D E B B I E     W A T S O N

My background is as a school teacher and a sociologist. However, as a childhood academic in a department of social work and social policy, my work has increasingly focused on identity and wellbeing for children in care and adopted children. I passionately believe that academic understandings of narrative, identity and the role of tangible objects in memory work can be used to improve the outcomes for children and enable them to have a better sense of their story and their reasons for being in the care system, and that this has potential for lifelong positive mental health. Embedding objects within life story work offers massive potential and agency for children.

I chose trove because …

It is itself an object that enables children to cherish their objects and to build understandings of their care journey through these loved items.

Social workers focus on constructing a coherent narrative for children in the care system and this often takes the form of a life storybook (particularly for permanently placed children). But, through my research with adopted children and those in care, adopters, foster carers and social workers, I have been struck by how important tangible objects also are in enabling children to fill gaps in biographical memory and retain connections with past carers and family members.

This feels like a resource that we should be utilising and, importantly, places the child in the centre of the story making about their own life. But all too often children’s belongings become lost, displaced, damaged and without reminders from carers, their stories and connections to the child’s biography become lost. I have also been struck by the many accounts I have heard of children arriving in new placements with bin bags and scruffy cardboard boxes of ‘stuff’ and carers having to make sense of precious items. Things are important for all humans and connect us to relationships and events in our past. Surely this is crucial to preserve for the most vulnerable children in society?

trove has been co-designed and tested with many children and young people. It is a combination of a beautifully designed comforting storage bag, which is soft and enables things to be stored safely, and a bespoke multi-media storying app that is used on a mobile phone integrated within the fabric of the bag. Children can attach lots of different stories to loved objects using Near-Field communication technologies available on the phone. Working with creative designer Chloe Meineck, colleagues in computing science at Bristol University and three social work partners, we have now developed a prototype that we hope we can get into manufacture so that children who most need this tool are able to engage with.

trove represents this journey for me and I feel very privileged to have worked alongside amazing children and young people who have helped to design it.

Luxury Objects

D U D U Z I L E   S O K H E L A

I’m a social worker and served my people working in different non-profit organizations in South Africa. I’ve been inspired by my deceased sister and my living mother’s altruistic causes in the community I grew up in. Throughout my career in social work serving humanity, I have witnessed and worked with people living in abject poverty, need, want and social exclusion. I’m author ofa book entitled “Why Urban Rural Under-developed Communities Will Never Develop in South Africa. Mooiplaas Informal Settlement: A Relevant Case Study In the Front Lines.” 

I chose Luxury Objects because …

… For me they represent corruption and it is corruption that, above all, social workers need to fight in my country, South Africa. It costs the South African gross domestic product (GDP) at least R27 billion ($2bn) annually as well as the loss of 76,000 jobs that would otherwise have been created, according to the Ebrahim Patel, the Minister of Economic Development. Corruption is the weapon of mass destruction in my country: and the effects are felt worst by the poorest. One billion rands have been lost in what is called ‘state capture’, but corruption cannot really be quantified, it cannot be touched, and thus invisible, it is particularly insidious.

As an example of corruption, an investigation into VBS Mutual Bank found that at least 53 people and companies may have benefited from the looting of R1.9 billion ($130 million). Looting of state resources has a negative impact on efforts to fulfill the basic needs of the poor who remain the most marginalised segment of the population and the ones with whom social workers most desperately need to work.

Corruption happens over a cup of tea or coffee in opulent, luxurious places. Those involved in corruption normalize it and eventually entrench it, as those who corrupt and those who are corrupted collude in order to make it happen. It is invisibly eats away at the coffers that should be used for the needy and indigent.

When the ANC won the first democratic elections in South Africa with a landslide victory, they had promised the majority of South Africans – those Black South Africans that were swimming in the river of poverty and indignity – that they will improve the quality of their lives standard of living. Instead the officials began leading opulent lifestyles and disregarded the needs of the masses. Corruption, in the form of extensive and intensive looting of state coffers, continues to rip at the fabric of society. It makes the poor poorer and the rich richer – a gap too wide to fathom. How does society reconcile the two?

Social workers should advocate strongly and in a very real sense for an end to corruption, and for inclusiveness in the mainstream economy and for equal opportunities for the poor. Corruption is a weapon of mass destruction in the lives of the poor and indigent in South Africa and social workers must oppose it at every turn.

One Hundred Cabinet

       J O A N N E    L O

146 Joanne Lo    146 100 Cabinet

I had hopes to be a school teacher since I was a small girl. Yet, with my first experience as a “relief” teacher for a week, I felt disappointed as the students always request for notes only, but not knowledge. It came to my mind, “what can I do for the young generation to make them better apart from being a teacher?”

