Part 1: Creating Safe Spaces for Voices to Be Heard

Author: Karen Copeland

courageFor the past several months, I have been collaborating with Laurie Schulz from Impact Youth Substance Use Services to create a session for the University of the Fraser Valley Reaching Out Together International Social Work conference. Our goal was not only to re-create the parent panel we facilitated in December 2013, but enhance it by adding some powerful components to the session – more specifically, providing the opportunity for the parents to reflect to the group what participating in this experience meant to them.

I will first briefly describe what the intent of the Parent Panel is. About three years ago, a parent named Nancy and I were having a conversation about conferences. Nancy lamented that just once she would like to go to conference where professionals learn from parents, that parents were put in the expert position, instead of always the other way around. I loved this idea – and anyone who knows me well knows what happens when I love an idea! I told Nancy I was going to make this happen.

I considered things that were happening in my own community, and remembered that Impact had conducted a session called Youth Connection Point, where youth sat on a panel and answered questions that had been asked by parents. I thought this might be an interesting template for a Parent Panel, so I connected with Laurie to see if we could collaborate on this, versus me going off and trying to re-invent the wheel.

The idea and intent behind the Parent Panel is for parents to be able to share their knowledge and expertise with professionals. Parents are given the opportunity to respond to questions that professionals have put forward, with the goal of providing a new lens on the parent experience. Questions from professionals are collected in advance of the session. This provides Laurie and I with the opportunity to review how the question is worded and re-frame it if necessary. During the panel, the questions are asked by the facilitators of the session to the panel participants. The panel is more about a dialogue between the parents and the facilitators than an interactive back and forth between the parents and the professionals in the room. This is by design.

Ever since I attended EdCamp35, I have been reflecting on how we can create safe spaces for voices to be heard and why this is critically important. To that end, Laurie and I did a lot of pre-work with the five parents who would be participating on our panel. We knew that the stories and experiences these courageous women carry with them and live would be difficult to talk about, especially to a room full of professionals. It was essential for Laurie and I to connect with our parents and re-assure them that we would be keeping them safe before, during and after the session.

Our session, “Bridging the Gap: Connecting Families and Professionals” took place on April 30. It is hard to put into words what happened in this session. I knew this would be an incredibly important opportunity for our parents to share their stories, and I asked each of them in advance if they would be comfortable with me writing a blog post about the session. I wanted to be able to share their wisdom with a larger audience, to share their messages of what is helpful, what they need, what they hope for.

Because when we actually take some time to think about it, we, as parents, are not often asked these questions. If we are really honest, we are sometimes viewed as vehicles to conduct therapy on our kids (here is your homework for the week), and sometimes we are viewed as the problem. And I wanted to make sure that many people heard that there is more to us as parents than what many people may see on the surface. So much more.

All the members of the panel provided their consent for me to write this post and share their responses. To that end, I  also provided each member with a draft of this series of posts for review and provide comment before I hit the publish button.

Untitled Infographic (2)I estimated I had collected about 6 to 8 pages of written notes from this session, but when I counted as I sat down to write this post, I discovered it was actually eleven pages! As you read through the questions and the responses that were provided, I invite you to be curious. To sit in your thoughts and reflect on what you are reading. How do they fit for you? As Laurie instructed in the session yesterday morning, “Be curious. Suspend what we “know” and step into a position of researcher…a curious, open-minded observer.”

Read what the parents on the panel had to say in Part Two: Sharing Parent Voices



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