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Transcript: Episode 3 – Helen Brown
Vic T – Host: 00:00
This is the Strong Manchester Women podcast. It’s a series of inspiring conversations with the change makers, leaders and trailblazers who make our city and beyond a better place to live, work, and play.
Vic T – Host: 00:25
Now, Manchester has a history of very strong women, women who are forces to be reckoned with, women who push the envelope, start movements, smash glass ceilings, stand up for their rights and turn the wheels of progress. So join me, your host Vic Elizabeth Turnbull as I speak to these women, women who you may not have heard of before, the underground heroes who are changing lives and making a lasting impact in our communities.
Vic T – Host: 01:11 So in this episode we have,
Helen Brown: 01:13 I’m Helen and I work at On The Out, which is an organisation in Manchester that supports people when they’ve been released from prison or helping them when they’re out.
Vic T – Host: 01:25 And we talk about difficulties,
Helen Brown: 01:27 I struggled for a time. At one point, my house has being repossessed.
Vic T – Host: 01:32 Achievements,
Helen Brown: 01:33 I’m finally working somewhere where no one’s tells me what to do. Which is amazing!
Vic T – Host: 01:39 Life on the inside,
Helen Brown: 01:40 The experience of people that have been in custody is that however much is done in the prison, the reality is that people very often get out homeless.
Vic T – Host: 01:50 and lots more.
Helen Brown: 01:57
It’s quite unique. It’s made up of people that have spent time in custody or people from very marginalised groups, so people that have experienced addiction or homelessness or often a combination of all of those. We’re run by those people. We’re staffed and led by them and that’s kind of difference. I think there’s quite a few organisations that maybe have people with that experience as volunteers or that kind of… It almost sometimes are kind of wheeled in and wheeled out a little bit really. The difference with On The Out is that our team, the other directors spent 12 years in custody and our support workers all come from that background. Yeah. All the decisions are made by people that have been inside or people that have been from quite marginalised sections of society. So we help people on release from prison. We stand outside the prison gates and we help people through the first few days, particularly the experience of people that have been in custody is that however much is done in the prison and however many services are trying to help,
Helen Brown: 02:59
The reality is that people very often get out homeless with very, very few choices in front of them. Faced with that, quite often people go back to old habits, particularly when they’ve spent a day at the homelessness department trying to find accommodation that hasn’t happened and faced with a night on the streets, people can go back into old ways of life. So we try and help people through that process. We don’t signpost, we go with people because we recognise actually that it’s really hard to sit for a long time in the council waiting to be assessed and it’s really hard to fit in everything that needs to be done on that first day. People need to very often, sort out accommodation, see the probation worker, often get a ‘script, if that’s what’s needed, sort out benefits, sort out ID, try and link to family, sort out clothing.
Helen Brown: 03:54
So it’s a huge amount on the first day and for some people it’s just, it’s just too much. So having someone with you by your side that’s also experienced that, but also that is really, really skilled in what they do can make a huge difference. But often we stay connected to that person. Sometimes people go back in prison again and then they ask for us, which is fantastic and we meet them again. We can go see people while they are inside and we get an increasing amount of referrals from lads on the wings. I suppose above all what we want to do is show that it is possible. That the guys that are on the inside, knowing that there’s people just like them that are waiting for them to help them when they get out. There’s a real sense of ownership there.
Helen Brown: 04:35
It’s not like a professional that maybe has read stuff from books or puts themselves in a different place. We really work alongside that person. They get it. They get how it might feel to walk through the gates. That everyone that comes out has completely different needs. Very common, is a real kind of lack of esteem, lack of confidence. Very often trauma, very often loss, which is behind a lot of the things that happen. People use on that, to try and block it out. People get into old lifestyles because sometimes that’s where they feel they belong and that’s where they’ve got people around them that they know and it’s really, really hard to get back into the real world and get back into a different world where they’ve never really felt very accepted.
