Established in the early 1980s, London Black Women’s Project (LBWP) supports black, minority ethnic and refugee women and their children fleeing domestic violence. They offer refuge accommodation as well as information, advice and counselling services which are made available not just to those staying in LBWP’s refuges, but to a much wider range of women and girls through a variety of outreach projects.
LBWP’s application to The Listening Fund focused on creating channels for young women and girls to feed their experience, expertise and opinions into all levels of the organisation; from service delivery through to policy and strategic direction. There has been progress on realising these objectives, but circumstances facing LBWP, including a threat of closure and significant changes to the charity’s leadership, have caused delays to the work. We recently met with LBWP’s interim Director, Rena Sodhi, who shared some of her reflections on the challenges of improving listening across the organisation.
Changes to the staff team can cause significant disruption to listening As part of their application to TLF, LBWP sought funding for a dedicated post who would be able to lead the listening work. Unfortunately, the TLF worker left suddenly during the first year of the project and by the time her replacement was in post, some relationships with young people and referral services had become dormant. Rebuilding these relationships and re-establishing the level of trust required for good listening has taken time and whilst LBWP have ensured that other channels for listening remain open, through their outreach work in schools for example, the loss of a key member of staff has significantly affected LBWP’s timetable for embedding better listening practice.
Listening practice requires adjusting and refining according to circumstances In addition to the disruption caused by unexpected changes to staff, LBWP has had to change how it listens in response to the needs of the women who use their services. The charity is supporting an increased number of very vulnerable individuals who were at risk of being re-traumatised by existing listening practices. LBWP has therefore had to make some adjustments, making greater use of more superficial techniques such as surveys and feedback forms, to understand and respond to young women’s immediate needs before engaging with deeper listening approaches.
Activism is often dominated by those less traumatised The level of trauma faced by many women supported by LBWP means that many are unwilling – and sometimes unable – to be involved in calling for changes to the systems and policies which have failed them. As a result, their experiences and expertise can go unheard and this puts LBWP in a difficult position: how can they listen deeply enough so that they can honestly and accurately represent these young women, their expertise and their needs to those in power, whilst also ensuring that their listening practices are not extractive on an individual level? It is a question Rena and the team at LBWP are continuing to wrestle with.
The experience of LBWP over the last two years shows how precarious good listening can be, and how effective listening requires considerable organisational commitment, with frequent reconsideration and revision of listening practice essential to ensure it is fit for purpose. Despite these demands, Rena and her colleagues remain convinced of its importance, helping them to understand what young women want and need, and how and when they want to be heard.