Walking with People's Stories

By Christa Van Daele, Good Work News, September 2010

Stories are a human anchoring place in the work of The Working Centre. They move forward in time, binding the teller and the listener together. A story can be told all at once, in a rushed burst of feeling, or with restraint and reserve, over longer periods of time. Sometimes a story is a sum total of silences, gaps, awkward confusion and regret, tears, missed appointments. It is sometimes thought that stories related to employment are relatively straightforward. Is not a resume a straight up request, a simple request to put a person’s life on paper, in order to achieve a job?

At The Working Centre, we have increasingly found that stories about the search for work can in fact be complex. Resumes, as veteran employment counsellors like to say, are the tip of the iceberg. Lives are often shaped by much loss and tragedy. There is turbulence in lives from every unexpected quarter. Outside factors such as the conditions of the labour market are hugely important in times such as these, but so are the family and social interconnected webs in which any human is embedded. What is merely a temporary setback for some (unemployment) is a sickening headlong pitch forward into disaster for others.

A sociologist would study these factors and classify the social determinants of health that make the difference; those interested in psychology would look at resilience and resourcefulness within an individual to better understand the issues. Whatever the range of reasons – and there are many -- we at The Working Centre observe close up each day themes of discontinuity that make lives full of crater holes. In an individual life, nothing is quite as straightforward as it looks. Nothing quite adds up to a simple chronological narrative on a resume, tidy and “sprayed in place” for the prospective employer to look at. A firm helping philosophy – a core of constancy -- in Working Centre approaches is therefore a skilled and hospitable one. It is an approach of constant adaptation, of response, as we, in multiple senses, become a part of the story. The approach is essentially one that has been helpfully rendered in Peter Block’s 2008 Community: The Structure of Engagement. We work at offering structures of improvised but authentic intimacy, in small groups or dyads, creating a flow of nurturing encounter that is based on mutual gifts and mutual accountability. Here is how it works.

There is Wanda, a highly educated and gracious New Canadian lady of Asian origin. She appears for every appointment exactly fifteen minutes before the hour. She is highly educated, well spoken, with exquisite manners. She has suffered a series of mental health setbacks that she herself clearly cannot name and identify. She knows only that she is in a deeper and deeper place of solitude, that she has nothing to do but search the internet for jobs, and that her mental health situation is absolutely culturally unacceptable for her to name and share. She is a proud former pathologist, a head of a unit in a large urban hospital. She trusts no one in her own community. When her daily flood of internet job applications are rejected, she speaks to no one about how to understand the sophisticated skill needs the employer is requesting. She has no friends. She is barely able to communicate about her suffering with two counsellors who meet with her regularly at The Working Centre. A feeling of wordless rejection extending into paranoia has settled over her, and intensive counselling or medication of any kind still seems a distant dream.

The situation is a tough one. It is rich with ambiguity. It is not clear in the chain of cultural and psychological misfortune where the experience of unemployment fits in; her tragedy of cause and effect is still unfolding. Fortunately, she has a husband and grown son who provide safety, income and attractive clothes, but she chooses not to communicate with them about her increasingly frightening inner experiences. For Wanda, a snappy professional resume is not the point. Recovery and treatment and support, and any deeper feeling of connected community in Wanda’s life, is a long way away. In this instance, The Working Centre approach is to hear out the story week by week until ways of connecting further with the mental health community open up. The naming process for the intense pressure of her inner fears has barely started. But an authentic and accountable relationship has been initiated, one that involves sustained correspondence, inquiry, and support in a small group of three people. Wanda is invited back for dialogue and exchanges of ideas every two weeks.

There is Sally Rose, who is 58 years of age. She has recently come to Kitchener-Waterloo from Alberta. She has a grade eight education, a smattering of pluck and an impish streak of hard luck humour, but she has lost her already marginal assets in a dramatic downturn and lives with her grown children. She is pained by her own situation, but brimming with hope nevertheless. She does not have enough money to put gas in the car, to buy bus tickets. With the help of a few counsellors who are teaming together, she is preparing to seek training in a highly advertised private school program that may just possibly result in employment. But the everyday barriers and chronic worries that attend each step of her progress are numerous, and there is much red tape involved in trying to link to adult basic education to fit her needs. However brave she is, with the twinkle in her eye that speaks of admirable resilience, her current age, limited education, and fragile physical presentation make it seem unlikely that satisfying employment above the minimum wage is likely. Discussions with Sally Rose are never boring, and they are never about resumes – they are searches for strategy that make a challenging journey somewhat more manageable in the daily slog to avoid the disaster of ill health, inadequate years of schooling, and poverty. She hopes against hope that a certificate from the private training school under current government funding allowances will make her fully employable. Sally Rose has entered a roller-coaster but safe world of discovery. She has been invited to bring along her best friend to meetings, a highly educated woman, to explore all the possibilities for local schooling that can be explored.