Helen Brown: 05:23 Part of what we do is trying to reconnect people to the community. We really feel that part of people’s rehabilitation, part of them feeling okay about themselves, and able to function much better, is feeling connected back to society, but that’s really difficult when society forever labels people and doesn’t accept them back or accepts them back but still puts them in a little box. We try and get everybody that comes out to work with us and work alongside us because there’s so many skills that are in the prison that people don’t have the opportunity to continue with.
Vic T – Host: 05:59 I find this organisational model so unique and powerful and if you think about it just makes sense, doesn’t it? I want to find out from Helen, if there’s been challenges along the way when people discover that her workforce is predominantly made up of ex-offenders.
Helen Brown: 06:19
Absolutely. Yeah. I think on the surface people are saying, ‘oh that’s great’, and it was all very nice and all very, ‘oh, you’re giving them a chance’ and stuff like that. But the problem is people don’t seem to see the workers that we have often as equals, because they’re highly skilled support workers and they’re still put in a in a box sometimes. So what we find is that on one level people are promoting us and saying that’s really, really good, but on another, they don’t want to trust us or handover the power. A really good example of that is, we used to have a building just outside the prison, outside Strangeways prison. It was kind of a port-a-cabin. It was really great. People came over from the prison and they dropped in and they got some support from us and our lads were picking people up from the prison, taking them back to the office…
Helen Brown: 07:13
I was still a teacher in the prison at the time, so I wasn’t there a lot of the time. And then the rules change and people that are on license, which is pretty much our entire team, weren’t allowed in unattended. So it meant that they couldn’t actually pick people up and go in an empty building. So there was a real example there that of that, it’s okay up to a point and that’s the point we feel is the real crux of things. There’s a lot of research. What we’re doing isn’t off the cuff, there’s a lot of evidence based research about desistance. The first stage is people stop offending. The second stage is that they start to see themselves differently. The third stage is that other people see them differently. For that full identity change to happen, for people to become workers and members of society, rather than people that are engaged in criminal activity, all three stages of desistance needs to happen.
Helen Brown: 08:08
So it’s quite not easy, but people quite often have the thing where they stop offending and they start to see themselves as a worker. But the third stage, which relies on other people seeing them differently, is really hard to achieve and that’s, that’s the bit we feel that needs to happen. So if you can imagine someone that’s been in prison a long, long time coming out, they stop offending, then they start to see themselves really differently. But, then they’re treated just like they were when they’re in prison, with a lack of trust and a lack of respect, then it’s really hard for them to make that shift. If though, they’re seen as a support worker, as a manager, if they get phone calls from probation or the police asking them for advice, then that totally completes that shift and that’s what we see as a movement away from kind of that old lifestyle.
Helen Brown: 09:00 But that really depends on the community welcoming people back. So that’s quite a large part of our work to trying to breakdown that stigma and stereotype and I suppose to celebrate in what we do in quite an honest, unashamed way.
Vic T – Host: 09:13 It sounds really, really challenging.
Helen Brown: 09:15 Yeah, well it can be, but we’ve got an amazing team, so we do it together and we spend quite a lot of time just laughing and all our team, they’ve got these incredible stories. I think that’s it. It never feels like I’m going to work. It just feels like I’m hanging out with a group of people that are really lovely to be around. So yeah, I’ve been a support worker a long, long time and in my past I’ve never worked with a group of people like this. Yeah, they’re fab.
Vic T – Host: 09:40 So you mentioned you were a support worker for many years,
Helen Brown: 09:44
Since I was about 18, I worked in homelessness and Mental Health and addiction services down in London and I worked a lot on the streets helping people that were street homeless. Then moved up north and worked for Shelter for a while. Trained as a social worker. Eventually decided I didn’t want to do that. Became a teacher, started teaching inside a Manchester prison. So I was teaching peer mentoring; teaching the lads to support each other. It’s not a very easy teaching environment. It’s a really quite small room. A lot of lads in there. People sent there that maybe don’t want to be there. Teaching sessions are really, really long. It was quite unlikely students sometimes. Some of the guys were on basic, so they had a lot of privileges taken away and seen as troublemakers on the wings.
