The Grenfell tragedy shows us what happens when we refuse to listen to people, rendering them powerless. We know the residents shared their concerns over fire safety to Kensington and Chelsea council. Not only were they ignored, but resident blogger Francis O'Connor was threatened with legal action for highlighting the issues. The fire was a chilling symbol of the division in our society: an alliance of relatively powerful, achieving their ends at the expense of others. This reflects the gaping hole in ring-fencing the resources for those in need in economically diverse communities. It's a syndrome resonating far beyond the confines of Kensington and Chelsea council.
I followed the story online as it emerged and discussed the needs of the survivors with the local charities before helping to secure emergency resources and long-term support. The stories I heard along the way have been concerning. It has been proposed by the council that some residents be uprooted and be rehoused in the far corners of the country. I can't quite imagine what it's like to have lived in central London all your life, and wake up in Preston for example, after something as traumatising as your community burning down, with your remaining, grieving friends then atomised across the country. Watching events unfold on June 14th I wondered how in 2017 councils can fail their residents' welfare so catastrophically, and how blind they were to the far reaching ramifications of this negligence on people's lives. The fire was not only an unimaginable trauma for those affected, but a neglect tantamount to abuse.
Outsiders may judge those who live in tower blocks, based on who they think they are. I know they are viewed differently. I know what it's like to be an outsider and the myths that surround your existence. Meaning, outside the system of financial self-reliance. For me it was for one reason, for them another. I was an assisted housing resident for a decade. After years of working in PR for one of the UK's largest ethical businesses, I was left in a financially precarious position unable to work due to long term illness from serious complications following Glandular Fever. And I know how onlookers distance themselves, based on ill-informed judgement. It is easier to identify those we don't share a sense of place with as different, in order to turn away, or to push them, as victims of a tragedy, away. But - the Grenfell residents, like you, have families, work or are students, and due to circumstances beyond their control, they lived in that tower block. It could have been me.
I grew up in a white, middle class suburb, but as a bi-racial kid, from a single parent-working class family, like the Grenfell residents I know about not being heard. I know how, based on your identity, you are pigeonholed on a kind of leader-board of how important you are. I would be heckled for having a black father, or for opting out of activities that costed money. On the odd occasion, on witnessing kids chant abuse at their neighbours with darker skin than me, it would be assumed that I would be comforted with "You're alright though." And it still happens. I know about being called names, ones that I would never repeat. I'd hear them when I won a race or ranked highly on a test at school, because I was perceived as being too brown to deserve it.
I also know about the friends that didn't get through worst times. Where my experience was bemusing; theirs was much worse, and these identity issues broke them. These are the people who were treated as somehow illegitimate, as a threat, with bricks and abuse, every single day, at work or in the streets they lived. That, over and above the attrition of things like being told by teachers that they'd never achieve anything, and Swastikas as a common feature of graffiti on the walk home from school. I know some whose lives ended while they were too young, or had stints in mental health institutions as a result from the appalling isolation of their experiences. And would you recognise the trauma they faced if you had met them? Of course not. They were polite, educated, and loving. They didn't judge you, they just wanted to be acknowledged, to be heard and respected in a way that others took for granted. I know how the Grenfell community were used to being ignored, and told that their safety was not important. If those who judge, learned about the lives of residents like those in Grenfell, they would be awe-inspired by the obstacles they've overcome, the achievements, and the successes against stratospheric odds. I know how their stories ended, and I wonder how small the life experience must be of those who judged.
Will those who so easily ignore the less fortunate learn from this tragedy, and the judgements they have made? We have to hope so; we have seen amazing displays of solidarity from Londoners over the past months; but often new manifestations of prejudice occur as the decades roll on. What I see now are hackneyed intentions to not appear prejudiced, from those who I believe are truly trying to change relations for the better. But, now I hear "we don't see any differences" "we are all the same." This is a new manifestation of ignorance, a determination to refute the differences, in order to ignore them.
Through the mayhem unravelling before our eyes, there was amazing positivity. Two community members who shone like beacons of strength for the survivors; DJ Isla and the rapper Lowkey - both obviously skilled communicator's, knew how to speak up when their community couldn't. I saw how this vital skill came into it's own as they led the relief effort and spoke out on the immediate issues. They conducted their own interviews, eventually rejecting the requests from mainstream media, whose reports they learned to mistrust. Seeing them look after their community as the council failed, was intensely moving, and it reminded me why arts funding is so important. These artists had found their voice, through music, had honed their communication skills, using them for social good. Art practice is about communication, and communication is at the crux of understanding one another. We must do all we can to support arts funding in our schools. For some, it may be the only chance of having their voices heard.
To grant our neighbours the respect we all deserve please, watch the interviews, donate, support art funding and join your local volunteering initiatives; in times of peace as well as tragedy, for empathy is the beating heart of a cohesive society.
To support the residents and neighbours of Grenfell donate to The Red Cross Fund
To support local arts, visit The Arts Council website
To volunteer in your local area, visit the Government Volunteer page
To support mental health services through art, visit The Hospital Rooms Charity