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Grenfell Tower: Three Months On

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If you aren’t still angry about the Grenfell Tower tragedy, you probably haven’t been listening. For (perhaps international) readers who have not yet heard this story – the story of an inferno in a London tower block. The story of a hellish injustice, and it both starts and ends with inequality.

The fire at Grenfell broke out back in June 2017. The nation’s horror was bright, the smoke still choking our words, and the broken building breaking our hearts. And yet, in the wake of Grenfell’s black ashes, the nation’s indignation has been sparked by other tragedies. However, Grenfell has not been forgotten.

Allow us to go from the beginning.

The affluent borough of Kensington, West London, is known for hosting numerous high-end eateries and shops, alongside the famous Royal Albert Hall. On average a person will pay a cool £2m for a house here – which suits those who earn the area’s mean salary of nearly £123k, but perhaps not those who earn the median (which is about a quarter of that). Kensington and Chelsea reportedly the most unequal borough in the country.

Grenfell Tower is – was – a block of 129 flats. Within it lived young artists, working adults, older adults (some with dementia), people with disabilities, schoolchildren. It housed the whole colourful spectrum of life, from infancy through to retirement. Read about the residents. Learn their names; learn their stories. The Grenfell Action Group, established in 2010 to defend “the rights of the residents of Lancaster West Estate”, repeatedly warned that the building in which these people lived was unsafe.

The Grenfell Action Group did the best they could – created a community collective, campaigned, gathered evidence and shared stories. Nobody listened. The tower, built in the 1970s, received a “refurbishment” in 2014.  Cheap combustible cladding was used to cover the outside of the building – largely reported as a way to improve the appearance of the tower, for wealthier local residents. Their home was airbrushed with death.

Leaked documents suggest that the cladding was deliberately downgraded (from fireproof to combustible) to save £300,000, at a time when the council was actually in surplus of around £2.74 million. They had also recently given the rich (who payed full council tax) a £100 tax rebate in their “overachieving efficiency drive”.  The cladding material is banned in continental Europe and the United States – in late June, Chancellor Philip Hammond suggested it may even be banned in the UK.

The Grenfell Action Group tried, again and again, to bring fire risks to the attention of those with the power to spare their lives. That particular post ends with chilling prophecy: “ONE THING IS CERTAIN – THEY CAN’T SAY THEY HAVEN’T BEEN WARNED.“A fire risk assessment back from 2012 noted a range of out-of-date fire safety checks. The cladding was unsafe. Rubbish and waste blocked fire exits.  Reports to the government dating back to 2000 suggested that non-combustible external cladding should not be used on buildings. It’s all there.

The fire started in a flat on the 4th floor, apparently due to a malfunctioning refrigerator, around midnight on the 14th June. Approaching 1 AM, the first call to firefighers came in. Eventually, around 40 fire engines with around 200 firefighters were tackling the blaze. Despite their best efforts, it was not enough. Of course, the cladding was not responsible for the onset of the fire. However, it accelerated the blaze phenomenally. It wasn’t until 5pm the next day that firefighters reached the top floor.

However, it cannot be understated how much the power of the Grenfell community shone through – from offering shelter, food and taxi rides, to supporting grieving and traumatised individuals, to helping each other escape from the tower itself. Humanity was not lost from the side of the residents and locals. It wasn’t lost from the rest of the public. The Grenfell community was always there. It was never a blight. It was home.

The Prime Minister, Theresa May, initially suggested it would take three weeks for survivors to be found a new “home”. Later, this was recast as a promise offers that everyone would have offers of housing. As of 1st August 2017, only 45 “offers of accommodation” were made, with 12 families being rehoused. Some survivors ended up searching for private accommodation such as one man because his wife couldn’t leave the hospital until they had a home to go to. Others are now currently “bidding” for council housing.

As of the end of August, Freedom of Information requests have suggested that £4.2 million was spent by the council on hotels for survivors. And that’s not the only money in questionable status. Around this time, over half of the funds raised by charities after the fire were “available” for distribution. However, just over two-fifths of the money raised by charities to support survivors of the fire has actually reached the intended recipients. There was over a £16 million shortfall as of early August, but there have been some improvements since then.