Finally, there is Peter, eighteen years of age, who might be considered a youth at risk. He has been hanging out with a crowd that deals drugs in London, but before that, things in his parents’ marriage were not working out. Although his parents are well to do and highly educated, the bad timing around their divorce, and the fact that his mother has abruptly cut ties and moved away and started another life, has left a loss in his life he can’t fill. Instead, there are empty places inside him, no plans in particular, no job, and week to week couch surfing in less and less safe houses -- a common practice among kids who are seriously adrift. Peter, like many young people his age, cannot simply be told to “pull up your socks and go back to school”. For reasons that have to do with his own issues in focusing his attention, he cannot settle his mind enough to find a job, to pay even modest rent so he can live in a good place, to fill out online applications for high school or college. These feats, down to earth steps that we typically expect in young people who are ready to leave the nest, are miles ahead in his life. Instead, his way of seeking help is to walk into The Working Centre and to abruptly state “I need a bus ticket – and I need a resume right now.” An employment counsellor is able to see him right away, offering immediate encouraging words and perhaps a bus ticket. At The Working Centre, that is typically a first step -- an employment counsellor meeting Peter for the first time can offer dignity in honouring the stated request at face value.

Once a simple resume is provided -- what about the rest of the story? It is an interwoven story with many chapters; it is a messy story that reaches far into the future. All the other jumbled circumstances in Peter’s life will take years to address, and the help of many committed persons who work closely and creatively together. The resume, perhaps a ticket to a part-time minimum wage job stocking grocery shelves, is really just a tiny step, a step that in itself will not push far into the holes and cracks and crevices in Peter’s life. Mental health supports will be needed. An inner feeling of safety and home is needed. Decent housing is needed. Friends and fellowship, a place to go every day, are needed. A dream for the future is needed.

Structures of commitment, or engagement, as Block would say, unfold in most Working Centre projects each day. Friendships and mentoring encounters flow steadily through the contribution of clear-minded persistence in action. More than anything, the job of growing up, and functioning in a complex and demanding society, a society that is full of systems that are challenging to navigate for even the simplest things, is an extended job that can only be assumed by persons, at The Working Centre and elsewhere, who are deeply committed to walking with an individual for years. We may be fortunate enough in our own community to find an employment counsellor who is full of creative gumption for the job – a person who is willing to be part uncle, part friend, part hands-on crisis mediator. From this place of commitment, warmly engaging Peter in extended conversations that build trust, inviting him to volunteer or to work in the Café, seeing about his housing, coming out to hear him read his poetry in evening events, affirming and shining a light on his gifts in small ways – all of these steps together provide a way of supporting his uncertain path.

A similar approach is being tried with Wanda, the highly isolated and distraught New Canadian physician, and Sally Rose, the resilient middle-aged Alberta lady with the twinkle in her eye. Helpful individuals in the community who may be interested in engaging with these two women from various perspectives are increasingly drawn in for advice and support, additional knowledge, and the guidance of good fellowship. Sometimes this support consists of one meeting; at other times, an entire course of fellowship and commitment unfolds. Thus, a wider community of genuinely affirmative persons and deeds is consciously yet quietly drawn in to form a circle of support around the person.

In this and many other senses that are typically shared on the pages of Good Work News, Working Centre life has a purposeful sub-text. It intentionally offers pockets of community that are tapped to help Wanda, Sally Rose, and Peter integrate into “something real” -- something that makes the day worth getting up for. Rather than resorting to simply career counselling techniques, mental health referrals, and prescribed job search tools in a checklist order of interventions, the whole issue of a person’s unfolding life path – their “barriers”, as the expression goes -- is witnessed in the richer more turbulent context of the individual’s development as a person. It is for this reason that the statement “you listened to me” is the most important one that our visitors can make as we get to know them well.

In opening our ears to the linked themes of hundreds of unfolding Queen Street South narratives, we believe that we try to do our best work. We sustain hope. We link and include others in the storyline. We increasingly reject the idea of easy outcomes, accepting as we are able that life plots are complex. Over the years, we have found that there is a fierce kind of hanging on involved in building authentic structures of engagement. As issues become layered, difficult to name, to sort or to classify, we reach out thoughtfully as we turn to the wider community for help, as well as revisit our own linked project resources in all of the buildings and projects of The Working Centre. That is the compelling point of the powerful stories we absorb. Improvised authentic engagement is nevertheless deeply committed engagement in a thriving experience of community. We are convinced that life stories of the kind that Wanda, Sally Rose, and Peter disclose to us must be held in firmly committed relationship, well after the resume task is completed.

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