Becca Dove & Tim Fisher Special Edition

The rewilding of helping human services

The Care Reveiew should provide a space to think about how children’s social care services may be re-imagined and re-set. In this piece we use a metaphor from the environment ‘rewilding’ to consider this question.

The notion that the future is a commons”, said @mwiyas in a tweet on 22 March 2021, “and one that is best cared for in the present is both fantastically thrilling and nerve-wracking…… thrilling because each day’s efforts compound, eventually leading to a better future…. nerve-wracking because deferring progress also compounds, building an inactivity debt that requires a lot more effort to undo before any progress can be achieved… stewardship of the future is one of those things that is non-deferrable”.

Mwiya may have been referring to the future of the environment, but it doesn’t take much effort to apply the sentiment to the future of helping human services. If there was a best time and a worst time to be re-imagining those compounds, a global pandemic was both. The panic of COVID tamped the old ideologies down deep, at precisely the same time as the freedom to think differently offered fresh ground for emergent ideas.

The idea of rewilding helping human services takes a hopeful stance on this dilemma, and it doesn’t require the imagination stretch you might think. Take this text from Rewilding Britainconservation has worked hard for decades, with passion and dedication, to save wildlife… but it’s time to move beyond saving certain species and patches of nature… rewilding takes a big picture approach, aiming to restore the wider natural processes that support life”. Now replace the words conservation, wildlife and nature with words connected to social work, to family welfare work, to helping human services, and the journeys feel markedly similar. 

Nature as a model is a fundamental; we are dependent on each other just as our human systems are contingent on natural ecologies.  To help and to be helped is to support life. As we contemplate the future of helping services in the wake of COVID and the enduring impact it will have on family life, we might do well to consider the role helping services could play in restoring those wider natural processes and rhythms. In what ways could helping human services emphasise the essential parts of the human condition that support life and living things?

Even in the era of relationship-based narratives and strengths-based approaches, the practice of helping humans can still feel more akin to a clinical, individualized ethos than a social or ecological one. The sharp reveal in the last year of structural inequalities and weaknesses in the social safety net might give some small insight into why. After all, when the safety net has holes in it but the helpers don’t have the tools to mend the holes and despair of why others who have the tools don’t fix the holes, the helper’s gaze might start to turn to the last awful option – to treat the problem as ‘inside people’.

When the soil a seed sits in feels so damaged, and repairing the soil feels beyond our control, the last thing left to try and fix is the seed, even though that might serve only to sustain the inequality. Little wonder then that the family experience of help and the safety net can sometimes be a deeply painful one. No helper wants it to feel that way. They don’t want to practice that way either. 

Against that backdrop, what could ‘progress’ in helping children and families mean? How might we lean into a more ethically-sustainable, ecologically-connected way of thinking about help that doesn’t rely on fixing seeds? What agency do the helpers and helped have over that future, when the power to change the safety net soil feels tightly gripped elsewhere? We’ve asked ourselves three questions to provoke discussion.

Firstly, in what ways might it be useful to re-imagine the future of helping children and families as ‘a commons’? To borrow language from the On The Commons movement, the commons are “the things that we inherit and create jointly, and that will (hopefully) last for generations to come”. A ‘helping commons’ might mean renewing the ethic of shared stewardship, where the people around you have a role to play in helping find a path through the fog of difficult times. This stewardship has been shown countless times during the pandemic and is already present in some forms of family welfare work (think family group conference for example). Certainly not a new idea in the 160-year history of our discipline, but one perhaps worthy of reconnecting to.

A ‘helping commons’ might also ask whether and how a 21st century helping human service could be imagined as a shared stewardship that we all inherit, create and sustain mutually. A ‘helping commons’ might radically reframe questions of power, mutual benefit and how decisions might be governed equitably and for the good of all, present and future. 

To put it another way, just as nature and human life can’t exist in single, enclosed systems, so the practice or system of helping people can’t either. As Tyson Yunkaporta puts it, “we live in big, vast, dynamic, infinitely overlapping systems that are in a constant state of exchange and flux with each other”. The future of helping services could connect with the idea of a shared, interdependent way of being, where the energy and ability to thrive comes from multiple sources in multiple ways.