Helen Brown: 10:34
But what I found is actually those people had a huge amount of experience dealing with other people and actually they were giving a huge amount of support to their peers on the wings and they had these skills that were not recognised, I’m sure they are recognised, but they weren’t celebrated and often those people were getting out of prison and they were feeling really motivated to use those skills and thinking, actually ‘I’m really good at this’, but then life would take over. So I felt, I wanted something that would really harness that and really felt that helping others is a bit of a Hook for Change. A hook to make help people to see that actually they’re not that person. Other people have always said they are, that there’s real goodness there.
Helen Brown: 11:20
And I really saw a lot of that in my role as a tutor. I was seeing lots of the same people coming in and out and in and out of prison and prison isn’t the answer what needed to happen with some real change. And a real shift around who that person felt they are. And that involves seeing themselves through eyes that maybe they’d never seen before, through eyes that weren’t critical and through eyes that weren’t putting them in a box. So the CIC was formed from ideas within my class, the same lads that were coming and out, in and out, were also incredibly frustrated with life in the prison, that it was so hard to be seen. It was so hard to get action, so they’re often getting out homeless and that really wasn’t the fault of individual workers in there at all.
Helen Brown: 12:08
It’s just such a massive machine, a massive churn and it just wasn’t working. And I think those lads really felt that they could maybe change. They could do it in some ways better., So On The Out was formed with a group of ex prisoners. Initially we were based in the porta-cabin that I was talking about, waiting for people to come over that referred to us inside the prison. But then Mike, who’s our other director, made the decision to go and actually stand at the prison gates and that’s where we started really sort of picking up. The idea to form a CIC was ‘where do we go from here’? We had a little group, a small group, um, and just decided to institutes it!
Vic T – Host: 12:46 How long were you going before you made things official?
Helen Brown: 12:49
Not Long. I suppose I was doing things in the prison and out the prison. That made it quite hard because I was coming from two totally different perspectives and I’m quite aware that me doing the stuff that I do on the outside, was probably quite challenging for other people in the prison. I suppose we needed a little bit funding. We needed some funding to try and get travel expenses and things for people. And to do that, we initially got an Awards for All through the Big Lottery. And to do that we needed to be constituted. So actually it was just a probably a couple of months
Vic T – Host: 13:19 and literally, you got the lads through standing outside of the prison.
Helen Brown: 13:22
Very much. Yeah. That was Mike, because what he recognised when he got out was that, even though he had actually been inside for quite a while, that support wasn’t there. And even though he was in supported housing at the time, he, found himself really, really struggling with quite basic things. And another person from On The Out helped him through that, through their one-to-one support in a really understanding way. We just wanted to make sure we weren’t missing people and that they knew from the minute that they go out, that someone was there. I think the moment someone steps outside the gates, they’ve got a real choice. So that’s actually the point that you must grab people and say, ‘come with us’.
Vic T – Host: 14:03 That’s incredible. How grab them at the point where you actually need to, not when they’ve started re-offending…
Helen Brown: 14:12
Definitely. Once someone’s been on the street for a night, I think our chances of helping them really, really decrease. If we can get someone accommodated on that first night, then they stand a much better chance I think, of staying out. We started a Just Giving page and the idea of that is to get money in for a BnB on the first night. So what usually happens is we go to Manchester Council and some people are accommodated if they’re in priority, some people aren’t. So at the end of that day, that person can still be kind of stuck with nowhere to go. So we’ve started to try and raise a little bit money through Just Giving and collecting on Market Street.
Vic T – Host: 14:50 So what year did you set up the CIC?
