Posts Tagged Nigel Richardson

The Beauty Of Helping People Feel They’ve Been Heard

Published by — Part 3 of 5 on Leeds’ efforts to become a Child-Friendly City (Part 1, Part 2)

In 2005, when Nigel Richardson became their Director of Children’s Services, the city of Hull was sometimes called “the Detroit of England.”  Hull sits on the big gash of a river, the Humbert, that cuts towards the country’s mid-section.  For centuries shipping and fishing thrived.  So historically Hull was more tied to the Netherlands, by boat, than to England’s north-south axis, where early railroads passed it by.  The shipping industry’s collapse left Hull with Detroit-like social problems — high poverty, teen pregnancy, drugs, school-drop-outs and the like.

In 2010 I went to a conference in Hull, fascinated by their incredible come-back story.  Yes, it’s seedy in ways, but it has lovely European architectural bones that will clean up nicely as it continues its climb out of dysfunction.  Detroit it is not.

But in 2005, when Richardson came along, the social statistics were dire.  His come-back strategy was to get out to make friends and partnerships among agencies that touch children — police, schools, housing, non-profits.  He explained, “We knew we should be thinking collectively, as a team.  And the question was, what’s it like to grow up in a city like Hull, and how could we make it better?  Children’s Services had already done some really good work using Family Group Conferencing and youth diversion.  But how do you move from being reactive to proactive?  We had a framework.  We had priorities, action steps.  We had all that you’re supposed to have, but we lacked the glue.”

Restorative practices become the social glue.

Restorative practices are a set of simple interpersonal skills and rules that help people hear what each other is saying and maximize the chances of people feeling heard — a sensation in sadly short supply these days.  I think of these practices as sandbox skills: taking turns, speaking from the heart, listening carefully, using “I” statements as opposed to accusatory “you” statements.  (Many versions of these skills are out on the internet; here’s one.)  Hull’s efforts became cumulatively powerful as more and more people used the practices — from agency administrators to front-line workers, from police to social services to schools to families.

Best to illustrate with a Hull story.  Jenny had been the wife and mom of a reasonably healthy family, but over the last 7 years had become a psychological mess.  Messed-up moms are not good for their kids, as you know, but no one’s efforts seemed to help.  She came to the attention of the Hull community police, trained in restorative practices by then, when she threatened to kill herself.

Apparently, 7 years earlier, Jenny’s husband and a neighbor friend got into such a bad fight, the neighbor was arrested.  In the heat of the moment, he’d threatened to kill her.  She’d been terrified ever since, declining mentally and increasingly becoming a worry to her family.  The cop talked her into participating in a restorative conference.  It was also his job to get Jenny’s husband and the neighbors to participate.  In the conference, the neighbor said that the “threat” was an angry throw-away line to which he’d never given another thought.  He was mortified by what had happened to Jenny, but really, it was a misunderstanding.  Jenny heard his sincerity.  The couples mended fences; the women became friends again.  When Jenny ran into that same cop months later, she gratefully reported that the conference had given her back her life.  Imagine the effect on the rest of her family.

Restoratively-trained public officials help families sort things out.

As he developed new partnerships, Richardson got wind of schools also experimenting with restorative practices.

Estelle McDonald, newly-hired head of Collingwood Primary School, was desperate to calm the chaos at her miserable school.  Not thinking anything would come of it, she sent off a plea for help to the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) which she’d found online.  She returned from lunch to messages that “a mad American” Ted Wachtel, founder of IIRP, would love to talk about spreading the restorative gospel overseas.  Mercifully, IIRP had the capacity to help train Hull’s leaders, who could then train trainers in their respective agencies.

Ultimately Hull officials trained thousands of child-serving “professionals.”  Charmingly, that included parents, grandparents, anyone who dealt with children.

Richardson’s growing group of leaders asked:  “What if the behaviors of the adults changed so the children all encountered restorative behaviors?  What if the ideas of restoration, working with the families, hearing their stories and wishes, wrapped themselves around the lives of the children?  What if restorative practices connected all of us across the city?”

With people talking, brainstorming, learning to resolve conflict productively, Hull came to life again.  The simple-sounding skills, shared by janitor, mom and City Counselor, were changing Hull’s culture.  Families became more functional.  School attendance improved.  Juvenile offenders often made reparations side-by-side with those whom they’d harmed, and in some cases, with the police who’d caught them.

