard, education in prison could be greatly improved. Similarly, it is always important to recognise context and understand that the environment in which this work needs to be done is particularly difficult and needs a great deal of work to enable education to flourish.
Could you suggest a book, film, programme, podcast or article that you have found inspiring or resonates with your work?
Film: Herman's House; Books: Soledad Brother - George Jackson, Teaching to Transgress- Bell Hooks, anything written by Angela Yvonne Davis.
Learn more about the work Safe Ground do by visiting them at safeground.org.uk