The safety net we talked about earlier is one of those sources. Thinking like a ‘helping commons’ must include using our justice-seeking tools to push for the soil to be repaired and the net to be secured, in order for the helping commons to be sustained into the future.

Secondly, in what ways could the surfacing of power – the elevating of family voices and with it the writing of new stories of help and knowledge – provide an opportunity to till and nourish tired, clay-soaked soil? A renewed commitment to this idea has been quietly growing throughout the last 12 months. Local authorities across the UK are now walking a desire path carved across the helping landscape by organisations like Love Barrow Families and New Beginnings. From Bath and Southwark to Glasgow and Cardiff, spaces are opening not just for listening to alternative stories about help, but for a more distributive and equal share in decision-making and subsequent actions.

Walking that desire path can sometimes mean working at the edges rather than with huge fanfare. Camden Conversations, our family-led enquiry into child protection in 2018, created both the momentum and opportunity for Camden Family Changemakers in 2021; a participatory design project where local families, who know their communities best, designed what good help for families should look and feel like after COVID. Both projects happened quietly in the margins, but in doing so enabled what Margaret Wheatley[1] spoke of so eloquently, “the things we fear most in organisations – fluctuations, disturbances, imbalances – are the primary sources of creativity”.

The creativity in Camden Conversations and Camden Family Changemakers came not from the system but from a commons ethos. It came from families and collaboration, through inquiry and processes that valued people and reciprocity. New ideas about help, simple ideas, regenerative ideas, rebalancing ideas, all emerged through those spaces. And because there is a shared knowledge and ownership of the ideas, the shared knowledge and ownership of bringing the solutions to life feels more attainable.

Thirdly, in what ways could relational activism germinate those new seeds sown in a helping commons? Relational activism has long held the idea that change is compounded by people who change the piece of the world they can touch, the ground underneath their feet. The social movements and irresistible calls for change which have characterized the year since the Social Work under COVID-19 Magazine was first published, show a rising consciousness that people have a right to that – to claim their ground, to own the horizon. It is simultaneously an individual and collective endeavour.

The recent videos produced by SWAG (the Social Work Action Group) are one example. Individuals recorded their thoughts, ideas and stories about language used by helpers. The short videos travel on social media and into discourse and conversation. The discourse turns the soil and plants seeds that help create change for a more just and ethical language. Neither help nor change are an exclusive property reserved for the few. All of us can dig where we stand.

Our deliberate choice to draw on environmental and ecological metaphors in this article might seem fanciful, abstract even. But when re-imagining big global challenges – from social infrastructure to climate change – is firmly on the table, the idea of “learning from strategies found in nature to solve human design challenges”“, including how children and families are helped, is not so farfetched. Whatever happens in future, the pandemic has shown the human capacity to help and be helped. To exist as a helper or someone helped, we need a space we can inhabit, one that is living and responsive. So perhaps the future of helping human services could stand to be open to the idea of transitioning back to deep relationships with land, life and nature, with an ethic of mutual care at its core.

We might take our cue from the practice of coppicing. Coppicing means to cut trees down to 15cm from the ground, carried out in winter while the tree is dormant. Coppicing not only encourages growth of small, new shoots from the tree stump, but in doing so extends the tree’s lifespan. By allowing greater amounts of light to reach the ground, woodland biodiversity can thrive, and horizons can be renewed.

Perhaps some compounded gains, as Mwiya described, might come from being prepared to coppice our own trees. To enable fresh ideas to find the sunlight, to work against as well as with the cluster of long established, privileged voices, for more diversity of opinion and other ways of knowing to thrive, and for the soil to regenerate so that we no longer imagine that fixing the seeds is the answer. We can apply this to both our daily practice in the present, and to the practice of imagining the future. Maybe this is how our rewilding begins.

As it seeks to play its part in ensuring thriving families and communities into the future, the rewilding of helping human services could reconnect it and reset it to its natural cause – and could mean the liberation of it.

Let it, at least for a while, act wild.

Becca Dove (@BeccaDove2) is a family worker and Head of Service for Family Early Help. Tim Fisher (@familygroupmeet) is a social worker and Service Manager for Family Group Conference and Restorative Practice. Both work for the London Borough of Camden.

[1] Wheatley, Margaret J. (2006). Leadership and the new science : discovering order in a chaotic world. San Francisco, CA :Berrett-Koehler,