Bex "Surround yourself with good people…Self-care is a priority. And for that you need people who are on your side and will get behind you." Bex Exell graduated from The NEXT Project in 2015 and went on to complete a Level 3 qualification in Health & Social care. In 2017 she set up Clothing for Change for FfC. She shares with us about finding her voice, her niche and her passion for life… What made you decide to do the NEXT course? I’d been accessing support from an Education & Training advisor at Wandsworth. At that time I was adamant I wanted ‘out’ of the sewing trade, and was thinking about becoming a drug & alcohol worker. I suppose I wanted to make an informed decision, to try and understand if that was really the right direction for me to go in. What did doing the course teach you about yourself? I learnt that pain is hereditary, that the baggage we carry isn’t necessarily our own. I couldn’t talk about myself before because I didn’t feel that I existed. I didn’t know which of the feelings I was grappling with belonged to me and which belonged to other people. I realised that I can exist equally to other people, that I have a right to life as much as everyone else. What was most helpful? Learning to speak from the “I” – personalising my views and owning my experiences. To be able to speak up for and on behalf of myself continues to be so helpful in my day to day life. It has allowed me to separate my worries and concerns from those of others’ – to understand that so much of what I had been carrying had been other people’s “stuff”. I began to understand where this “non-existence” feeling came from and to allow myself to exist more fully – to express my point of view, for example, and see that I can play a functional part in a group and make a valuable contribution to society What led you decide to take the Level 3 Accredited Practioner Training (APT)? By the end of NEXT I wasn’t sure that I wanted to become a drug and alcohol worker, but knew I wanted to work with people and to have an impact somehow using my experiences. APT was this amazing opportunity to gain a professional qualification that could allow me a way into that, and I am so proud to have it. In what way did it differ to NEXT? How did you build on what you learnt? The language of the course was more professional and the emphasis on how to apply the theory was in a context of the field of health & social care and working with clients, as opposed to being more self-reflective on NEXT. The material itself was fascinating. The challenge was getting the coursework done! Not so much writing the content, which I loved, but using a more objective, factual style of language and being aware of a sense of a “right” and “wrong” approach in some areas. I come from an arts background where there is a lot of room for interpretation. How did you start to gain work experience in the field? I got to volunteer at Foundation for Change for my placement, which was an amazing chance to find out how a charity works whilst I was studying for APT and helped massively with my courework. I had the idea of setting up a project of my own when I was doing NEXT and really wanted to do something in the sector, even if it wasn’t working directly on the ‘frontline’. How did the placement help with your ongoing development? FfC works in a way that allows you to utilise your skills and strengths. I began to identify ways in which I could do what I’m good at (sew!) on my terms and put my skills to good use. Clothing for Change started as an idea for a social enterprise but became a fundraising project – something that could allow the charity to expand its reach of supporters and, ultimately, raise funds for more people to have access to our courses. I was given the space to develop something I could uniquely contribute. Studying APT at the same time allowed me to weave outcomes relevant to Foundation for Change’s wider mission, vision and values into the project and focus on the beneficiaries, keep it people-centred. What would you say were key milestones in getting the project off the ground? Designing the clothing range was major – having the space and time to do this was so important. Opening the Etsy store in July 2017 was another. It’s allowed us to create some interest and awareness and generate an ongoing trickle of trade as the project develops. Long term, the goal is to develop an independent stream of income for Foundation for Change that would make it possible for more people to access courses. Small charities face fierce competition for restricted funds from trusts and foundations, against a backdrop of drastic budget cuts to local authorities. Finding a source of independent funding is like gold-dust. What obstacles have you had to overcome to get the project off the ground? Money, space, and people power! It’s pretty stressful setting up a project with limited means, but developing it over the timescale I have whilst being based at FfC has helped on a practical level in terms of living, money, management, having a stable environment in which to work. Not to mention invaluable connection, support and enthusiasm from Liz and Bob! I get to be part of a team and experience a sense of belonging. What further insight into yourself have you gained working on the project? All my tricks, defences and schemas have come up again, at times. I’ve seen the masks I put on and watched myself doing things that cause me pain, for example, not being open about how I feel, not wanting to “bother” others. The difference is I can recognise myself doing it now and know that I need to behave differently – to speak up and open up – for my own sense of self worth. I am a “rescuer” and slip into the role of trying to make everything OK for everyone. What I realise is that people are OK and I need to set boundaries for myself. Have your friends and family noticed a change in you? I think I sent my mum and dad absolutely mental when I was younger, living with them. I was reckless, wanted to be in the pub all the time with my mates, and moved out very young, aged 16. Now we have a more adult and equal, respectful relationship. We get on well. I am able to help them with things they need. A weight has been lifted. But me exploring my history – the relationships I’ve had with my family and seeing that a lot pain wasn’t actually mine – has brought up a lot for them too. It can be difficult sometimes, but I don’t freeze up around that stuff anymore. What’s next for you? I am going in a direction I really want to be. I love this ride! I love the people I work with AND the work that I’m doing, and I know how rare it is to find that. I can clearly see how what I’m doing will make an impact so am hugely motivated by that. Clothing for Change gives me a chance to directly benefit people not just through education, but also employment, raising income, learning a trade… Being part of FfC has given me direction in life and allowed me to identify my blind spots and develop meaningful working relationships. I’ve always worked with assholes! I’m learning a whole new language and it’s exciting to be involved. If you were giving advice to someone starting up their own project, what would you suggest? Get some advice from and surround yourself with good people – people that care about you and will have your back. Self care is a priority and for that you need people who are onside and who will be behind you. For me, the most important thing is to be healthy and not stressed…to be in harmony. That way I can crack on! To support Clothing for Change, please visit our Etsy store and like our Instagram page. Please also consider making a donation to us.