I got to know the social work profession when I joined an activity organized by a youth center. It seemed to provide an alternative for me to help the young generation. Such experience navigated my social work journey, departing from my History major. Although I had studied different disciplines – such as History, Psychology, and Law – I discovered that I am passionate about youth work all along. Now, I have really become a teacher – to teach social work in the University. This prior knowledge and experience inspired me, along with the synergy of various disciplinary knowledge on my youth work practice and teaching. Creativity and flexibility are significant in facing our ever-changing society.

I chose One Hundred Cabinet (for Chinese herbal medicine) because …

… social work is a multi-faceted discipline, just like a “one Hundred Cabinet”. This Cabinet is a big storage space with over a hundred small boxes inside. Each box contains two to four types of Chinese dry herbs for medicinal purposes. These boxes have clear herb labels. The practitioner will pick up the required herbs according to the prescription by the doctor to create the mixture of Chinese herbs dosage (usually more than ten ingredients). After boiling over an hours with water, these herbs will become a bowl of black and bitter herbal tea.

Similarly, I think social work involves knowledge from social science disciplines such as psychology, sociology, etc. We do the work from remedial, developmental to advocacy. The intervention approach from individual casework, group work and the macro perspective to social policy change. The target groups are multiple and diverse in cultures and ages. All these variations create hundreds of combinations for the nature of our work, like the magic of the “One Hundred Cabinet”. Different ingredients are put into this cabinet systematically. It all depends on how the practitioners pick up the necessary elements they need to synergize their unique social work practice. We do not know what the outcome will be. Social work is hard to be defined by a single format or approach. After all, it is for the betterment of our service users.

Bead strapping

    V E R N O N   N O E L

145 Vernon Noel    145 Bead strapping button

I got into social work after encountering some young people at a secondary school whilst working on a computer project as a systems analyst in the mid-1980’s. Their habit of coming to me to share their problems and worries motivated me to change my career to be a qualified social worker to meet the needs of young people in my community.

I have enjoyed my training and my experience of social work over the past 24 years. I decided early on that unless I was working for myself, I would purposely change my substantial working environment or job every 2 years so I can be refreshed regularly and not burn out quickly. This I have successfully done for 21 years until I started my own independent social work service. I believe that I have become a truly eclectic social worker with a purpose – picking up nuggets of wisdom as I travel around the world to impart to others, including new social workers. The first two years following my qualification as a social worker in the UK, I travelled to the USA to work with a company called VisionQuest.

VisionQuest’s history is rooted in American First Nation culture. In American First Nation traditions, the vision quest is a rite of passage that marks the transition from child to adulthood. VisionQuest has adopted many First Nation traditions over the years to help troubled teens and their families grow together. One of these traditions formed VisionQuest’s Senior Professional Staff leadership commitment.


I chose my Bead strapping because …

… in the Crow First Nation tradition, there were members of the community―called “Bishkewalakai”―who were so committed to their community that they would stake themselves to the ground by the knee in times of trouble to demonstrate that they would not desert their families and tribe. Following this tradition, the Senior Professional Staff wear a VisionQuest pin/badge (or a colourful strapping of beads) on their left knee to represent to their fellow staff members and the youth that they are willing to make a four-year commitment to the youth, the program, and the company. The Senior Professional Staff are expected to step up when things get difficult, and to work out issues that arise, whether they are internal with other staff or with youth.

Since my contract with VisionQuest was for a fixed period of two years, I made a commitment to work with children and young people for my initial two years with VisionQuest and the other two (or more) years somewhere else. My ‘more’ years has lengthened and has reached 22 years to date!

I chose my object as my Bead strapping (Senior Professional Staff pin / badge) to demonstrate my commitment to the children and young people that I continue to work with over the years. I was given my Senior Professional Staff pin / badge after six months with VisionQuest and symbolically continue to wear it.


Out of hours duty officer sign

           a n i   m u r r

144 ani murr    out of office

I followed my father into mental health social work, though I am now in social work education rather than direct practice.

I chose Out of hours duty officer sign because …

… it reminds me of my late father and because it tells me something about changes in technology and thinking.

My father was a social worker in the valleys of south Wales. In the 1960s a wooden sign such as this was displayed outside of office hours to identify the on-call duty social worker and give his or her contact details – in those days their home ’phone number. I learned from a very early age to answer our ’phone at home very formally in case it was a work call for my dad. If my dad went out in the evening (whether he was on call or not) he left a note by the telephone of where he was. I remember once as a teenager being very fed up about yet another ’phone call from the police asking for my dad and me saying that I did not know his whereabouts. I knew full well that he was across at the allotment. I was in a bit of trouble for that one.

Imagine responses today to using a personal ’phone number for work. There would be talk of poor personal boundaries and (un)professionalism. It makes me think about what we have lost and what we have gained through technology – much longer ’phone numbers for a start!