The Metropolitan police have confirmed that the Grenfell Tower “tragedy” amounts to corporate manslaughter. Note how the “tragedy” is referred to as an “incident” or “disaster”, because heaven forbid we actually mention the people who created this situation.

Sir Moore-Bick, Judge presiding over the inquiry into the fire has suggested that his work will not give survivors the justice they deserve. The scope of the inquiry is only allowed to ask questions about the fire, but not the context of how flammable cladding was purchased for prettiness).  Residents have not been consulted on the inquiry, and the  – despite promises from the Prime Minister that they would be. So what now? How do we help?

We have the charity football match Game4Grenfell, the “Bridge Over Troubled Water” charity single with various celebrities and other public characters offering their support, condolences, and sympathies. We have empathetic stories about the futures missed, the A-levels passed, the art displays. We also have first-person accounts bluntly calling out what amounts to a context social cleansing which created this tragedy.

“I want to urge everyone in the media with the power to do it to give the individuals who work with and for you the space to do something, anything, in the wider community we communicate with.” – Journalist John Snow

What you are reading, then, is an article trying to harness media power. Firstly, it’s an article trying to prevent Grenfell’s ashes fading away in the wake of other, more recent tragedies and governmental abuses. Secondly, it’s an article to say: charity intervention is still not going to change the underlying causes.

When we do our post-mortem, we can’t just think about the specifics of the blaze. We need to include the socio-cultural fuel: poverty, inequality, contempt for the poor, an ignorance of people’s lived experiences. For example, the Grenfell Action Group documented first-hand what was going on, yet their stories which still has fewer views that mainstream second-hand sources.

Do we live in a country where tax rebates are paid for in blood money? Do we live in a country where we unashamedly let empty, million-quid houses lounge comfortably next to our crowded, deathtrap towers? Do we live in a country which still has nearly 230 other high-rise buildings at risk due to cladding?

Are you angry now?

Follow Grenfell Media Watch online, write to your MP, keep tabs on what the people in power are doing. Keep asking where the charity money has gone. Stop demonsing the poor, and/or immigrants, and/or people on benefits. Accept that, through no fault of their own, whole swathes of our society need a bit of a leg-up. If you hear other people doing the demonising, call them out. Read people’s own stories, in their own words, and believe them. Amplify the voices of people who are perfectly able to speak for themselves.

Grenfell is cold, but our hearts aren’t. Let us show more solidarity and support than just our sympathy and disbelief. Let’s continue to stand alongside each other.

Chey is a mental health worker from the north of England. She currently works with adults with learning disabilities. Her interests include gender, sexual and racial equality, human rights, social inclusion, older citizens, mental health and wellbeing, poverty and disability rights. She has participated in a range of charity and/or fundraising projects over the years, and looks forward to your ideas for the next one!

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Child Welfare

How to Support Foster Children

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When you choose to become a foster carer the rewards can be great. Supporting a child through a difficult period in their life, watching them grow and develop into a well-rounded individual; it’s understandable why so many choose to pursue this worthwhile vocation.

However, as with any profession, it does come with some downsides. Primarily helping some children to cope with the trauma and stress that being in foster care can evoke.

So, how can you best support a foster child in a meaningful way? One that will be beneficial to the both of you.

Listen

Feeling like the most overlooked member of society can have a damaging and long-lasting effect on foster children. Meaning that the simple act of offering them an ear to vent their worries, experiences or anything at all can be extremely positive. It establishes you as a point of reason in their life.

You can’t always solve the issues that are brought up during these moments. Nor should you try, but it is worthwhile simply being there to hear. Because, at the end of the day, your foster children deserve to be listened to.

Celebrate

Birthdays. Christmas. Halloween. Important events can often go overlooked as a foster child. So, taking the chance as a foster parent to celebrate these milestones – no matter how little or big – can be the change that a child needs. Simple things such as helping put up a Christmas tree could be a moment they will remember for a long time to come.

And at the end of the day events like Halloween and Birthdays are fun – something every child needs a little more of in their lives.

Playdates

Your support is vital, but often the support of peers can also be invaluable for the wellbeing of those children in foster care. Setting up playdates – even for older children – can be a great way to help them interact and enjoy time with children their own age.

