A new profession is emerging

A new profession is emerging
David Donnison

Officials in the services funding this work are sometimes uneasy about the numbers of volunteers involved and press the agencies on their payroll to become "more professional". We have to tell them that a new profession is emerging whose skills include a capacity to work with local communities and their volunteers, which means listening and responding to them as well as offering leadership and training. Some people, feeling this argument is getting a bit out of hand, will remind me that I would not want my cancer treated by briefly trained, unpaid, parttimers. This is, of course, true. But I would hope to find doctors who listen, who respond to my circumstances, needs and wishes, who help me decide on treatment rather than just prescribing for me, and who put me in touch with other patients who can support and advise me.
Fourth, every public service is learning – some faster than others – that it needs the help of its local communities to achieve its objectives. The police were among the first in this field. There are fire services that spend more on teaching people how to prevent fires than on putting them out. (The fact that arson in schools has in many places increased suggests, not that this is a mistaken strategy, but that they may be talking to the wrong members of the community.
It also poses challenging questions about the reluctance of many schools to engage with the communities in which they stand.) Environmental cleansing services might do better to spend more on persuading people not to drop litter than they spend on picking it up. It is the services that are, in the old-fashioned sense, most "professional" which have often been slowest to learn these lessons.
Fifth, when vulnerable people seek improvements in services to meet their own needs they are not just acting as selfish pressure groups. They bring insights to the table which ultimately help all of us. A group of people in Dumbarton who have learning difficulties were recently invited to help in training bus crews. They said: "remember that some of your passengers cannot run along the street to catch the bus; some may have difficulty mounting the step to board your bus; some will have difficulty handling money; some need time to sit down before you let in the clutch; and some may not know where to get off unless you shout the names of your stops". Which of us will not be grateful for bus crews trained in this way?
Sixth, I believe that it is very important to keep community-based initiatives flexible, innovative, experimental, and open to new ideas and new people. It is their sense that they are given considerable responsibility to work with colleagues, paid and unpaid, on the frontiers of practice in their field that attracts and retains such good people.
Seventh, the "academy", meaning research and higher education in general, has so far made little contribution to these developments. (None at all to advocacy for people with mental disorders.) In time, the universities must help, if only because exposure to such ideas will help them. They are a striking example of a service committed to expansion targets which cannot possibly be met by simply multiplying present teaching and staffing arrangements many times over. Moreover, no one can properly teach political science, medicine, law, social work and other subjects which deal with an evolving society unless they are aware of the developments discussed in this pamphlet.
But the universities’ involvement must be cautious, modest and shrewd. If we end up with a new profession of highly-trained, communitybased, public service workers that can only be entered by people who belong to the right professional institute and have the right letters after their names – we shall have failed! And if students graduating from medical schools, law  schools, planning schools and other parts of the university go forth to practice their professions without a thought for the communities in which they work, we shall have failed twice over!
Daniel Barenboim, speaking of music in this year’s Reith lectures, offered us a philosophy that every profession should learn from. "Music", he said (I noted it, but do not have short-hand), "is something we try to do professionally. But it’s not a profession. It’s a way of life. There is no special niche, excluding all others, for what we do. It encompasses musical traditions of every kind, and welcomes everyone to share in it". Much the same could be said about healing, teaching, social work, law and other "ways of life".
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