Laverne Antrobus
Interviewed by Glenn Gossling

Laverne Antrobus

To external audiences, Laverne may be best known for her television and radio work, particularly on the ‘Secret Lives’ programmes, but at the Tavi she is a fundamental part of the Trust. It’s been a quarter of a century since she completed her Masters here.

Laverne’s family is of Caribbean heritage. Her parents came from St Vincent during Windrush, ‘Coming at quite an interesting time, in terms of feeling there was an invitation to come and then having experiences that maybe flavoured that (invitation) in slightly different ways,’ says Laverne. They moved to Reading in Berkshire, which Laverne says was known as ‘mini-Barbados’, but she grew up there as a ‘Vinci’, surrounded by a Vincentian community.

Laverne went to Plymouth Polytechnic and studied psychology, largely in reaction against her ‘A’ level subjects, but as soon as she started doing placements she realised it was for her.

‘Plymouth,’ Laverne said, ‘is quite a white city and replicated a lot of my experiences where I was one of  very few black people. I was aware of it being very different to where I grew up. In Reading there were lots of people who looked like me.’

Laverne said that Reading also had its difficult bits, she experienced working as a sales assistant in M&S on the days Chelsea FC played Reading. The store had to lock its doors due to the racist abuse and attacks that the ‘fans’ brought to the town on match days.

One of her defining experiences in Plymouth was when Laverne was assigned a placement at a school on the edge of the city. She says, ‘I wasn’t given a definite brief, just to be a helpful presence to children and parents. This was my first experience of seeing underprivileged white families bringing their children to school in quite a dishevelled state. Children who hadn’t had breakfast, been washed and were still in their pyjamas. It made me think, “How are you supposed to be ready to learn if you are coming from a home-life where things are so challenging and disorganised and then suddenly you’re supposed to sit in class and learn.” I went to school well dressed, well looked after and ready for learning. To suddenly see a community, a dominant community in terms of colour, coming in that way was a real shock, but it fired up my interest in teaching and the relationship between teachers/pupils. It also pricked up my ears to my own experience of being a pupil… those teachers, who saw and knew me. Not the ones who just taught me, but the ones who really saw me and were interested in me. It made me think this relationship needs to be available really quickly if we’re going to get children interested in learning.’

Laverne taught for two years before deciding to apply to the Tavi. She says, ‘I wanted to come to the Tavi and I didn’t get in… which was difficult. But Maureen Fox, the course lead wrote to me and said, “You didn’t get in this time, but if you want to have a conversation, I’d be willing to have it.” I was quite curious, so we had a conversation and she said, “We thought you were really close, but we just thought there were a couple of things that you might need to experience before applying again.” That was really helpful, because it solidified my thinking about education, the role of being a teacher and the different position of being a psychologist. I became To external audiences, Laverne may be best known for her television and radio work, particularly on the ‘Secret Lives’ programmes, but to us she is a fundamental part of this institution. It’s been a quarter of a century since she completed her Masters here. The Tavi and me: a personal history the school special needs co-ordinator, which put me in touch with children’s learning difficulties in a very different way. And that spurred me on to thinking that being an educational psychologist would be the place that I would have the most potency. So I applied to the Tavi again and this time I got in. It was 1993.’

Trying to recall what the Tavi was like back in the day Laverne says, ‘It’s quite hard to put oneself back to that time, but I do remember thinking, “This is quite a place,” in terms of how people look, the sort of people that work here, the names of people that you’d come across. You’d be reading their books and really feel you had access to some really interesting and great minds.

‘I remember Emilia Dowling was somebody that was on the reading list. I realised that highly regarded people were teaching me, having conversations with me and were interested in what I had to say, in a way that I didn’t really know existed. I thought I’d be reading their articles, rather than actually sitting in their room saying, “X, Y, and Z”. So that was something that was really quite striking. That bit was great. But alongside that, there weren’t many people that looked like me in the building. I suppose I became very aware of the colour layering of this building.

‘Quite a lot of the support staff were BAME and there was a smattering of a BAME staff in administrative roles, but I didn’t have a sense of clinical staff who were black. And so I wondered what that was about, but there didn’t feel much of an invitation to really think about it. It just felt like you needed to get your head down and get on with the training. The other thing I experienced was not quite knowing how to truly bring myself to some aspects of the course. Yes, the teaching was very interesting and very stimulating, but I thought, “Where does difference find its place in this organisation?” It’s quite hard to ask those questions, but it was often in my mind. Very quickly though those things got put on the back-burner, because I felt the patients were very representative of London, (in terms of their struggles) and that made me think, okay, I can sort of bear this.’

Laverne finished her training and then, she says, ‘Part of me feels like I couldn’t get away fast enough. It wasn’t the easiest of trainings. There were some challenges. But I felt like I just needed to go and see if this worked out there. So I left. I went to work in a Hammersmith and Fulham, and then Enfield. Both places where I felt embedded in the work and the community, encountering a really rich population of people. It felt like London.’

In around 2000 Laverne came back and got a job at what is now Gloucester House. She remembers seeing Juliet in the Child and Family reception. Laverne says, ‘She was here while I was a trainee. I think seeing her and knowing that she was in this really pivotal role in reception, meeting and greeting patients felt really important to me, that there was a sense of difference somewhere in that part of the building. Then there was Edem, who was one of the heads down in support services – he felt like a really strong connecting force to this building. As a trainee I’d see him in the morning, I’d see him in the evening. Amazingly, I had trained, left, went away for a bit and then I came back and he was still here. There are some people that have just been part of my legacy of being here. So Edem, Juliet and Irene Henderson feel like they are beacons, holding the fabric of this place in a BAME sort of way.’

In 2013 Laverne moved fully into the Tavistock Centre to the Family Mental Health Team. She says, ‘I feel, in my work as a clinician and in other parts of my life, that children are at the heart of everything that we do. My practice has made me more and more interested in parents and the struggles they have. I’ve often felt the children want me to know something about their parents and for me to have a conversation with them (on their behalf). The sort of conversation they can’t really have. I think children see the more difficult aspects of their parents’ capacity in a way that is quite tricky to manage. Nobody wants to think their parents have got fault lines or challenges. But a lot of the children we see are incredibly insightful. I’m particularly curious about their legacies and I think about my own legacies, of where my parents’ generation came from and the sorts of things they’ve had to manage.

When asked about the legacy of the Tavi’s 100 year history and what the future might hold Laverne replies, ‘It’s hard to know what is going to make the difference. It is a different place now. It’s not there yet in terms of diversity or across a number of characteristics. I don’t want people to think it’s only about BAME diversity. But I think that’s still got to be a focus. I think there’s got to be a way to give space to people in lots of different ways.

‘I’d love to think that this is a place that grows its own people. I’d like to think that eyes are out to spot talent in every domain, right from support staff up, because I think it would help us to know something about ourselves and our own belief in being a learning and developing system. There have been some fantastic examples of people who’ve come in and worked their way up. Everybody needs to feel that when they walk into this building, they see people who look like them and are going to be seen. They are going to be noticed for the particular set of talents that they bring.’