It’s been a tumultuous and by turns horrifying, desperate and uplifting few weeks in the public sphere. The spontaneous response of the North Kensington community to the Grenfell Tower fire is a testament to many things, not least a capacity for compassionate cohesion among an ethnically diverse and mostly poor neighbourhood. By contrast some of our political leaders have displayed a distressing and baffling lack of attunement to the emotional and material realities of this disaster. These things are not just ‘symbolic’. Acute distress, grief, shock and displacement require not just that we ‘feel’ empathy, but that we communicate directly with the afflicted so they feel we are ‘with’ them, and that we act to alleviate their immediate material suffering. This is what ‘relationship’ in the midst of crisis involves. The work of counsellors and therapists in the ensuing days and weeks is crucial too, but it’s a slightly different task.
When I first trained as a social worker Crisis Intervention theory and practice was on the curriculum, a sophisticated model of work developed in the USA in the aftermath of events similar to the terrorist attacks and the Grenfell Tower disaster. Focusing on the different types of response needed in the hours, days and few weeks after the event, tracking the shifting needs of people over time, it’s a fully psychosocial approach that used to be ‘second nature’ to social workers. My impression is we don’t teach this anymore, and this is just one indicator of how our understanding of the social work role in society has become so much more narrow and restricted.
Have others taken up this kind of role instead? Well, the sense that in the aftermath of the fire, despite the massive efforts of the community, there was no proper co-ordination of the relief and response effort, suggests not. As always the emergency services responded magnificently, but this is only a part of what’s needed, and which a humane and decent society must enable and support. There seems to have been a failure by local and national public services to connect, partner with – that is relate to – the community effort. Instead, an improvised army of volunteer labour was largely left to pick up the pieces. Again, at one time social workers experienced in ‘community social work’ might have been at the forefront of a response that co-ordinated links across networks and sectors of the public sphere. This is how I practised social work 30 years ago in Earls Court, a stone’s throw from Grenfell Tower.
When social workers use relationships at the centre of their practice, it is always in a real world context. Usually that context is family, neighbourhood, educational and community relationships, and very often these are disadvantaged, fractured, overstretched, struggling. The traumatic life histories of asylum seekers, migrants, lone parents, maltreated children, victims of domestic violence, people with disabilities and mental health problems intertwine with the family and community circumstances in which they live, and these ‘total situations’ are, or should be, the focus of our efforts at help and change. But these days, the required statutory response is more focused on the ‘incident’ or the ‘risk’, and context falls out of the picture as hard pressed services struggle to meet their targets and deadlines.
The fire at Grenfell Towers no doubt started with a single ‘incident’ – an exploding fridge has been mentioned – but rightly it’s a whole range of contextual variables, questions about regulatory neglect, cost savings, and why concerns voiced by residents themselves were seemingly ignored, which are now the focus of attention. The Tottenham MP David Lammy made an important and telling intervention, asking that all relevant documents and records relevant to assessing the causes of the fire be seized and secured. Until I read this, it hadn’t occurred to me that of course, this is exactly what happens when a child known to social workers dies. Too often the inquiries that follow a child death finish up with a focus back on the actions of individual practitioners, with contextual causes downplayed as the search for blameworthy individuals replaces a more rational and complex analysis. Maybe Grenfell Tower will provoke a shift in this destructive and inhumane aspect of our public culture. Time will tell.
There are local authorities across the country that embody the deep divisions in our society accelerated by growing inequality, where prosperous and powerful people live cheek by jowl with the poorest . Haringey in North London is one such, and Kensington is another. If you want a scientific but also graphic representation of these divisions then visit the website of the Index of Multiple deprivation Index of Multiple Deprivation. The disaster at Grenfell Tower has exposed what we already knew, that for a large proportion of the population the fabric of our society is a breaking point. In recent talks for the Centre for Social Work Practice I have often quoted the words of David Simon, creator of the famous American TV series The Wire which is set among the poorest sectors of the population of Baltimore. Simon wrote:
“And that’s what The Wire was about basically, it was about people who were worth less and who were no longer necessary, as maybe 10 or 15% of my country is no longer necessary to the operation of the economy. It was about them trying to solve, for lack of a better term, an existential crisis. In their irrelevance, their economic irrelevance, they were nonetheless still on the ground occupying this place called Baltimore and they were going to have to endure somehow.
That’s the great horror show. What are we going to do with all these people that we’ve managed to marginalise?”
I’ve always said when presenting these words that the UK ‘is not the USA yet’. But as some commentators call Grenfell Towers ‘Theresa May’s Hurricane Katrina’, it may be that I’ve been wrong.
Social work was once an ‘activist’ profession, as well as much else. Combining its activist principles with the much else – including its commitment to relationship based practice – often proved a strain it could not manage, and we became divided among ourselves as a result. Social work is often about acute conflicts and tensions, between children’s needs and their parents’ ability to care for them, or between a person’s rights and the risks they pose to themselves and others. We are skilled and experienced in negotiating these territories; but social inequality and disadvantage makes them more acute, and more frequent. Social workers know so much about the lives and struggles of many of the kinds of people who lived and died in Grenfell Tower. We are an educated and aware profession, but our voice is not heard much in the struggle against the social and political forces that produce the conditions in which disasters occur and in their aftermath. Why not?
There is no simple answer. If we remain committed in principle to the pursuit of social justice, I think we have lost confidence in our capacity to really contribute to its restoration. Above all we don’t have organisations that offer leadership to the profession in these respects. Grenfell Tower may or may not prove to be a turning point in our society’s persistent attack on the most powerless and marginalised. It could be a turning point for social work too.