For once Hull commanded positive attention by becoming the first Restorative City in the world, with social-service statistics that were stunningly improved.  The 2010 conference teemed with British police, residential heads, social-service officials and others coming to learn the magic that redeemed once-downtrodden Hull.

But that was also the year Richardson took the same job in Leeds.  Hull is Leeds’ back-story.  The twain shall meet next week.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Healthy Families Spawn Healthy Economic Conditions

Published by — Part 1 of 5 on the efforts of Leeds, UK to become a Child-Friendly City.

If a municipality or state got really serious about investing in the health and welfare of their kids, wouldn’t the economy also get healthier?

I don’t mean political blah-blahing about “the children are our future.”  I’ll scream the next time I hear that.  I mean brutal honesty about how government undermines the health of families.  Healthy extended families wrap themselves around kids and old people and manage their own affairs well.  Governments support them with good schools, parks, safe neighborhoods and so on.  And when family life does spiral into chaos, responsive government services are right at hand, but working as if to put themselves out of business, with a keen focus on getting the family to sustainable independence.  Such government support would not involve enabling, shaming or blame, nor would it become an adult jobs program.

Then, since healthy families raise fewer traumatized, chaotic or anti-social kids, the demand for social services would drop.  School attendance would rise.  The emerging workforce of young people would improve.  The economic benefits seem obvious.

But no American city I know has ever gone down a child-centered road with honest whole-heartedness, even though emerging research argues that efforts to become a “creative” city would be better deployed towards becoming a “procreative” city.

But this is precisely what the City of Leeds, England is doing right now.  They’re becoming a “Child-friendly City,” a movement which is big internationally, but little known here in America.  They are doing it as an economic-development strategy.  People after my own heart.

Like so many gritty old industrial cities, Leeds has to reinvent itself to be viable in the modern economy.  It’s the third largest city in England, but has little to recommend it.  The online travel guides steer you away from Leeds to nearby York.  It has the usual assorted urban problems of poverty, challenged schools, teen pregnancy and the like.  And in 2009, their Children’s Services (like our child-protective services) failed to meet standards according to the British Inspectorate system.  This black eye prodded the City Council to go long, get brave, take a road less traveled.

In 2010, they hired Nigel Richardson, who was instrumental in Hull’s becoming the first Restorative City in the world — another story I will pursue soon.  But for now know that one of the strategies he brought with him from Hull was to assemble all the city’s child-serving agencies to get them to work together.  The head offices of social services and education are now across the hall from one another.  It’s cheaper and more effective when agencies leverage each other’s efforts instead of working in the usual public-service silos, which are often little fiefdoms.  Wrestling hidebound agency cultures, from police to schools, into adopting one child-serving mission can produce impressive outcomes relatively quickly.  Already the number of kids in Leeds’ foster care — “looked-after children” — has dropped by 200, from 1,480 in 2012 to 1,288 now.

Richardson says this about revitalizing Leed’s economy:  “Disproportionately investing in children and young people as part of a clear economic regeneration tactic is the right thing to do for children, of course.  But it’s the right thing to do at this moment to invest in the future of Leeds and its future leaders, and movers and shakers who can have a massive say in the long-term sustainability” of the city.

“Disproportionately” investing in kids is a bold strategy in these days of international economic contraction.  In America and the UK, resources for social and public services are being cut, often radically.  The Great Recession continues to play havoc on tax receipts at the same time as driving up the need for social services.  Leaders work to spread the pain of the cutting to appear fair in doing so.

But rather than hunker down and hope that times get better, Leeds’ investment strategy is working toward an actual long-range solution that does not depend on the luck of random factors like the nation’s economy.  Just as maintaining roads and buildings protect investments in civic infrastructure, so Leeds’ support of healthy families will enhance the social infrastructure.  The City Council has developed a set of metrics by which the public and communities can hold them accountable — like improved school attendance and reduced numbers of young people out of employment, education or training.

Similarly, right out where everyone can see them, the Council’s Child-friendly action plan states:  “We will know that Leeds is a child-friendly city when:

*  people choose Leeds as the city where they want their children to grow up, live and work.

*  children and young people choose Leeds as the city where they want to grow up and make their future; and

*  people that want to work with children and young people choose Leeds as the city for them.

I’m already attracted to a place that has such goals.  More importantly, I’m attracted to politicians and bureaucrats who consider kids a winning strategy and are willing to do whatever’s necessary to get it right.  More on this great story next week.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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