In many ways Professor Adele Jones feels as though her life has come full circle. It is a journey of steps and moves that were certainly considered in isolation but which collectively have brought her to an unplanned career destination. And, as is often the way of these things, it began with childhood.
Military family life
Born to a British mother and a Sierra Leonean father who served in the RAF, Adele was one of four children. Her early years were the typical blur of military family life, moving regularly with her father’s various postings to a succession of different familiar-yet-strange air force bases.
“I don’t remember my teachers or my friends, though I had plenty of both,” she says. “We’d arrive in a new place and two years later we’d be gone. I always had a sense that I was on the outside looking in. I didn’t mind - that’s just a fact of military life – but it did give me a sense of perspective.”
Social worker inspiration
Adele, the former Director of the Centre for Applied Child, Family and Youth Research at the University of Huddersfield (“the key word there is ‘applied’; I need my work to be real”) describes her mother as ‘an amazing woman’. Disowned by her family for marrying a black man, her mother was an ever-present source of strength for her daughter and three sons in their unpredictable young lives. Her father, Adele says, ‘wasn’t a good man’.
“He was abusive in lots of different ways and that influenced my whole life. Dad inflicted a great deal of violence and my mum’s story has always been my inspiration. I decided at an early age to become a social worker.”
With a career spanning 40 years, Adele’s early career was spent as a local authority social worker dealing with children at risk and, fostering and adoption. She later spent some years as a Consultant with what was then the National Institute of Social Work, roles that she says, ‘opened my eyes in a different way’.
Move into academia
Eventually she felt she had reached a point where she had to make the decision to no longer be what she describes as a ‘frontline practitioner’ and so she moved into social work education, working first at Manchester Metropolitan University as a Senior Lecturer and where she also obtained her PhD. From there she went to the University of the West Indies (originally established in 1948 as an external college to the University of London) and then returned to England to join Royal Holloway College, University of London.
As an academic, her interest in producing new knowledge became her prime focus and a life in research beckoned. First a project which explored HIV and social work in the Caribbean, an area that has the second highest prevalence of HIV in the world. Then a six-country project for UNICEF dealing with child abuse. Other studies she has led include residential childcare, children’s rights and child asylum seekers. One of her most important projects was COPING, which worked with children of imprisoned parents across Europe.
Engagement with communities has been a key element in all the projects she has either led or influenced and all the choices she has made around which projects to work on have been driven to a greater or lesser extent on her need to make a difference to ordinary lives.
“I am naturally drawn to working for the underdog,” she says. “My work absolutely has to be meaningful in the context of real lives. I think my career has always been about trying to find solutions for people who find themselves in situations that are desperate, difficult or devoid of hope.”
A natural progression
It’s a career which, she admits, has been framed and inspired by her own experiences as a child. There was no lightbulb moment when one path or another became clear to her, just a natural progression of stepping stones which led from one piece of work to another.
“I never envisaged I would be here. All along my priority was only to do good quality research on topics that matter to me,” she says.
Yet looking at her career to date, she says she understands how there appears to be a sense of inevitability about the destination she has reached. The theme of marginalisation – of women and of children – is present in almost everything Adele has done in her career.
And the echoes of her own marginalisation as a child and that of her mother are loudest of all in None in Three, the project which won the Health & Wellbeing category in the 2016 Engage Awards and about which she is fiercely passionate.
There’s a smile in her voice as she says, “Yes. This feels like a homecoming. It feels like the circle is complete.”
None in Three project
The title of the None in Three project is a reference to the ambition of the research work Adele is leading in association with fellow academics and agencies in the Caribbean, where, like elsewhere in the world, one in three women will experience domestic violence at some point in their lives.
The project was launched in partnership with the Sweet Water Foundation in Grenada and is being rolled out as a model for the Caribbean region. The spirit of education lies at the heart of the project which is creating an ‘anti-violence’ computer game to be used as a teaching tool in schools and colleges. Using social media, Adele and her team have enlisted the support of hundreds of Caribbean women, men and young people who have committed to working to eradicate physical and sexual violence in the future.
Visible public engagement
Adele says that visible public engagement is a vital part of that solution. In order to be genuinely effective, she believes that academic research needs to be carried out in a way that is obvious to the public and which actively involves people living in those communities where the research is carried out. The real success of None in Three, she believes, is that there were tangible benefits from the start for those involved. As a result, the outcomes were shaped by real people and in ways the research team might never have considered had the work been done in a less visible and less collaborative way. With a career as full and as successful as it has been so far, you could be forgiven for thinking Adele might be tempted to take her foot off the gas. However, None in Three is far from over and is set to expand to five more countries across the world.
Adele does, though, find time to relax. Reading and gardening are passions, as too – quite recently – is ballroom dancing. “I’m trying to learn the foxtrot,” she says. For someone who seems not to have made a single misstep in an outstanding career, it’s hard to imagine it will take her long.