has devoted her life to helping to repair damaged young lives. Keith White called in on her office at Kids Company on 13 October 2008 and found her buzzing.
Photography: Andrew Firth
I have been very struck by the parallels between you and [Dr Thomas] Barnardo. Someone said of him: ‘What was significant was not just what he did but what he taught the state to do.’ Over a century later, it sounds like you.
I think he was a great man, you know. I know I’m a character and I dress up and people photograph me and that kind of thing, but really I don’t think of myself in that way, I really don’t. I just think I’m a catalyst. I’m here to get something done and I’m gone.
You have said that one of your gifts is the ability to recall your childhood. What do you remember particularly?
I remember very clearly that I had a lot of feelings, a lot of spiritual awareness, a lot of tuning into what I call ‘universal energy’. You know, I don’t read the star signs or anything like that, but I remember being nine years old and having this profound sense of my energy – I thought it was going to fry me – and realising I had to live life beyond myself. I have very clear memories of that spiritual, emotional life, as if it was just yesterday.
Your childhood in Tehran was very privileged, wasn’t it?
I didn’t realise that my father was exceptionally wealthy – we had two police bodyguards who drove us everywhere in case we were kidnapped, but I thought that was the normal condition of childhood. There were domestic servants in the house, to whom I was very close, and then there were all my father’s employees, who ran into the hundreds – he owned a sports centre, so there were swimming pools, skating rinks, cinemas, restaurants, shooting ranges, dodgem cars, and as children we had absolute free rein. Whatever we wanted, all we needed to do was get the manager to sign, so we never handled money. Everyone knew us. And I was hugely adored by all these people – but they also kept saying I was very different, you know?
Different in what sense?
There was this idea that I was spiritual. They would say things like ‘You have a special gift from God,’ that I was here because I had some spiritual task. They attributed it to God, but I didn’t: I just felt I was plugged into a different socket.
I’ve been thinking about this, wondering where this sense could have come from, because it was so clear. Subsequently, I had traumatic experiences – my father was imprisoned during the Islamic Revolution, my sister committed suicide – but I have to tell you that those things did not create this drive. It was innate somehow.
One thing that is clear to anyone who knows you is that you’re a driven person. How do you account for that?
OK, I’m not driven. From my perspective, when someone is driven they’re making an extra effort to get somewhere. I glide, you know? I’m actually very tranquil. I will fight where I need to fight for truth, so it’s not like I’m incapable of fighting; but my spiritual presence is not one that is making extraordinary effort. I’m a glider.
I’m only picking up the pieces when the model has failed. I want something more than that, which is for the failing to stop. And the only thing that is standing in the way of that is lack of moral courage
So, for example, when I told the Government that I would close Kids Company if we didn’t get government funding, six months or a year ago, whenever it was, everyone said: ‘Camila’s lost her cool.’ Whereas actually it was a 12-year strategy to call that shot at that point, you know? That’s what I mean: I don’t huff and puff.
OK, I retract the word ‘driven’. Tell me what impels you.
It’s a vocation. It’s a vocation. There is no other word for it, because, you know, I have no desire outside it, I have no definition as a person outside it. I don’t want to do anything else; I don’t want to be anything else. I have lots of other talents – I could have done design, I could have done art – but I have no desire other than to complete this agenda.
Sir Richard Bowlby, the president of the Centre for Child Mental Health, says you are creating ‘a haven of safety and joyful opportunities’. Can you identify with that?
Yeah. I think we provide a sanctuary and a place of loving care for children who have none in their lives – and they are voting for it by making their way to our provisions. It’s all self-referrals, children hearing about us on the street and coming to us.
But I’m only picking up the pieces when the model has failed. I want something more than that, which is for the failing to stop. And the only thing that is standing in the way of that happening is lack of moral courage. I’ve had politicians tell me: ‘Social services is not fit for purpose, child mental health is not fit for purpose, but none of us dare touch it.’
