A personal view on the abuse of power

Mandy Jones General

This October, we are celebrating the Black British changemakers and humanitarians as a part of our efforts to commemorate Black History Month in the UK. We are listening to and sharing the stories of our colleagues and partners who have made significant contributions to the work we do and whose stories are worth celebrating.

Mandy Jones, who is the Head of Global Safeguarding at Oxfam Great Britain (OGB), shares her personal views on abuse of power.

“This Black History Month I will be looking forward to the various activities Oxfam has to offer. I intend on going to as many exhibitions that celebrate Black History Art and Culture. I will also be celebrating the month by re-reading novels by some of my favourite Black British and African American Authors, people like Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Zadie Smith.” – Mandy Jones.

I have been with Oxfam Great Britain (OGB) since March 2021 as the Head of Global Safeguarding. I have found it very inspiring to work with an organisation that is committed to being feminist, decolonised and anti-racist. My career background is in social work, specialising in child abuse, child protection, working with vulnerable children and families, and safeguarding. My role at Oxfam involves working collaboratively with others to promote a safe environment and to ensure we are all held accountable for challenging all forms of abuse.

Safeguarding is about protecting people’s fundamental right to live in safety, free from abuse and neglect. To contravene this human right is an abuse of power and position of trust. Abuse involves people in positions of power having control over those with little power. There are many survivors who are still dealing with the trauma of abuse, still impacted by the harm that has been caused to them. Safeguarding, when done effectively, can make a positive difference to the lives of others. Since being at Oxfam, I have been enthused and inspired by the many deep and meaningful conversations I’ve had with people who are entirely committed to Oxfam’s mission of empowerment, inclusiveness, accountability, and how they show themselves in different spaces.

I want to contribute to Oxfam’s transformational journey; it feels exciting to be part of an organisation that is so advanced in its collective thinking. To be able to reflect on issues of gender, race, colonialism, feminism, and intersectionality and examine how power is practised. It is also an opportunity to look at how we operate within our own spaces.  Any changes we want to see within the organisation must start with ourselves, with the personal. I must be the ‘change’ I want to see in Oxfam and to this end I must explore my own personal transformation.

I was attracted to joining Oxfam and contributing to its effort to have safeguarding at the centre of everything it does. It’s extremely important to me, to be employed by an organisation that wants to have safeguarding as a golden thread that runs across it.

As a professional Black woman who has built a career in children’s services over many years, I have my own personal experiences of being a survivor of abuse. I could give you countless examples, but there is one that I am willing to share with you.

As a child, I spent brief periods of being looked after by the state. In the late 1960s, when I was nine years old, my world consisted of being part of a single-parent family with my mother and two younger brothers. We all lived together in one room of a house with an outside toilet and a not-very-nice Landlord. My life with my family was routine; going to school, playing in the park on Saturdays, and off to Sunday School and Church Mass every Sunday without fail.

One day my life changed. My brothers and I were taken away by strangers on a long car journey to a huge house on the outskirts of London. We were left in the foyer in the clothes we stood in. No one talked to us, no one explained to us what had happened, or what was going to happen, and why. My brothers and I were stunned, wondering what we could have done that was so terrible for this to have happened to us. We were petrified at the possibility of never seeing our mother again.

My brothers and I quickly conformed to the regime of the children’s home. We wore other children’s clothes, sat for breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner at long tables with other children we didn’t know, and we were put to bed in large dormitories at different times of the evening. We were never together because routines happened according to our age. My brothers and I had always been together, back in that one room in London. We were also the only Black children there and the lack of knowledge about addressing the basic needs of a black child was apparent. We went for weeks with our hair uncombed, our skin left dry and cracked due to lack of moisturizer. I can recall to this day the memory of hearing my brothers, night after night; wailing, crying out for me or my mother in the far distance, as I lay in bed in that dormitory.

We were instructed to call all the adults (house parents) in the home ‘Auntie’ or ‘Uncle’, which for me was a conundrum. These people were not part of my indigenous family and they were all white!

One day I wandered into the kitchen. It was empty. I spotted a tray of cakes and I reached out to take one; at the same moment ‘Auntie’ came into the kitchen and caught me. She was outraged and grabbed me roughly, twisting my arm behind my back and pushing my head towards the floor. She demanded that I kiss her shoes.

My nine-year-old self knew this was an abuse of power, that it wasn’t right, but I told no one about this event. I had no way of knowing whom to tell, and even if I did tell someone, who?

I have never told any member of my family about this, but that memory has always remained with me. I can still connect with how it made me feel at the time; frightened, powerless, at the mercy of someone else’s overwhelming power and control.

This is a plea for change from my 9-year-old self and their encounter with an adult who failed them: All forms of abuse are unacceptable, and it is EVERYONE’S responsibility to support the creation of a safer Oxfam – not a delegated activity assigned to the few.

That childhood experience helped shape my personal development and professional career – doing my part to contribute and to make a difference towards a zero-tolerance of abuse perspective.

The Safeguarding team that I’ve joined here at Oxfam works extremely hard to improve safeguarding organisationally, especially through ensuring high quality investigations. The team helps the organisation carry out its duty of care and to protect anyone, especially the people we work with, from sexual exploitation and other abuses (SEA). I believe that effective safeguarding requires all of us to be aligned with Oxfam’s values, desired behaviours, and approaches. This is the component that strengthens the safeguarding culture of an organisation.

The eradication of the abuse of power in relation to safeguarding may never happen in my lifetime. I am going to damn well try and make a dent in it though, by working with others in a collaborative way, internally and externally.

Author’s Profile:

Mandy Jones is the Head of Safeguarding at OGB. She is a registered social worker with over 30 years experience of working in public, private and voluntary sector. Values such as inclusion, empowerment and equality, and dealing with diversity are her bedrocks as a Black professional woman, and these values translate into her practice.