Helen Brown: 14:53
2016. So since that time we’ve helped over eight hundred. I know in the last year it’s probably up around 500 now and we’re a small team, so that’s, that’s really good going. And a lot of those people stay so that we’ve more people than that really. Again, it’s our team though, they’re amazing and they don’t shut up shop at five o’clock. I’m astounded that they’re still going and I think that’s because they feel they’ve been there and they know what it feels like to suddenly have people go home on you, when you’re desperate and it’s like, well, sorry, off you go. I’ve never worked with a team where actually the problem is that they work too much!
Vic T – Host: 15:39 It makes such a difference to have a great team around you. It makes going to work every day a delight, so I can really get where Helen’s coming from here. Now, a lot of leaders talk about surrounding themselves with good people, good people that can inspire them, can have that back and can support them through the tough times. I want to find out a little bit more about Helen’s support network.
Helen Brown: 16:08
I have a lovely family. My Mum and dad and sister who are there for me, Mike, who I’ve mentioned who spent all that time in custody, he’s now my partner and he’s a huge source of support and my daughter Alice, who I know will be listening to this. She’s only 10 but she is full of goodness and she often sees through everything and I’m really proud of her and she does inspire me to do good things. I love some of her ideas when she was really little what she wanted for the prison, it was like, well, here’s some ideas what the men could do in the prisons. So she wanted Hula hoops for the exercise yard, which I think would be just be brilliant, and going home presents, which would be really nice. Like party bags for everyone when they’ve finished their time. We’ve tried to replicate that slightly without the cake and balloons, we’ve put together with the help of donations, some prison release packs.
Helen Brown: 16:57 So there’s some clothes, essential items. We get phones for people on release with the help of Big Change Manchester. But I haven’t done the hula hoops yet.
Vic T – Host: 17:08 They should be Alice bags!
Helen Brown: 17:09 Oh, they should be called Alice bags. Yeah, that’ll be well cute.
Vic T – Host: 17:13 You’ve had a career of doing good Helen. Was there anything when you were younger, that planted the seed for this?
Helen Brown: 17:21 My Dad, particularly, and my mom, but my dad particularly has quite a sort of a moral kind of way about him and would always look at the right thing to do. But I think I’ve been very lucky, very privileged that I’ve been allowed to do that. You know, some people are so busy focusing on getting through day to day and so busy with all the demons in their head, that it’s really hard to come outside that.
Helen Brown: 17:52
And I haven’t had to face all that. So I’ve been really, really lucky that I’m in a position where I can do that, that all my immediate needs are okay. You know? And that’s why I suppose On the Out’s so powerful because actually the people that are doing that now are people that have also overcome all this stuff. So in terms of kind of the the ‘strong woman’ thing, the people that are strong are the people that have come from that background, yet still done it. Some of yeah, I have just been really lucky.
Vic T – Host: 18:20 I know that Helen won’t be the first and she certainly won’t be the last who say that luck has played a big part in helping her become the woman that she is today. And for so many of us, the path to where we are today has not been straightforward. I asked Helen if path’s been dead straightforward, and to tell us a little bit more about how she got to where she is today.
Helen Brown: 18:48 No, certainly not. I mean, I started out in London, which at the time I was kind of 18 working in big dormitory hostels that which was just, you know, there were crazy, given all the regulations we have now, it literally was handing out medication here, there and everywhere. Hundred beds hostel and you were the volunteer overnight and that was it. And it was like, oh that’s crazy now that you look at it. And I struggled for time. Definitely. It was very hard to unwind and I became quite depressed at times. Quite sort of self critical, probably working too much because of that. In the same way that other people would do other things because of that. And Yeah, lots of difficulties with personal life at times, but then still having to go to work. At one point my house was…I split up from my husband.
Helen Brown: 19:41
I was working for Shelter at the time and my house is being repossessed. That was happening. And then I’d be going to work and helping people with keeping their tenancies at the time. And I was thinking, hang on, my house is gone. I know that I’m very sort of up and down and I think that’s probably why I feel more connected sometimes to the people that I’m working alongside. So I think it really puts me sort of in, in that place where I feel in that camp, if you know what I mean. And I’m much happier in that way.
