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Building bridges is easier than you think, but we can’t do it in the dark...

19th August 2020

Way back in 2005, when I was CEO of a charity with the aim of making the world of work accessible and relevant to young people in education, I was lucky enough to receive funding for a Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths (STEM) project. 

Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths were subjects that young women didn’t always feel were accessible to them so, working with some amazing teachers, we devised a ‘bridge’ project. The fact that we visited Venice to work with the local authority there to develop a tour around the city’s bridges, learning about their construction, history, symbolism and significance was an added bonus! The main part of this work that I will always remember was the look on the faces of girls aged 14 and 15 when they realised they could build bridges. That engineering was a viable option for them and it didn’t involve overalls and dirty hands. The lightbulb moment. 

There have been a few other times in my career when I’ve seen that lightbulb; when I spoke with a rough sleeper who had been on the streets for 15 years for instance. He had just spent a week living and working alongside people who had moved away from street homelessness and changed their lives. Listening to their stories switched on his lightbulb and he became part of the social enterprise I managed, with the aim of providing purpose and security to very vulnerable people.

More recently, as CEO of Citizens Advice (CA) in Blackpool and Chair of the Voluntary, Community, Faith and Social Enterprise (VCFSE) Leadership Group for the Fylde Coast, I have had my own lightbulb moments. CA Blackpool has had a connection with GP surgeries for over 20 years, and working together has meant patients can get help with their debt, benefits, housing and employment issues alongside their medical needs; we all know how these wider determinants of health are vital to the long term health and wellbeing of our communities. My lightbulb moment came whilst talking to an A & E consultant who explained his frustration with treating a child for chronic asthma only to send them back to a damp house, knowing that child's health will continue to suffer. What if that family got support from Citizens Advice as their child is discharged? This is where the VCFSE and the NHS need to be; integrated, seamless, co-producing pathways and playing to each other’s strengths. 

Enough about lightbulbs, let’s go back to bridges. I’m not talking about the physical structures like the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, as beautiful and mesmerising as it is; I mean the bridges we build with each other. The girls in the STEM project met female engineers, listened and learnt about a world they’d had no exposure to previously; the guy who was homeless met people who’d been there too, and he saw a route out of his situation that he’d not seen before. Relationships build bridges. People coming together changes everyone's outlook. Seeing things through someone else’s eyes is possibly the best way to bring about any positive change.  

The VCFSE Alliance brings together infrastructure organisations, leaders, sector experts and champions. We’re all ready to build bridges at every level of the system; from our Independent Chair on the Integrated Care System (ICS), to a rep on each Integrated Care Provider (ICP), to those relationships with Primary Care Networks (PCN) and the clinicians working in our communities. The only way we will do this is by coming together, understanding each other’s challenges, having honest conversations and by having a willingness to change.  

The VCFSE is striving to be viewed as an equal partner, to be considered when commissioning decision are made, to be around the table to influence from the very start of the conversation. There are opportunities to build these bridges. So, if your lightbulb is on, you’ll be able to see the difference we can make together. I look forward to walking across the bridges we build, as I know on the other side there are healthy, active, purposeful, happy people and communities. At the moment our bridges are not well constructed- the STEM girls could teach us a thing or two about engineering robust bridges, having the right materials and knowing how many people it’ll take - but we’re moving in the right direction.

 

Tracy Hopkins 

CEO, Citizens Advice Blackpool

Chair, VCFSE Leadership Group Blackpool, Wyre & Fylde