Today’s post is a reflection piece by Elizabeth Carlson, a PhD student from the University of Alberta. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org to continue the conversation about housing initiatives for individuals with FASD.
As a student member of the Alberta Clinical and Community-Based Evaluation Research Team (ACCERT), at the University of Alberta I have the privilege of being a part of the Housing Initiatives team. As many of you may know, or have heard through the grapevine, we were able to bring together a group of experts for two days of impactful discussion about housing individuals with FASD. Following the meetings, I was asked by CanFASD if I could write a blog about why I thought the housing meetings had been such a success. In my reflection, I’ve chosen to focus on the collaborative nature of the meetings, and my belief that we can change the way we do things by pooling our knowledge and having these tough conversations. I think the benefits of working this way are many, and I wanted to share my experience, and the appreciation I felt after being part of that meeting with the wider community.
Over the holidays, I’ve had some time to reflect on my experiences of the last year. On November 20th and 21st, 2017, I was privileged to be involved in the CanFASD Housing Initiatives meetings. These meetings brought together people with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), parents of children with FASD, academic researchers, and housing and FASD experts to discuss current understandings of housing for individuals with FASD. The end goal of the CanFASD funded Housing Initiatives project is for the researchers to present a framework and evaluation plan for housing individuals with FASD that can be piloted in the community. Rather than solely consulting the academic literature to create this framework, we wanted the voices of all those involved and impacted by housing decisions to have the opportunity to share their knowledge and expertise. This was my first meeting of this kind, and I was nervous about how it was all going to go as we brought these diverse groups together to discuss a very important and hot topic.
As a doctoral student in School and Clinical Child Psychology, most of my meetings are at conferences where I’m surrounded by fellow academics. Throughout my schooling I’ve heard of the divide between researchers and frontline workers, between disciplines (e.g., psychology and medicine), and between researchers and the general public. At the heart of the divide is a lack of communication – people, often unintentionally, become stuck in their bubbles. Time constraints may prevent researchers from reading much outside their discipline, traditional venues for the dissemination of information are often geared toward academics in one topic and/or discipline, and, although improvements are being made, academic research isn’t always widely disseminated in accessible language for the general public to access. What happens then, is that people become niche experts. For instance, people may become experts in the lived experience of parenting children with FASD, some may know all the latest research on the most successful housing models for people with mental illness and substance abuse, and some may be policy experts that have a more firm grasp on the political side of social programming. It is wonderful that we have experts in all sorts of areas, but when we fail to consult outside of our bubbles, we end up with knowledge gaps. When experts in one domain begin to plan or make changes without consulting one another things may not end up as planned. That is not to say that getting a diverse group of experts to talk about a hot topic is easy!
We first came together as a group on the 20th. That day, approximately 40 experts from the housing and FASD realms were presented an overview of the current scientific support for housing considerations, and models for individuals with mental illness and substance abuse problems. One such model is called Housing First, and speaks to the need for housing individuals first before attending to any of their other needs. This model is based on the view that having a home is a basic human right that everyone should have regardless of their financial, health, or psychological status. We discussed what parts of the Housing First model work well for individuals with FASD, and what the experts saw as problems with the model. This part gave an introduction to the housing world for those who were primarily experts in FASD. An overview of FASD was then given as a refresher and introduction for those who were not as familiar with the disorder. Finally, we had a parent of a child with FASD discuss his experiences as a father, and the considerations he had to make when thinking about his daughter’s housing needs. A lot of information was given on this first day as people discussed pressing issues in groups and began to feel comfortable interacting with one another. By the end of the day, the glimmers of the hard discussions to come were starting to show.
As I drove home that night, my researcher brain was firing and I was unsure if we were going to get the information we were looking for out of this meeting. Typical social conventions of niceties had seemed to reign supreme. I didn’t know if people were going to challenge each other and get down to the nitty gritty, so to speak. Well, I needn’t have worried! We came in on the 21st with a reminder of why we were all there, and a verbal acknowledgement that we were about to have some tough conversations. This acknowledgement, and a message of appreciation for all those who were about to engage in these dialogues set the tone for the day. Tensions visibly subsided, and people were ready to get down to business. Attendees identified many considerations that weren’t evident in the academic literature, but were, nonetheless, just as important. Without an innovative collaborative meeting such as this, the information we collected through the lively discussions would have remained siloed in experts’ bubbles. Instead, we now had invaluable and expansive data for our framework creation process.
At the end of the second day, I was elated about the outcome. The attendees had been passionately engaged, many had shared their contact information and had expressed an interest in remaining an active part of the housing for individuals with FASD framework creation process, and all had graciously left us with tokens of their passion and expertise. I chose to write this post about the process rather than the information collected, as the latter is yet to come and the former was what impacted me the most. Post-meetings, I felt invigorated as a researcher and part of the professional community. I learned that bringing together great minds from different areas is possible and can lead to the production of some wonderful results. I saw firsthand that my knowledge as a researcher was limited, and I experienced growth by challenging myself to step outside of the box and invite others in to expand my horizons. After all was said and done, I knew that this type of collaboration was something I want to continue as much as possible in my professional career. I cannot thank all those who attended these important meetings enough for sharing your time and knowledge with us, and for leaving me with such a lasting impression. Finally, much appreciation is given to CanFASD for promoting and funding such an innovative professional and research experience. It makes me hopeful for the future, that we are moving toward more collaborative research, practice, and policy planning where we keep the best interests of those in need front and centre. I believe that pooling all of our knowledge and power is the best way to do so.