Older children or teens may be unreceptive to you making playdates for them. But, arranging ‘coincidences’ of kids their age coming over can always be an alternative solution. What they don’t know…

This can also be beneficial for any of your own children that may also be in the house. A disgruntled foster child can be a distressing presence in the home, so balancing this out with a familiar friend and playmate is often needed to offset this. All of the children in your home can benefit from socialising with others both in and outside your own home at times,

Getaway

Sometimes life can get a little too much when you are forced to come and go through a number of foster homes, which is a reality for many foster children. A day out – not even an expensive day out or holiday – can be a bright spot in an otherwise overcast moment in their lives. The zoo, beach, museum and even the park can be an adventure.

It’s not always clear what a child is going through, nor will they always express their emotions in healthy ways. Removing them from the environment which creates these feelings can be a relief in many cases.

Help with School

On average, foster children tend to do worse academically and behaviour wise in school than other children. The reasons are often self-explanatory, but it is something which you can positively influence whilst they are under your care.

Helping with homework, actively engaging with teachers over what you can do further to help and encouraging after-school activities are some ways to do this. Goals should be set, but ensure they are realistic and rewarded when surpassed.

Overall, being a foster parent is a big task but one that can bring so much enrichment to a child’s life. As a solid figure in their life, you can help ensure the rest of their life is more positive than the start. Supporting a foster child can be a challenge, but that makes it all the more rewarding when you see a positive effect on the life of a child.

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Global

A Student Perspective: Social Work and First Responders

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It may be rare for a social work student to reflect on an assignment as something inspirational rather than a stressful experience with a deadline, but at the end of  3rd year of my social work degree, one assignment was a challenge filled with hope. The assignment allowed me to contribute to a program that will give insight to other helping professionals about the mental health of first responders: police, firefighters, paramedics and others who respond to emergencies on the frontline.

The University of Newcastle has a particularly effective way of integrating workplace experience based learning with academic learning throughout the degree. The program options offered in third year which allow students to develop a program for a real agency was the most useful for me. To know your work might form a foundation for a real program in the community was a great honour and challenge to work on.

In the beginning, I was unsure of what to expect from the program development project. I was apprehensive about working with a professional capacity with a real agency, but I was excited also to learn more and try something new. There were diverse programs offered- from gardening programs to developing group projects designed for children and developing a program for professionals working with first responders.

The university gave us a chance to preference our interests and I was fortunate enough, with some other amazing women to be selected for the first responders team. The aim of our project was to put together a draft training package for helping professionals to enhance understanding of first responder mental health.

This topic drew my interest as it was beyond my scope of knowledge and I have a keen interest in mental health, so it was intriguing to me on both a personal and professional level. On starting, I very quickly became aware that I had actually put very little thought into the work first responders do in our communities to keep us all safer.

I learned just how complex the actual work of first responders can be, I learned the challenges that first responders face as a consequence of their work, the most traumatic of which is often invisible to the communities that they protect. I learned how repetitive exposure to trauma can complicate all aspects of first responder’s lives if they don’t or can’t seek or obtain support. I learned how much awareness is lacking within the multiple levels of the community, which is needed to enact change for first responders and their families.

Also, I learned the difficulties that can be faced by first responders and their families when attempting to access help. Whilst organisational supports are in place for some of the services, the stigma, shame and potential for the loss of their profession is very real. I heard stories about those medically discharged dealing with the grief and loss of their profession and identity.

My part in the group was to examine the supports already in place for first responders. I was concerned at the limited avenues for assistance and the extent of the difficulties for first responders to seek help. Besides limited services, stigma and organisational culture are barriers to effective help seeking. I found attempting to identify potential services to be frustrating, especially when looking for options within communities rather than those which are employer organisation based. My mind quickly went to how this frustration might feel for someone who was attempting the same whilst being unwell.

Gaining insight and recognition into the role first responders play, the impacts on their mental health, their relationships and all aspects of their lives and the flow on effect to their wider social ecology,  I  realised just how large the scale of first responder post-traumatic stress and other mental health consequences have on our community overall.

The hardest part of this learning experience was seeing the end of the project. The topic is so significant, it is hard to not to explore the topic further.  To me, this feels like a core social work and social justice issue, yet one which is invisible much of the time. My learning from this project has given me a totally new perspective. I have a renewed respect and a much deeper understanding of the issues faced by police, firefighters, paramedics and all others who work on the frontline in emergencies.