If it was terrorism, you know, or if it was climate change so they were all going to drown, they would all get going; but because the lone child who doesn’t have a competent carer can’t threaten any of them with anything, it gets left. Because there’s no threat, there’s no effort to do anything. So, I’m going to create the threat.
You spoke of a 12-year plan. What does it boil down to?
To make children present and precious in the minds of adults – not as adults-in-waiting, or as potential earners, but for adults to honour the condition of childhood as something precious in itself. If they did that, they would minimise the damage we are exposing children to, which is making children into disturbed adults.
Can you be more specific?
I think every child must have the care of a loving adult consistently in their lives. Ideally, it should be a biological carer, but the truth is that there are large numbers of children who are deprived of that biological bond and therefore I think the state must create infrastructures that provide for each child who has been abandoned a substitute parenting experience.
And, you know, if you do that, you don’t need to talk about child mental health or social services or whatever: everything else will fall into place. But because we don’t do that primary task properly, and because Western culture cannot articulate the importance of loving care as a policy, it paralyses itself so it can only articulate when it’s gone wrong and it’s describing the damage.
So, I want society to develop guts and moral courage and start being able to talk about these fundamental emotional things, without being ashamed or thinking it’s failing because it doesn’t fit into a policy document.
It seems to me you have taken on another archetypal role as well, which is something like an advocate or prophet.
Love doesn’t need to be limited. Love has an incredible, universal capacity. You can love people in the moment, love them intensely, without having to hold on to them or possess them
I would never be so presumptuous as to say that. What I would say is that I’ve agreed to tell the truth. You know, I’ve understood that the outcome for someone like me is that ultimately you get destroyed, and it can happen in a variety of ways. I could get shot – that’s always on the cards. Kidnapping is always on the cards. I’ve had people threaten to throw petrol bombs through my windows – that’s always on the cards. And it’s always on the cards that someone will say, ‘She’s a nutcase’ or whatever. I’ve understood all that. My intention is not to promote myself, or my career; my intention is for as long as possible to tell the public the truth and to protest. I see that as my pledge to the energy, you see.
Listening to you describing how vulnerable you are, it strikes me that maybe there is a real resonance between you and a child such as Julie in your book Shattered Lives,1Shattered Lives: Children who live with courage and dignity (Jessica Kingsley, 2006) who felt that anything could happen in her life at any moment.
Well, I think we all travel what I call ‘universal zones’, where all human beings meet at the most undisguised level. And I think I have the ability to connect to people at that level very quickly. I wouldn’t say that there is anything in my emotional life that is similar to Julie’s, but what I would say is that there are universal meeting-points with these children, with all human beings, and I’m just very good at meeting with people there. I’m an abstract personality, so I can travel into anything.
You don’t look or feel abstract.
No, I know. This is the paradox. This is the paradox.
And I’m fully aware that the normal narratives of personality could have me described as someone who’s avoiding being a person, if you like – abstraction as an escape. I understand that. But I don’t think in all honesty that that’s where I come from. I think I was born abstract. I’m just one of those characters that is like that.
And yet your book is full of very practical details…
Well, this is the paradox. And I think this is why it’s been very difficult for people to work out where I’m coming from, because in the expression of this mission I am actually incredibly practical and structured. You know, I’ve got 315 employees, for whom I and my team raise money every month; I’ve got 4,600 volunteers; I’ve got 37 schools now that we work in; I’ve got two sites; I’ve got 100 consultant clinical supervisors – and I’m running this organisation. Unless I was blooming practical, I wouldn’t be able to keep this machinery going. But it’s because I’m so abstract that I can pay such attention, zoom into detail…
There’s a phrase I underlined when I first read your book: ‘scared of love’. When one considers all the regulations safeguarding children, the word ‘love’ is notably absent. You’re not scared of love, are you?
No, I’m not scared of love. I love love. People say you can only love, like, your partner, and the children you have shared in the making of, and everyone else somehow we don’t have a word for, you know? But actually it isn’t like that. Love doesn’t need to be limited to these constructs. Love has an incredible, universal capacity: you can love people in the moment, love them intensely, without having to hold on to them or possess them.