Vic T – Host: 20:15 So when there are low points, how do you…
Helen Brown: 20:17 Well in the past I think I just drunk too much and you know, made much more unhealthy decisions. Now I do a lot of running, which really helps.
Helen Brown: 20:27
It kind of lifts me up. I try and have breaks. I’m trying at the moment not to work too much. I know it sounds daft, but my poor daughter is so used to me being on the phone all the time that, you know, I’m trying just to stop it, but it can be really hard. And I think it’s okay. I mean, one of the things I really found when I worked in the prison is again, I was going through quite difficult time and I’d come into the prison and there’s be a class of sort of 12 blokes and I would just feel like crying, but then you’d have to go in and kind of almost perform as a teacher. Well I guess I just stopped doing that and I’d just go in and say actually, you know, I just feel like shit.
Helen Brown: 21:07 And they were like, what’s wrong miss? And I’ll say, I feel like this. And they’d say, well this is what I do when I feel like that, you know? And actually that reversal of roles was really helpful. So I kind of learned that being a good teacher, and being someone that can connect to people involves almost like revealing yourself in a way that you’re not really supposed to do, that you’re supposed to be very, ‘you don’t know anything about my personal life’ and that’s the way to keep safe. But actually I think there is a place for sharing, particularly sharing around sort of mental health and sharing around how you feel in, because it helps people connect and helps people realise that actually they know all about that and they can help you. That’s the way I got through just by being really, really quite honest that I was having a bad day.
Vic T – Host: 21:51 It’s almost showing your vulnerability.
New Speaker: 21:53
Yeah, it is. Actually that vulnerability is the very thing that connects to people and I think that vulnerability isn’t just men in prison. It isn’t just people that are homeless. It isn’t just people that are struggling in addiction. I think that vulnerability is probably there for most of the people we see walking down Market Street every day, that may be have to put on a front. If you actually get talking to people, people have more in common than they would say. And again, that’s part of what we really want to do is break down that kind of stigma and divide and actually say, so there’s someone here that’s been through that horrendous kind of life. But also there’s a person that’s seen as a bit of a high flyer and as a professional and actually they are both really, really struggling and exactly the same way.
Vic T – Host: 22:41 So being a woman, you’re working in a very male dominated environment… Has that ever held you back?
Helen Brown: 22:50 No, I don’t think so at all. It’s weird cause I’m really comfortable in that environment and I can honestly say that … it’s never really been like that. You get the sort of young lad kind of thing, and you’re like ‘I’m old enough to be your mother’. Actually the guys I work with are always really respectful and really cool, you know? I was really lucky in that way. I think probably the biggest challenge has been trying to juggle the stuff, like juggle things where you can with children, what child and things and trying to kind of get that balance right. Yeah. I suppose for me, I’m quite sort of emotional sometimes and having to kind of manage all that. Hormones all over the place, hot flushes! Which everyone knows about, which I share with everyone!
Vic T – Host: 23:42 Helen’s got a demanding job, that can be quite stressful at times. I’m dying to know how Helen looks after herself. Hot flushes and all.
Helen Brown: 23:55 I’m a bit useless at it to be honest. I do running, I run, but not very far. It just sort of boosts me a little bit. I’m not very good at it, the truth is I try. I Am quite good at sleeping. I’m terrible at eating properly, but I try, I’m trying. I’m quite looked after sometimes, which is really nice. I’ve, I’ve realised as I’ve got older actually I just thought, oh my God, I just need to look after myself a a little bit better cause it’s not just about me. And I think that’s the thing that helps me is like I need to be okay for my daughter and I need to be okay to be doing this.
Helen Brown: 24:43 I think really just trying to take a little bit of time off, that’s what I need to do and just remove myself every now and again and then just sort of regroup my head a little bit.
Vic T – Host: 24:53 Yeah. Yeah. Rest is so important isn’t it?