I know I’ve only scratched the surface of the knowledge it takes to work with first responders and enact positive change in their lives. I hope more research is completed and potentially more opportunities for training and professional development come up for social workers, whether it be integrated into core teaching within university programs or externally in workplaces.

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Education

Need to Learn a New Language: Modern Technologies That Will Help Beginners

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The first time people thought of using computers. Previously called Computer-Assisted Language Instruction and the Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL), the general concept has its humble roots in the 1960s. With the invention of the microcomputer, the CALL technologies moved away from the mainframes of major universities and into the wider population. Today, when most people have a supercomputer, they are proliferated to include everything from a gamma to a virtual reality.

With the list of ever expanding options, here are some of the most popular technologies that can help all language learners:

Video calls help connect the world

There is no way to underestimate the effect of Skype, FaceTime, and Google Hangouts. Before these technologies became widespread, meeting and having a face-to-face conversation with somebody from another country. Now, you can find a conversation in your target language in the blink of an eye and having online lessons has never been easier. There are all platforms dedicated to finding and setting up your first online language exchange or lesson. All of this makes the language in your living room easy and comfortable.

A recent development that language learners might want to use with video calls is the Skype Translator. Especially for beginners, it can help (almost) real-time video calls. While it might be considered cheating, it can also prove to be a great tool for you.

Gamification makes learning fun

A surprising benefit of being always connected to the internet. When “language learning” is used to mean cramming vocabulary and grammar, these apps have very successfully gamified learning, making it more addictive than ever. These certainly help Although the most beginners, they’re also a great way of squeezing in some language practice in between lessons and keeping your brain active and focused on your target language.

The ruling king of language learning apps right now must be Duolingo, but you can also give busuu a try. Memrise is a great way to learn new vocabulary, especially if you prefer a lot of repetition. The newcomer Lingvist promises to teach you a language in 200 hours, although their selection of languages is currently quite limited.

New types of translators

Naturally, you do not need to be a language learner to use translators. Indeed, most of the time, text translators are used by people. But you can also use translators to assist you with learning. Picking up new vocabulary is the easiest when you have a handy device that can translate new words quickly and conveniently.

Starting with the (almost) real-time Skype translator, tech companies have been pouring money into new types of translation services, including text and visual translation. There’s the much-used and known Google Translate which is useful even without its more exciting add-ons. Once you download their app, once you download their app, once you get their Google app, you can use Google’s visual translations – just take a picture of whatever (road sign, menu item, sentence, etc.) English. Other companies are taking these technologies even farther, providing almost instant speech-to-speech and speech-to-text translations.

While, in the long term, these technologies can instantly be translated, for, they can surely help.

Artificial Intelligence – the way of the future

Artificial Intelligence has had another hot topic these past few years. From being hailed as the salvation from everyday labor to us. For us, AI can also be herald as a new era in Computer-Assisted Language Learning. Although, so far, the machines still find a human language rather confusing, so much so that they’ve even led to their own bot-talk to communicate. Be that as it may, the implications are still groundbreaking.

For example, the European Union is currently funneling money to get AI robots teaching preschool children a second language. On a less ambitious scale, AI can be used to also take language learning apps to the next level. Imagine programs that take into account your personal learning style and adapt appropriately, teaching you-specific vocabulary. Although this technology might still be a bit further down the road, Duolingo has already started engaging its users with AI-powered chatbots, a sign of things to come.

Virtual reality will transform immersion

It’s generally agreed that total immersion is an effective way to learn a language. The idea is simple. So far, the only way to really immerse yourself, however, is to travel to the country. Thanks to virtual reality, this is now changing.

There are already apps that make use of virtual reality to create a quick back-and-forth, much like an actual conversation with a native and definitely a step above Duolingo’s chatbots. The future regards virtual reality and language learning. ImmerseMe is a language start-up that is planning on creating authentic virtual realities to help you immerse in your target language. Since culture and travel are such good motivators for learning a foreign language, it’s easy to see why people are getting excited.

Conclusion – technology can make language learning more exciting and enjoyable

Already, several scientific studies have been provided with evidence on how to assist in acquiring a second language. While some of the technologies mentioned above are still just getting started, video calling and visual translators have already made language learners. Only time will tell how much simpler acquiring a second language can become.

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