So, why is our society scared of love?
I think people are afraid of feeling. You know, they’ve said you can feel within these limits – whereas actually feeling is like an ocean and it’s an absolute fallacy to limit it to these human constructs. And I think, ‘What a pity!’ We love when we listen to music, or look at some extraordinary art, we love children in the moment but they don’t belong to us. We love so many things, but we don’t have the words for it, or we don’t admit to it. I do think we have confined to narratives of human limitations what is potentially a vast spiritual potential in us.
You are very outspoken about the way professionals – systems, structures, institutions – have failed children.
I want to be very clear about this: I think that individual workers are brilliant often in the jobs they do, but there is an institutional inability to tell the truth about the shoddiness of the job that our social-work and child mental-health departments are doing – and as a result we are not making progress. In the inner cities, there are terrible, terrible things going on. And in a way the professionals are being complicit by remaining silent. They’re allowing the systemic abuse of children to continue because they’re not becoming part of mobilising change.
Are none of them speaking up?
Well, the ones who do – it’s fascinating what happens, actually. If something’s not being done right, you have to go through a complaints procedure and they use procedural blockages to block people’s complaints, people get pressurised not to complain – and this is how it has become systemically endemic.
No one is telling the truth publicly. Privately, they come and see me. Privately, I promise you, I have had psychiatrists in this room tell me: ‘We’re doing such a terrible job. We’re not honouring our Hippocratic oath but we can’t speak up because we’re silenced.’ And they give me the data so that I can speak up, because I’m not employed by their various health trusts or whatever.
Has no one contradicted the things you say in your book?
No. The reverse. People have contacted me saying, ‘It’s so true! Thank God you’re saying it!’
Why hasn’t this been more of a bombshell, then?
Because things become bombs when the public’s own wellbeing is threatened. This is just a bunch of children being abused behind closed doors, and until they start stabbing people, they don’t impact the public.
I think that individual members of the public care (which is why Kids Company has had so much support), but there is not the institutional will to change things because there is not sufficient threat to the general public. And this is my argument: why does it take threat to mobilise the public? Why can’t the aspiration towards spiritual quality on its own be enough? If you have large numbers of children harmed and you’re not doing anything about it, it is spiritually toxic. We’ve got a million-plus children in absolute crisis and no one is saying it – and what they don’t understand is, every single one of those children will damage another 10 people on their way.
Are you saying that the problem is increasing?
It’s increasing. We have 552,000 children referred to child-protection services every year and we only put 30,700 of them on the child-protection register – and those are the children who have come to the attention [of the authorities], you know.
When I started out as a social worker in the Seventies we first heard of ‘battered-baby syndrome’ and we couldn’t believe it. Since then, the official narrative has been of ever-increasing child protection, aided by the United Nations’ [Convention on the Rights of the Child]. Today, we are told that ‘every child matters’ and is ‘safeguarded’. But you seem to be telling an entirely different story.
I think there should be zero tolerance for the ways we have failed children, and everyone should mobilise to bring that about. And I mean everyone, no matter what job they do
If they were serious about Every Child Matters, they would create an audit mechanism, but they haven’t. They would give teeth to this vision and say, ‘We are so serious about Every Child Matters that if you don’t make it happen, this will be the consequence.’ But there are no consequences. There are no measuring tools to measure, for instance, how many children are left outside the doors of the agency, so we only count all those that get in. And how can a child who is already vulnerable hold the service provider accountable? Where is their power to protest?
But we hear so much about child protection –
It’s good intentions. Or it’s people putting a cosmetic veneer over something that is seriously in trouble.
If there is something seriously wrong with our society, what is it? The hymn-writer Graham Kendrick has said: ‘We have sacrificed the children/On the altars of our gods.’ What would be your analysis?
I think we have reduced ourselves to the basest level, so that adults’ number-one priority is personal survival. And that is what an animal does, OK? Something is going on in our society where people have become preoccupied with personal survival and because of that have forgotten their duty to care for others. Wanting to get rich, wanting excessive amounts of things, even status-seeking is all about survival. It’s disguised, but it’s survival behaviour, you know?
