Almost four years ago, I rang someone from a local women’s refuge.
She came to get what I had. I told her I had a wide social media network and asked her: what do you need? Her face lit up, and out it spilled….
It was a simple question, and it has led to enriching relationships, valuable insights and my heart’s passion.
I’ve been an Aunty all my life. I come from a blended family with much older siblings, so from an early age I was not only technically an Aunty, but an active one. I helped to raise one of my nieces, and I have always been a source of advice and love for my many nieces, and nephews.
As I have grown older, those things were less needed, and I found myself being the “naughty Aunty” – the subversive one, swimming naked and encouraging my nieces not to be ashamed of their bodies. But I saw them less and less, and they’re all adults now anyway.
What’s an Aunty to do?
Well, fabulously, also as I’ve grown older, I became a source of Aunty wisdom to the families of the children I teach. I’ve always taught in communities where néed was great – refugee and migrant communities where people live on very little and hold much love and respect for the Aunties in their lives. And as I worked in these communities, it dawned on me very slowly. It wasn’t the kids who were in need of an aunty figure, it was the mums. Struggling, some unsure of where to turn.
The other thing I’ve always had a big heart for is social justice, and in my work these concepts of advocating for young mums, and looking after them, intersected.
I had always advocated that kids come from families and if you don’t look after families then social problems deepen.
And so back to that simple question.
What do you need?
Because it has been my experience, that we don’t ask people what they need. We often don’t ask them anything. We give. We assume. We judge.
We walk past a homeless person on the street – do I give them money? Won’t they just spend it on drugs?
We give money to an organisation, a charity, not often to individuals because we can’t be sure that money will go where it SHOULD go. Education, food, shoes. Whatever.
But nobody ever asks a person: What do you need? Ask for anything, and I’ll try my best to get it for you. I don’t care why you want it, I don’t care what you do with it. If you say you need it, I believe you. That’s the basis of the Aunties. No judgement, all compassion. Just doing the do.
At first, I used Twitter to relay needs to my social media networks and initially I was helping out just one woman who was resident at the refuge. I went to the refuge for the first time and one of the women said to me “Thank you for being our friend”. I was taken aback. Of course! These women needed a friend. And then my best friend of 33 years died. My world exploded, and as I took time to lick my wounds, I knew that if I was to support the women in any sustainable way, other people had to be involved. And the Aunties (Twitter Aunties, now The Aunties) were born.
Why Aunties? At first, I used the name because I’m not a mum, and my role in life seemed to be that of an Aunty. A friend, an advocate, a mentor, listener, adviser, a shoulder to cry on. Not interested in why, more invested n how. Big heart, big compassion, practical know how. That’s what an Aunty looked like to me.
So I actively sought out people – and they actively sought me out – who fit this criteria. I would have conversations with people I didn’t know and ask them – do you want to be an Aunty? Sometimes the answer was no, sometimes the answer has been an overcoming yes! Not everybody is cut out to be an Aunty. I have always recognised that, for whatever reason, for some people it’s just too big an ask. Always when I’m asking, I know that the question I’m really asking people is: what do you need? It’s okay not to need my brand of social justice. And it’s okay to need to do what you can, when you can, as you feel able to do it.
So the last few years this group of people – the Aunties – has expanded in number. And as each new person gives something – clothes, shoes, money, a heater – the heart of The Aunties has grown. More and more people aren’t just offering things to me, they are asking: what do you need?
I ask the women when I go to the refuge: what do you need? And they tell me.
I ask the refuge staff: what do you need? And they tell me.
I ask people who I can see need something. What do you need?
And they tell me.
In my experience, if you just ask people what they need, and you follow up on that, they come to trust you. They may not know exactly what they need right at that moment, but it’s the start of the conversation.
When they trust you, and if you tell them that they can ask for whatever they want, they are more likely to tell you exactly what it is that they need.
And so it goes.
And in the asking of that question to other people, I’ve learned to ask myself that question, and found that what I needed was to do more Auntying. Because the thing about need, and building relationships in order to meet it, is that you come to realise that, at base, we all just have some basic needs. To be loved, to be listened to, to be seen.
And so in striving to fill need, I have myself answered my own question of what I need.
I have sold my house.
I have quit my job.
I’m going to be a full time Aunty.