Learning the lessons from Grenfell: ‘our stories and our voice’

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On 14 June 2017, 72 lives were lost at Grenfell in what was a preventable tragedy. The community, and many of those who have been working with them, want to ensure that lessons are learnt both from the tragedy itself and how public services reacted in the aftermath.

Fatima Elguenuni works alongside Robyn Doran at Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust. Fatima’s son, Bellal Elguenuni, and Natasha Elcock are members of Grenfell United, campaigning to ensure systems change to meet the needs of the victims and survivors.

In January 2020, Fatima, Robyn, Bellal and Natasha shared their thoughts on what happened at Grenfell, what they had learnt and what systems need to hear with staff at The King’s Fund. In this blog they reflect on those lessons.

Grenfell demonstrated that the systems around us were failing; public service organisations were not speaking to each other and were not connecting to their real purpose – serving their communities. The local authority may have borne the brunt of public anger, but the lessons are there for everyone to learn from.

Our priority is to use our collective voice to mobilise, galvanise and inspire communities and others who share similar experiences of loss so they can take action. For us the stories we tell are our voice – it is a collective voice and a community voice. We have found that by telling our stories we create a sense of agency, energy and movement, and a shift in power that connects systems, senior leaders, frontline staff and community activists.

So what do our stories make clear?

A common thread throughout all of our stories so far, is the need to rethink what is meant by ‘engagement’. We’ve seen in our discussions with public services that engagement can be a double-edged sword, because while it does involve gathering important information to shape services, it often over-promises and underdelivers. Rather than creating a bridge between services and the communities they serve, the engagement function can act as a buffer between them instead.

'Grenfell demonstrated that the systems around us were failing; public service organisations were not speaking to each other and were not connecting to their real purpose – serving their communities.'

Engagement should not be someone’s ‘role’. We want to make it every single employee’s business to connect to the communities they serve. It should not be optional or a nice to have – it needs to go to the very heart of the services provided. Our experience so far has been that there is an assumption by some organisations we work with that if we are presented with people from diverse backgrounds who ‘look like us’ then that is ‘job done’. What we’re asking for is very different: we want to change the system so that all those who work in the public services that serve us have real insight and understanding of who we are as communities, as people and as families. Anything else assumes a tokenistic, tick-box exercise in ‘engaging’ with us and thus any hope of building a relationship based on credibility and trust is lost.

If engagement should be about connection and should involve everyone, then ‘Lucy’s walk’ provides an example of how to go about it. Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust has a tradition for anyone who wants to visit or work in the Grenfell team: they have to do Lucy’s walk. Lucy is a community liaison manager in the Grenfell team, and has lived her whole life in the local community. She offers a guided tour for people who are new to the Grenfell area to understand the changes taking place and for people to experience them first-hand. This holds more currency than formal meetings and conferences with senior leaders.

We need people who can act as connectors rather than engagement leads – like Lucy. This requires a new leadership capability. For instance, we found that in a crisis, public meetings can be chaotic and emotionally charged for the community as well as public officers. Connectors have a valuable role to play here, as ordinary people who are not afraid to move conversations towards where the tensions lie, so they can better understand the potential solutions. Instead of hiding behind roles, connectors can adopt a very different position, allowing them to identify where the tensions are and build bridges between institutions, systems and communities so that we can better understand each other.

'We want to change the system so that all those who work in the public services that serve us have real insight and understanding of who we are as communities, as people and as families.'

Instead of labelling communities as ‘hard to reach’, or ‘deprived’, good connectors frame their experience by looking at the strengths and assets of these communities. For example, mental health services are reframed as health and wellbeing services, capturing both the preventive aspects of care and the treatment of those with more severe needs. Diversity of ideas, opinions and perspectives are welcomed on all issues, from how data on victims is managed and how funds should be targeted to what telephone counselling questions are considered appropriate for a victim or a survivor. Getting it wrong is more costly than simply asking the right questions and being willing to question how appropriate a solution is for diverse ethnic and faith communities.

The decision for survivors and families to be allowed to go back up the Grenfell Tower went against most emergency crisis policies, but it was what the community themselves wanted to do. In the end this took priority over the concerns of some public services. This was the tipping point in generating trust in the community. The right thing to do was to give frontline staff permission to do what they felt necessary to connect with victims and survivors in Grenfell, but this would not have been possible without board level commitment, which continues to play an important role and shape action on the ground.

Although the immediacy of a crisis requires action, any action needs to be thought through, and time for reflection, challenge and debate brings the best solutions for everyone. Grenfell United continues to work hard to challenge practices that are not appropriate for victims and survivors. We also play a role to ensure we have a place in crafting the solutions that do work. We bring the human side to complex systems, remembering our own personal journeys and the legacy that Grenfell leaves behind.

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