And they’ve lost the humility to understand that the reason we are human and not merely animals is that we agreed to participate in something bigger than ourselves. And our primary pledge was to take care of the children, and we are not honouring it. So, politicians will sit here and say, ‘This is too hot a potato for me to handle’ and what they mean – if I get the subtext of that – is: ‘This is too toxic and I’m going to be tainted by it. This is not worth sacrificing my political career for.’ And that’s why it’s going wrong.
What they don’t understand is that when you break that [pledge] to systemically honour the community, actually your survival is even less secure.
It’s a pretty big systemic failure, isn’t it?
Yes, it is. You could describe it in religious terms – I’m not saying that’s wrong – but I personally think that there’s a point, a pure point of energy, where the best of aesthetics, the best of emotional life, the best of ordered systems, the best of mathematical findings, all meet: an aesthetic point where these divisions no longer exist – I think you’ll find that nuclear science is also arriving at this point. There are universal principles of systemic order by which one must abide in order to be able to access that level of excellence, if you like. And being a human being is no different.
It’s almost as though childhood is the key to systemic health. Is that what you believe?
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. But I don’t want people to think, ‘We’ll deal with childhood so that we can have a better adulthood.’ That is the wrong premise.
Where do you look for the resources to transform British society? Do you think the church has a role?
I actually think the public have these values. What we need to do is to create a language for them. So, I think philosophers should be writing about this, you know? What I want to see is thought-leaders speaking up about emotional value-systems. I think the church has a role in that. If I had to identify a spokesperson on children’s issues in the zeitgeist at the moment, it would be [Rowan Williams,] the Archbishop of Canterbury. He is the one who’s saying what needs to be said, you know?2See, for example, Dr Williams’ book Lost Icons: Reflections on cultural bereavement (T & T Clark, 2000).
The 30th anniversary of the International Year of the Child falls in 2009. If you could see anything happen this year, what would it be?
I think there should be zero tolerance for the ways we have failed children, and I think the whole of society should mobilise to bring that about. I want to see the business world take it on, and the media; I want society to honour childhood – and I mean everyone in society, no matter what job they do. That is the most important thing we have to do.
This edit was originally published in the Winter 2009 issue of Third Way.
Camila Batmanghelidjh was born in Tehran in 1963, of Iranian and Belgian parents. Precociously gifted but extremely dyslexic, she was sent to Switzerland at the age of nine to be educated, and three years later to England to board at Sherborne School for Girls. She won political asylum in Britain after the Islamic Revolution broke out in 1978.
She studied theatre and dramatic arts at Warwick University, gaining a first. She then did a one-year course in art therapy at Goldsmiths College, a four-year master’s degree on the philosophy of counselling and psychotherapy at Regent’s College and two years on child observation at the Tavistock Clinic, all in London.
She worked as a therapist for several years and set up various counselling services in London, where she also lectured in psychology and psychotherapy.
In 1991, she founded her first charity, The Place to Be, which she financed by suspending her mortgage repayments. Place2Be is now a national programme, offering therapy to more than 40,000 children a year.
In 1996, she founded Kids Company to provide practical, emotional and educational support to vulnerable inner-city children and young people in south London. She remains director of the charity, which today has almost 12,000 clients a year. She has raised well over £20 million for its work, but has twice had to remortgage her flat to see it through financial difficulties.
She is the author of Shattered Lives (2006).
She has written for countless publications, and speaks at some 80 events and conferences a year.
Among many other honours, she was named Ernst & Young Social Entrepreneur of the Year in Britain in 2005 and Woman of the Year (and New Statesman’s ‘person of the year’) in 2006. In 2008, she was given a lifetime achievement award by the Centre for Social Justice and was listed by the Evening Standard among the 50 most influential people in London.
She has received honorary doctorates or fellowships from Goldsmiths, London Metropolitan University, the Universities of East Anglia, Northampton, Staffordshire, Warwick and Wolverhampton and the Open University.
Up-to-date as at 1 November 2008