Helen Brown: 24:57 Yeah. But so hard to do because you just feel guilty for doing it because I feel kind of quite responsible and I am. And that’s the thing, it’s really hard when, when you know what’s kind of going on in the background while you’re doing something different.
Vic T – Host: 25:13 What’s your biggest achievement?
Helen Brown: 25:20 Well, I’m proud of my daughter. That’s an achievement.
Vic T – Host: 25:22 That is an achievement.
Helen Brown: 25:25 That is an achievement that’s an absolute achievement. Um, and myself, Alice’s dad, we kind of broke up but have managed to maintain a really, really lovely relationship. And I’m proud of both of us that we’ve done that.
Helen Brown: 25:40
So she’s really well adjusted and loves being in both our companies in two different kinds of families. And he’s, you know, really good friend. I guess I’m really proud of On the Out. I’m proud that I made the decision to come outside the prison because that was a big leap into the unknown and biggest achievement is finally, I just feel really, I feel really happy and content. So I’m with a partner who I love. Finally, my biggest achievement maybe is working somewhere where no one tells me what to do. It’s just amazing. I’ve always been, because I’ve never been a manager, I’ve never done anything like that. In fact, I totally shielded away from it cause I would always rather have been working with the, with the people I was working with. So it’s just really nice that I can just make decisions and not have anyone telling me what to do.
Vic T – Host: 26:31 Children, being happy and content and having no one to boss you around. I think they’re achievements you can be dead proud of Helen. As this is the Strong Manchester Women podcast. I want to know from Helen if she could see herself doing what she does anywhere else.
Helen Brown: 26:53 No, no, no. I love Manchester. I’m from Cambridge, you can probably tell. Lived in London a long time and I love it up north. It’s got a totally different feel Manchester itself has got another totally different feel. There’s a real feeling of that sort of togetherness and, and the way we’ve, we’ve been helped Manchester Council have really helped us. And Edward Holt Trust also really help us. So yeah, I like Manchester.
Vic T – Host: 27:20 Yes, Helen. And finally I want to find out from Helen how you can support the fantastic work that they’re doing at On the Out.
Speaker 4: 27:30
Well there’s the obvious Just Giving page though our website, we’re very small and relatively unfunded and we don’t have any funding to help the lads for welfare things. And as I said that first night out makes such a difference. We know that we can get a BnB in Manchester for one night for around 25 pounds and that’s 25 quid to totally change potentially someone’s life. Other than that, we just need all the support we can go and we’re very unpopular cause. Loads of ex prisoners that some people feel will never change, so the only thing that I’d say is try and look beyond that label, look at what people have been through and look at how their circumstances have almost like written a path for them in some cases and how hard it is for people to break away from that when all they feel is rejection and loss and trauma, with community being key to people moving away from that. I suppose what I’d say the biggest help is just welcoming people back is probably the wrong term, but accepting them back and trying to move beyond that past for people and trying to see them in a new light, where they’re part of the community.
Vic T – Host: 28:46 Thank you Helen.
Helen Brown: 28:46 Thank you. Thank you very much.
Vic T – Host: 28:58
This podcast is inspired by the annual Strong Manchester women campaign. The campaign celebrates the achievements and impact of a bunch of incredible women doing brilliant things. The women profiled in this series were selected for the 2019 campaign. To find out more about all of the women featured in this podcast and the campaign, go to Pankhursttrust.org. To find out more about On the Out and how you can get involved with their work, visit their website On The Out.org. We’d also love to hear what you think about stories that we’ve shared with you. Who are your strong Manchester Women? Anything connect with us on Twitter using the Hashtag Strong MCR Women. A big thanks to Manchester City Council and the Pankhurst Trust for supporting this podcast and of course a massive thank you to Helen. The Strong Manchester Women podcast is a MIC media production and is presented, produced and edited by me, Vic Elizabeth Turnbull For more information, visit MIC media.co.uk. The podcast has been made possible through the Centenary Cities Legacy fund.
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