Stuff we can learn from non-profits

Here is the summary of an interview with Luc Deneffe, director of De Wissel, a remarkable institution for crisis support and societal reintegration of adolescents. Why would we as organizational change practitioners be interested in what a non-profit does for adolescents? Quite a bit as you will discover from this transcript.

I met Luc on a sunny day in Leuven. He is a calm and composed person, possessing a disarming smile. But even in his calm Buddha-like attitude he has trouble to bring structure into the story he is about to share.

“There are simply too much wonderful stories, people and situations I want to share”, he says. “So I will just pour them out them as they come.”

And so we talk, unstructured and free, jumping from one topic to another and from one insight to another. After an intense two-hour conversation we discover that we covered way more ground than we would have with a structured interview. I just love it.

What you will read below is a reduced version attempting to bring structure to the ground we covered.

Acknowledging what is there

A deep rooted conviction at de Wissel is that one needs to work with the surrounding family of the adolescents instead of keeping them at a distance. The participation of all people who belong to the daily context of the person is necessary in order for the care to sustain.

“Else, you run the risk of isolating the person, make them evolve and grow in a certain direction. But all the people that make up the social context of that person did not evolve or grow along, thus making it very difficult to adapt to the ‘new’ individual once they return.”

Instead de Wissel focuses on reinforcing the positive forces that reside in the context of the adolescents. They are putting the work of solutions-focused therapy at work. This is a technique that focusses on the reinforcement of bright spots; i.e.: looking at what works – however small – and seeing how they can make that grow.

One thing we should keep in mind is how radical this approach is compared to the normal way of thinking about adolescents in ‘special youth care‘. The logical approach is to isolate adolescents from their environment in order to protect them. Next, the logical approach tells us to look at the past of the person and to put him or her into a category. From then on we will look at them and treat them according to that label. The treatment plan, the expectations, whatever they say or do will be approached through that lens. That’s your starting point in the logical world … your disorder or your disability.

And it makes perfect sense, because the judge and the system wants crisis centres to be the rescuer. It’s a rescue intervention to protect a victim.

“Yet, at the same time it is ‘in-sane’ to treat these young people as if they ARE their disability. It is tempting and as social workers we were brought up that way; to diagnose and then to treat.”

Coming to grips with resistance

At de Wissel they do frequent feedback sessions and focus groups with companions of the adolescents – be it parents, grandparents, acquaintances. On one of those sessions Luc Deneffe was sparked by something a mother said.

“The day they took my daughter away is the day that I gave up. If all those specialized people were going to protect her from us, well let’s see what they’ll do.”

We never think about the consequences of an intervention in terms of the damage done to the existing social fabric of the so-called ‘victim’. We only tend to think in terms of protection we provide. In reality there is a lot of bonding we are brutally cutting.

“The next thing you know is that these girls are resistant beyond all measures. Finally, seized by despair, you start to ask yourself: why are they still quarreling and fighting when all we do is surround them with literally EVERYTHING that is needed to start a positive development.”

Deneffe continues:

“But the story of that mother made me realize something else. First of all, that these mothers fight, try and care for their daughters – even though by our standards the girl really WAS in danger. We need to keep that in mind when we evaluate the behavior of the girl: even though she has everything she needs, being happy would be disloyal towards her mother! Being happy in the setting we provide would be equal to cutting her mother out of the equation. There is no way we can expect this girl to cheat on one of the only people who still cared for her. All of a sudden her resistance made sense.”

This was a major breakthrough in the way they started to think about an intervention, about importance of solution-based therapy, and ultimately about the importance of including the complete social fabric of their passengers into the essence of their work.

Wow – there is a lesson in there for us as well. Think about this. Read that interview quote a second time. The insight about cheating and losing face is fundamental for us to understand resistance!


Passengers, not patients

In the second part of this interview we focused on the activities and principles of one particular house of De Wissel, called Rizsas. In this particular place they walk the extra mile when it comes to letting go of traditional thinking about specialized youth care.

“We have no idea of what is supposed to be changed about our adolescents. There is no plan. We allow these people to be respected as they are and for who they are.”

At Riszas they adopt a radical approach to value what is there. It consists of not looking at the adolescent’s past or even the detail of their record. What matters is the freedom to experience the here and now without expectations. This focus on the here and now is rooted in a deeper belief that change can only take place if it comes from within.

“So the only thing we can do is to create situations to make that possible. It is out of that setting of non-expectations that the adolescents will automatically get in touch with themselves. After a week or so boredom sets in and they will discover a need from within to get into motion. Remember, these people have been misfits all their lives and society has basically given up on them. Their sputtering inner engines of self-worth and motivation have come to a halt.”

Also, the so-called intake interview is not really an interview; it is a conversation that is aimed at creating psychological safety.  The moment of intake should be like a moment of coming home. The focus is 200% on being in the here and now instead of trying to fit into the expectations of who you are supposed to be. In practice this comes down to taking their time in being together and building a relationship.

It also requires the social worker to be vulnerable and at times to share some of that vulnerability. Sometimes other adolescents – who are already in the centre – participate to the intake meeting. In fact, their participation my be crucial in creating psychological safety.

“Always keep in mind that we are working with the most precious of precious things on earth: someone else’s children. Our commitment is to always remind ourselves that we need to guide them as if they were our own children. Just like the bricklayer who expects his associates to lay every single brick as though it were for their own house; to the same extent we aspire to be committed to guiding our passengers.”

This is why they talk about passengers and not patients. This is a fundamental difference with other institutions who focus on crisis care for young people. A ‘patient’ is a victim and propels us into the rescuer position; it breeds dependency. A passenger on the other hand is an equal with whom we travel along for a certain part of our / their journey. We can learn as much from them as they can learn from us.

Roles as gateways to ownership

This passenger-philosophy is also visible in their daily operations. Rizsas works with the assumption that its organization needs to be constructed every day anew. The social fabric that determines the interaction and the dynamics for the rest of the day is discussed each morning. That is the moment when the group gathers in the so-called ‘day-council’ and when the roles of the day are handed out.

Over the past 4 years they have distilled a catalogue of roles that need an owner in order for the centre to do its work. Whoever is present that day participates to that meeting: not only the staff and the passengers, but also occasional visitors or students.

“This interplay of roles allows us to interact in a different context than the patient-helper context, which is perceived as threatening in most cases.”

Roles and the activities are the vehicle to bring structure to their community. They make belonging and being together safe – something that has essentially been missing in the lives of the adolescents who arrive at Rizsas.

Anyone can pick up any role and often times an adolescent picks up the role of president for the day. And they do just fine. In a previous post I zoomed in on that example to contemplate over the value we attach to leadership in our traditional organizations.

Helpers need to focus on themselves

How you show up as a helper is important. The work at Rizsas does not consist of deploying an method or a therapy. Rather, it is about participation, living and working together in order to bring structure to the community.

“So the adolescents do NOT take centre stage. The work at hand does. The assignments we need to accomplish are the vehicle though which we create meaning.”

In a sense healing is not seen as a process of getting from A to B, but rather getting into relationship with who you are. And helpers can only kindle the inner motivation of the adolescents if they themselves are in connection with their passion.

What does that tell us about ourselves as practitioners? How about focusing on ourselves? It makes me realize the following:

  • What we enable is a direct result of how we show up.
  • And how we show up is a direct result of what we are passionate about.

I hope that reading through this interview has sparked some ‘aha’ moments for you as well. You’re welcome to share them in the comments.