Perhaps as a metaphor of my musing, I have blanked out two numbers on the sign. With the technological development of the internet has come an openness to participate together in on-line communities (for example, this ‘40 Objects’ project and campaigning and/or consciousness raising communities for people who use and people who offer social services). But there is also a cautiousness for privacy.

Black bin bag

      M A R K   F R A S E R

143 Mark Fraser  143 Black bin bags

I started working with children with disabilities in the 1980s – residential care with teenagers, some of whom were lovely, while others would threaten harm with a combination of hair spray and cigarette lighters! After a few years I left to travel and while studying Buddhism in the Himalayas we had an audience with the Dalai Lama. ‘We don’t need westerners living here as monks and nuns,’ he said. ‘We need you all to go back to your own countries and be social workers or teachers. Give to your communities. That is the greatest work.’

It was 1991. I went back to qualify in Edinburgh and have worked in different roles with children and families ever since. I am now a practice development worker in Cumbria (English Lake District). Social work is an amazing privilege. It really is the greatest work.

I chose Black bin bag because …

… first is the context in which we used black bin bags in early 90s child protection work in Edinburgh. Our practice at the time included using bin bags to transport children’s belongings as we took them into care. A few of the team didn’t drive and would also then have to take children into care on the bus, sitting at the bus stop in the frequent cold rain with a couple of children and any number of bin bags depending if the children had any clothes other than the ones they were wearing. 30 years into my career I reflect now with a sense of shame at some of our practice.

… second, though, is that black binbags also represent a more positive theme, reflecting a degree of professional pride and humanity from another side of our work. Before the term ‘food bank’ became mainstream we had a ‘food cupboard’. The team would organise fund raising – quiz nights and the occasional Ceilidh. The funds were invested at the local supermarket restocking the food – which we gave away to families who were sent our way by the cold-faced benefits office after they’d refuse people emergency payments. At Christmas time people would also leave with donated children’s presents, which would arrive wrapped and ready to distribute. We’d have to unwrap and check them first though, as sometimes people would just wrap up broken toys.

One Christmas Eve I was on duty with my colleague. We were about to close the door at 4pm when a woman, standing quietly in the rain in the empty car park, stepped forward and approached the building. She hesitantly told her story which was being a single mum of five young children and not having either anything for the children for Christmas and also no food. She had been hoping that a miracle would happen and had promised the children that this year they would have a present each. It had got to Christmas Eve lunchtime before she had approached the benefits office for an emergency loan for the food and had been refused. She had never been in a social work office.

The food cupboard was fairly empty but we had one tin of potatoes and some canned ham. We searched another cupboard and found some peas and carrots. Nowhere near enough for this dignified mum and her five young children. We had some creamed rice and long-life yoghurts. We also had six presents for the five children but two of them were broken and so we asked her what she wanted to do. She chose to take four toys plus the most broken one, on the basis that it was more appropriate for her youngest. We had half a tube of glue but it was late now and there wasn’t time to stick the dolls head back together – so we added the tube into one of the black binbags.

She thanked us, so profoundly it made it all feel even more inadequate. She left the office very pleased and relieved.  I watched her go back into the street, black binbags swinging at her side on a long walk back along the dual carriageway to the tower blocks. I drove home for Christmas crying.

The mum had been so appreciative but it had felt such a limited piece of work in the face of her family’s needs. Contrast with that with other times in child protection when parents were angry and aggressive but the work felt valuable. Where it is that we find our validation for the work that we do? Small wonder that many social workers struggle to keep a focus on the great work that is done every day. I drove home with a sense of despair that day, but 25+ years later that Christmas Eve is a moment of social work that I can now value.

Elephants (in the room)

      B E N   R A I K E S

142 Ben Raikes   142 Elephants

I started my social work career as a Probation Officer, drawn in by the belief that building a relationship using simple skills such as listening and affirming the positive qualities of people caught up in the criminal justice system could be transformative, in terms of persuading them away from offending. Having grown up in a comfortable loving household, I was acutely aware that this had been denied to most of those I worked with. This caused me to reflect on the chance of our birth, and that if I had been born into their situation and they into mine, our roles could easily have been reversed. I learned a great deal from those I supervised, from their ability to remain resilient in the face of adversity and to live in the moment. I have always believed the best relationships, including with those who use social work services, are reciprocal.

I chose Elephants (in the corner) because …

… in every social work setting that I have worked in, since I qualified in 1992, there is always an Elephant in the corner. Several years ago I used the phrase with a colleague who had not heard it before. Sometime after I explained what it meant, she gave me these elephants. They have sat in the corner of all the offices I have worked in since. They are a reminder to always name the elephant in the corner!