Whitney Iles, Project 507

My constructive perception towards ‘Violence’ came to an interesting slant as I tried to dwell into a concept like ‘Prison Psychiatry’. In the words of renowned Harvard psychiatrist and violence expert James Gilligan whose career spans across 25 years of hard work in the American prison system to describe the motivation and causes behind violent behavior – The main social, economic and political causes of violence are those that divide the population into the superior and the inferior, the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor. The more highly unequal a society is, the higher its rate of violence. After reading quite a handful of articles by James, I realized our take on violence is quite rudimentary and not in depth as it should be. Any kind of violence firstly unwinds a certain kind of attitude of an individual towards himself and that leads to projection of a certain kind of emotion – it can be guilt, rejection, dismissal, anguish or even trauma. A lot of times, triggered violence is really an outcome of years of subjected violence.

To understand the concept of Violence, the rationally behind more holistically and the role of a practitioner in the serious youth violence sector, I spoke to Whitney Iles. Whitney is the CEO of Project 507 Ltd., a social enterprise that was established to change systemic conditions that generate violence by developing innovative solutions to create positive peace. She has over 15 years’ experience as a frontline practitioner in the serious youth violence sector and works from a trauma-informed perspective. She is also a senior associate member of the Association for Psychodynamic Practice and Counselling in Organizational Settings and a British Psychoanalytical Counsel Trainee. Whitney Iles is our Girl to Watch.

Whitney IslesViolence can happen in three ways, as we see it – Direct Violence i.e. person on person, Cultural Violence and Systemic Violence.  These violent acts come from a very unhealthy thinking patterns. What’s really important is to understand how we can promote healthy thinking that can counteract violence. And, healthy thinking to me is very different from positive thinking, it is about feeling more authentic about oneself at that moment.”

— Whitney Iles

Manvi: Tell us about your journey to Project 507…

Whitney: In 2010, I was given a contract that I had not really planned for. I had gone for a meeting that was about something completely different and landed up with a contract to run four gang intervention programmes across a two-year period within particular areas of London. Coincidently, around that time, my mom and a very dear friend of mine were diagnosed with Cancer on the same day. So, I was just unable to focus on work the way I had prepared to. It was my team that took care of it but, it did not typically go well because to get the young people we contractually needed to work with, together in the same place was impossible. Then, the people we were working with suggested to run these interventions in a Young Offenders Institute. At 24, I ended up in the middle of a YOI. having to learn very quickly how it all worked and how to run these interventions within the prison environment. It seemed to go well because after running two of the four interventions, we got called back by the contractor with a proposition to re-negotiate and I walked out of the meeting with a contract to run 22 intervention programmes over the same kind of 2-year period. At that time, I realized the need to start a business. So, I started this organization which was not initially named as Project 507 (we switched to this name later due to legal reasons). We, in a way started backwards, we already had the money, we already had the objectives well laid out, but we were a reactionary organization working in a constant state of crisis. This is what we refer to as ambulance at the bottom of the cliff working. In 2015, I was introduced to strategic consultant and peace builder, Cecilia Milesi. She sat down with the Board of Directors and pulled apart our thinking to support us to really understand our vision, and what we wanted to achieve with the organization. We expanded our vision to include proactive, solution focused thinking to understand and deal with the systemic or cultural issues that create violence. What we wanted was to understand the rationally behind violence and work on that.

So, you must be working with diversely affected backgrounds…

Well, essentially yes. We do the work on the ground with young people under 30 that are affected by violence. We look at cultural violence and systemic violence. As well as facilitating the direct work, we also go into prisons and look what inside a prison could be generating violence and work with that prison to support violence reduction strategies. Then, we also do a lot of work with Government around Policies, what needs to be changed and why. The mission of the organization is to change systems that generate violence.

The name Project 507 is thought-provoking; how did you choose this name?

That is a secret! (laughs!!)

You are also a senior member of the Association for Psychodynamic Practice and Counselling in Organizational Settings, tell us more about your role?

It’s not necessary a role, a lot of the work that I do can be seen as therapeutic. So, to practice I have to be regulated. It’s like same as being a doctor, you have to be a part of an association and even when you are training you have to be regulated. So, under normal circumstances, I would have a clinical supervisor that I could refer to in terms of work (depending upon the intensity of the work I do). Association for Psychodynamic Practice and Counselling in Organizational Settings is just a body that I am involved with that monitor the quality standard of the work that I do.

What kind of issues do you face with people with violent background? Do they open up to you easily?

We tend to work with young people who are more on the extreme end of the spectrum, so they already are in prison for violence and have acted out violently in prison system as well. Lot of times, they are waiting for someone they can trust or speak to. These are children, young people, adults who have been waiting to open to someone about what they have experience, to not be judged or punished but to be seen and understood. Sometimes we have conversations about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for example if they have witnessed something traumatic, they might incur flashbacks, nightmares, they just want someone to tell them that what they are going through is normal. There have been so many moments when we explain trauma, for example, and how certain behaviors are completely normal considering past experiences, and you physically see a weight lift of someone’s shoulders. A lot of times, we are dealing with young people who have seen someone getting killed, their friends or brothers, been stabbed or shot at themselves or experienced domestic violence in the home, these are not easy experiences. I think, on humanitarian grounds, we need to do a lot more around domestic abuse/violence because the ripple effect it can have is huge. A lot of times, I feel that these young men or women behave in the way they do because they never really had anyone to speak to, the violence is another way to communicate, it’s almost like a cry for help in some cases. Traditionally, the counsellors do not represent these young people and their backgrounds, or the resource to get traumatized young people into therapy is just not there. I think we need a lot more diversity in and access to mental health support. These people are not hard to reach but, they are just waiting for the right person. The moment you get them the right person, they are beginning to open up and start the healing process…

Whitney, where do you derive your strength from? You talk to so many people with violent backgrounds, don’t their stories haunt you?

It’s true that when you talk to people who have been hurt and people who hurt, you open yourself up to receive some of that pain. The empathy and compassion is what makes our work authentic but it also leaves us as workers extremely vulnerable. We’ve had to do a lot of work around boundaries most of us at Project 507 go home to the same or similar communities to those that we work with, we have all had our own experiences of violence to deal with and understand that life is constantly happening around us. We all have experienced the blurred lines between our personal and professional lives, but we don’t hide from them, we use these moments of unease to fuel growth. This is why I’ve taken a step back from the frontline work, in order to support practitioners with navigating through the blurred bits. I’ve experience burn out and compassion fatigue first hand, I recently ended up with post-traumatic stress due to a non-work-related incident so am focused on mental well-being and self-care more than ever. This work is hard, the things we see, and experience is tough, the emotions we hold onto for others and the emotional responses within us can be overwhelming. Everything can get very intense when working in crisis, which is why we are changing our culture and the way we work to be more thought through and proactive. We think about all the details and remain as raw and authentic as possible.

To know more about Whitney Iles, watch her TedX Talks:

Written by Manvi Pant

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