Today I celebrate two years as Head of Impact and Innovation with Spark Inside. What a fantastic first two loops of the sun in this role it has been, with powerful personal learning, precious relationships, exciting organisational growth and one particular project that I am incredibly proud of and extremely grateful to have played a part in. So, please buckle up for a quick spin down memory lane…
I had known about Spark Inside for many years and had been volunteering with them, supporting their evaluation function, for three years as a board member when the Head of Impact and Innovation role was advertised. Impact and innovation are two things that I value highly; knowing if what you are doing is actually producing the desired result and coming up with new ways to do it better, more impactfully, with different clients.
Spark Inside has always been committed to innovation but having someone dedicated to holding that responsibility was a bold statement of intent, especially as we were only just emerging from the lockdown that had stopped any contact with our target client group: men in prisons. As I went through the recruitment process I got more excited about the role and joining the team, so when I got the call confirming my appointment I was just raring to start!
Lesson one – build relationships founded on strong and clear intentions.
I joined a small but growing senior team, slightly ahead of two other new arrivals: Head of Service Delivery, Luke Carey, and Head of Communications and Advocacy, Louise Potter. A new leadership team who want to develop creative ways of working together is a precious asset to any organisation. I will always be grateful to Sean Blair for designing and facilitating the amazing day of Lego Serious Play, where we built our organisational vision. A vision that not only informed our team’s work but that we are still living into today. The resulting story board was not only clear and powerful for us as a team but was also really appreciated by the Board.
Lesson two – get out of the way and let the expertise of others shine brightly.
The first innovation project I took on was to develop the Black Hero’s Journey, an adaptation of our main programme, Hero’s Journey, but tailored to the needs, strengths and experiences of young Black men in prison and delivered by Black coaches. I got to build a project team around the three coaches that had worked on the initial design, prior to the first pilot being interrupted by, yes you guessed it: LOCKDOWN.
These three, brilliant Black men were not just skilled facilitators, but also young fathers with inner-city childhoods now working as successful self-employed coaches with extensive experience coaching and facilitating in academic, corporate and public sectors as well as with young men in prison. The new members of the design team included Cecilia, Spark Inside’s Participation and Engagement Manager, herself a Black street pastor with an academic background, and Tony Weekes, a Black Youth and Conflict expert with international and UK prison programme experience.
The design conversations were some of the most precious dialogues I have ever witnessed. They developed the conversations and methods to engage young men in the programme. New materials that explored identity and the many nuances of the African diaspora, experiences of racism and ways they can be internalised, the recognition and celebration of ancient African cultures and the role of joy in facing the destructive and traumatic experiences that shape many Black people’s lives. These sessions were then tested and further developed in our three pilot programmes to ensure they could provide safe spaces for the young men to be vulnerable. The final programme was longer by a third, with our new materials threaded throughout the four two-hour workshops and we have gathered a wide array of feedback from a sample of the three cohorts involved.
Lesson three – prisons are full of strong and capable young men coping with some really tough early experiences in the best way they know how.
So did it work? For the last four months I have been working with the evaluation team, led by the exceptional Dr Noreen Dera, who has held wonderfully honest conversations with the Black Hero’s Journey graduates and gathered rich stories of their experience. Her analysis of the data has benefitted from the expert oversight of Professor Frank Keating, who brings rigour and a wider field perspective to the work. Our peer evaluator, Tyrone Johnson, has led group reflective sessions and brought experienced eyes and personal insight to the data analysis.
Transcribing the interviews and hearing the stories of the young heroes on their journey has been incredibly moving and allowed me to get a sense of the depth and value of the work being accomplished in the room and during the one-to-one coaching that follows.
Lesson 4 – If you’re building something important, don’t be shy to ask others to back you.
Black Hero’s Journey is now ready to roll out more widely across London prisons and we are soon to start recruiting more Black coaches, reaching more young Black men in a new prison. So, roll on my third year and my next innovation project, The Conversation. But that is another story…
If you want to support this work and feel able to contribute then please get in touch or visit our Big Give fundraising page, here between 28 November — 5 December 2023, to contribute and help us hit our £80k target to enable more young men to experience the power of our work. As one of the participants said:
“I got more like self-honesty, self-love. I thought I needed the psychologist to help my mental health, but just understanding where I’m from, through people coming in to help us on our journey, benefited me in ways I never thought would benefit me. You know what I’m saying? Like I thought this is just another course, I get certificate for it. It might help me for D cat or whatever in the future. Like, I never, like, it’s when I went in there and I said, you know what, like I’m actually gonna do this course. I’m actually gonna take it in. You know what I’m saying? So there was that, that really pushed me to be the best I could be.”