In this Meet the Member blog, Jess Macdonald tells us about her work as Violence Against Women and Girls Lead at Redthread. She tells us what led her to work within violence against women and girls, explains how Redthread supports young people who access emergency departments as a result of serious violence and exploitation, and describes her proudest moment at the organisation.
What is your background?
I grew up surrounded by strong women and I think that has inspired me a lot in my life. I am the oldest of three sisters and none of us are afraid of expressing our views. It was always very loud in our house growing up!
After university I lived in France for a number of years but moved back to London to work with young people. I started working in supported accommodation and became interested in the dynamics of peer-on-peer abuse, which led me to work within sexual exploitation and violence.
I joined Redthread in 2017 to set up the Young Women’s Service, and I’m so proud of what we have achieved in that time. We have grown from being a service of two workers covering South London to a team of four Young Women’s Workers across the capital and myself as Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Lead for the organisation.
What drew you to working in the criminal justice sector?
When I was managing a bar in France, there was a group of young men who I used to see near work every day. I remember thinking that they always seemed so angry and if I’m honest, feeling intimidated by them at times.
Eventually we got to know each other, and they told me some of their stories — of fleeing violence and moving to a new country, and feeling there was no support or services to help them work through how they were feeling. They were just having to do their best with what they had. They were so young, marginalised by society, and they were clearly struggling.
When I moved back to London, I knew I wanted to do something that mattered with people who weren’t being listened to by the systems or networks around them. Championing voices has always been something that drives me. I’m not a fan of the phrase ‘giving someone a voice’ as everyone already has one — it’s about whether they are being listened to or not.
I guess it’s probably unusual for a VAWG Lead to be sitting here saying that she was inspired by a group of young men but that’s how it happened.
Can you describe your organisation in a few sentences?
Redthread embeds trauma-informed youth workers into health settings. We work with young people aged 11-25 who access emergency departments as a result of serious youth violence and exploitation at 13 hospital sites across London, Nottingham and Birmingham.
People oftensee serious youth violence as a male issue and think that it’s all about gangs, which is simply not the case, and I love working for an organisation that recognises this.
Young people aren’t often expecting to be met by a youth worker when they come into hospital but we are there when they are well enough to speak to someone. Being in this space allows us to be a reachable service and to explore what we term ‘teachable moments’ with young people. Such moments work both ways — it’s vital that we are teachable too so that we can offer individualised support to each young person.
Our support is consent-based. It’s up to young people if they would like to or feel able to talk to us. We support young people for as long as they are in hospital (be that hours or months) and create a safety plan with them for what a safe discharge looks like.
Once a young person has been discharged, our support is totally dependent on their situations and needs. We support them in a practical sense, such as with housing or employment, and we support them with post-traumatic growth, whatever this looks like for the individual.
What does your role involve?
As VAWG Lead, I have oversight of our Young Women’s Service across four of our sites (St George’s Hospital, Kings College Hospital, St Mary’s Hospital and Homerton Hospital). My team members are such passionate and fierce advocates for the young women they work alongside, and they inspire me daily! We are privileged to walk alongside the young women we meet in hospital each and every day and this is at the heart of everything we do.
I also provide support and consultation for all 13 of our hospital sites around VAWG. That means I explore individual support plans offered to young women by the teams, as well as having more thematic discussions about how we can increase clinician awareness of the challenges that young women face.
Another part of my role is to ensure that whenever we are making service decisions, we are considering them through a VAWG lens.
What do you love most about working at your organisation?
People often see serious youth violence as a male issue and think that it’s all about gangs, which is simply not the case, and I love working for an organisation that recognises this. A lovely example of this is the creation of our Young Women’s Service. Rather than adapting a project, we started from scratch to build something that was focused on young women and their needs from the beginning.
What are you currently working on? What are your organisation’s biggest focuses right now?
I am really excited that we are launching our Young Women’s Service at Homerton Hospital this summer. This is the first time we are embedding our Young Women’s Service into a local A&E setting (our other Young Women’s Workers are based in Major Trauma Centres) so we’re looking forward to learning everything we can from this environment.
As an organisation, we recently launched our new five-year strategy which is a really exciting process for us. As with so many organisations, things get busy so it’s great to spend the time reflecting on everything we’ve achieved and to think creatively about what’s next.
When you are working in an environment that focuses on trauma and post-traumatic growth, it is so important to take the time to consider the impact on you and to hear others’ experiences. You can easily get caught up in the chaos of the work so it’s important to take time to be still.
What has been your proudest moment/achievement at your organisation?
I had been working towards accessing education with a young woman for a number of months. She had experienced so much trauma in her adolescence that formal education didn’t work for her at that time and anxiety was proving to be a barrier. She was passionate about working with animals so that is what we focused on and found her a course that would really play to her strengths.
On the first day of the course, I travelled with her and then met her at the end of the day. She was really worried that no one would talk to her and that she would be out of her depth. The next day she asked if I could call her in the morning so she could talk to me while she travelled in. That afternoon, I got a call from her to ask if I would come to her graduation at the end of that week.
At the graduation, she was beaming! This young woman who had been too anxious to go to the course by herself on day one, skipped up to get her certificate and gave an impromptu speech about how proud she was of herself and all of her classmates. She told me afterwards that it was having us believe in her that made her realise she could do anything she wanted. It was everything!
Do you have any routines/habits that help you succeed?
Using reflective spaces and practice. When you are working in an environment that focuses on trauma and post-traumatic growth, it is so important to take the time to consider the impact on you and to hear others’ experiences. You can easily get caught up in the chaos of the work so it’s important to take time to be still.
Also, I don’t go anywhere without my notebook as that’s my to do list — I’d be lost if I didn’t have that!
What advice would you give to someone else in your role?
Don’t forget YOU. I am so lucky to do something that I love but working with trauma does take its toll. It’s so important to have a life outside of work, to do things in the name of self-care, just because they bring you joy. For me, this is making silver jewellery. I love that I can switch my brain off and just do something creative.
Also, if I’ve had an overwhelming day, I take the bus home. It takes me so much longer but I get to see the world go by and be reminded that life happens outside of our work.