Guest blog by Sara Conway on her work on Grenfell Tower
Building Community Connectors
London is a diverse city but studies show that this is mainly on the surface with real integration often absent – between different faiths, different races, different areas and different incomes. This lack of proper connection can create isolation, distrust and fear.
Grenfell Tower shows the impact of this fundamental disconnect not just in how the situation evolved but in the response to it. There has been an amazing outpouring of care and commodities, yet weeks later many survivor families still lack many basic items. The right connections don’t seem to be in place to match the official system effectively to the pockets of trusted groups who are volunteering day and night at the grassroots to try to plug the gaps.
We know what a powerful example of community spirit was in Grenfell Tower and the immediate surrounding area. But we know too that across London people from different communities can live in bubbles – next to each other but never quite properly connecting.
Almost by chance Unity, the Muslim-Jewish Women’s Group I helped set up in North London just over 2 years ago, has become involved in helping the Grenfell families. The cousin of one of my co-founders went to volunteer there, met a local councillor, who then invited us to speak at an interfaith ceremony and then through another friend’s husband’s old friend who was helping a local youth club we became involved in a practical way having waited to see what was really needed. Without these random connections, and a tradition of reaching out and working with trusted helpers, we wouldn’t necessarily have found a way through.
You can’t go to Grenfell and not stay involved but we wanted to do so in a way that worked, supporting those who the families and we trust to deliver the help that is needed. As with most things this has been achieved by listening – first it was clothes for Eid, then prayer books and mats, and then bespoke Amazon lists which we are still doing. These lists have included new clothes and shoes for specific ages and sizes, underwear (almost unbelievable a month after the fire to still be asking for underwear), items that reflect what people actually need and want. The clothes fit them properly, are the sort of things they would normally choose and come with lovely messages of support. One
cannot overstate how traumatised the survivor families are that our community connectors are working with. Items are either delivered personally by people within their local trusted networks, or if they feel up to returning to the area where the scorched tower can be seen from every angle they are given to them with a cup of tea and a comforting chat.
For us it is no coincidence that the word ‘unity’ is at the heart of ‘community’. We started with a simple friendship circle with each person bringing a friend – at a time when we felt at risk of lines being drawn between us that we did not want to stand behind. This soon became a social action catalyst of practical and fundraising support that has extended to a range of local and international causes, as well as an immersive theatre project, a pop-up supper club, and a pioneering peacebuilders event at Parliament.
Our work is about bringing communities together and through community outreach and the power of social media, extending our network of empathy to our friends’ networks, enabling people to make a positive difference to those who they would not otherwise have a direct connection with.
Real change needs an active process of reaching out, not just when there are terrible incidents, but all the time. The support for Grenfell from across our city has been inspiring but it has highlighted the need to together develop something different that enables us all to channel that concern into ongoing support for grassroots community groups and charities to have wider impact and greater profile, connecting communities, and building real unity.
We also need a way of sharing examples of community connectivity to inspire others. The I Am Your Protector initiative is a powerful way of doing that and would like to hear stories from London for an exhibition here later this year. Please see their website for more details to upload your stories http://www.iamyourprotector.org/