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The women of Grenfell: “Girls with true fighting spirit”

It's been two months since the fire and this weekend will see an emotional, defiant Notting Hill Carnival. But behind the headlines, local women having been working to begin to heal a wounded community

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By Marisa Bate on

I’m on my way to see Grenfell Tower. It’s been 10 weeks since the fire. I get off the Tube at Latimer Road and walk up Bramley Road, before turning on to Silchester Road. This could be any pocket of London – a cornershop, a pub, a mix-mash of housing, a red double decker whooshes past. Except it’s not. This is North Kensington. This is the neighbourhood in the shadow of Grenfell.

Posters of grief, of anger, of hope, now ripped and weather-beaten, are still pinned to walls and windows. Faces of strangers are eerily familiar since they’ve been on TV screens and in newspapers around the world. The hopeful face of a missing-person picture is now painfully redundant. Lists of names are written and plastered around the area like “Wanted” posters for those being held responsible – from the housing association, from the council, from the fire brigade. And along the railings are trinkets and tributes: grubby cuddly toys and washed-out candles. And then there’s the yellow; like an urban meadow, the international colour of missing people is weaved through fences and railings, wrapped around tree trunks, dancing along the now-quiet streets. I follow the crocheted yellow hearts, past the Notting Hill Methodist Church to Kensington Leisure Centre. And then I see the tower – an empty carcass, like a beached whale, looms large. The air feels suddenly thick. I can’t believe how people live their daily lives in the ashes of this tragedy, but somehow they do, because they have no choice but to – a woman takes a picture of fighting cats; a little girl whizzes past me on her scooter. Grenfell was not just a tower block – it was a community.

“I admire not only the strength, but the fairness I’ve seen women show,” says Randa, “strong, hard women from the area who don’t take shit from anybody – yet who keep open minds and stem anger in meetings by opting not to shut people down

 

In the months since the fire started on the night of June 14, a tragedy has unfolded that has told a narrative far greater than a faulty fridge-freezer on the fourth floor catching light. Issues of austerity, inequality, fatal neglect, deregulation and a huge social divide have come to the fore. Just this week, broadcaster Jon Snow gave the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Film and TV Festival, in which he admitted that the media was “comfortably with the elite, with little awareness, contact or connection with those not of the elite”. Grenfell is a Dickensian story of our times, neatly and painfully encapsulating how a society failed its people.

But what has flourished in the face of events is the community. The word rings through those streets like an invisible safety harness keeping everyone together, stopping anyone, as best they can, from falling through the gaps that society allowed to form. Obviously, the community involves committed, brilliant men, but I wanted to speak to the women. Why? Well, because, as an outsider, I noticed how women were helping shape this narrative. Dany Cotton, the London Fire Brigade’s first-ever female commissioner led the operation. Dawn Foster of The Guardian and Victoria Derbyshire of the BBC were two of the first journalists on the scene. Adele was pictured supporting the community and, as I later learnt, both financially and with her time, regularly arriving make-up- and entourage-free.

But, as an outsider, what I didn’t see was the women on the inside.

***

“You can go home,” says a striking young woman. Her hair was wrapped high on her head. Big hoops hung from her ears, a nose ring, a Yeezus T-shirt. “I’ve got kids. I can’t hide them from this. We can’t get away.” We’re sitting under the Westway, which has been turned into a community space. There are books and chairs. “It’s a place to paint or read or pray,” she tells me. There are questions written on one of the concrete pillars: “Is my school made of the same material as Grenfell?” is scrawled in the slanted writing of a child. “We don’t trust anyone,” she says to me as she paints. “The government did this to us. But the community? The community has been incredible.”

And after weeks of speaking to women in the community, I was beginning to understand what she meant, both in those initial chaotic moments and days, and in the weeks since.

***

Jacqui Hynes, 48, lives in Hurstway Walk, one of the surrounding blocks, just minutes away from the tower. She’s lived in the area for 30 years: “It is my community. I am a product of this community.” Jacqui was awake when her brother came in and told her about the fire. She ran down to the firefighters. “All we could do was look at them – we couldn’t stop the fire; we couldn’t stop those people jumping out the windows.”

She did see the outpouring of residents, who managed to escape, with nothing but their dressing gowns. And the ones who weren’t taken to hospital needed somewhere to go. She called the TMO (Tenant Management Organisation) emergency number to ask for the key to a nearby community space in the middle of Lancaster West Estate. She was told they couldn’t find the key. (After a meeting with the community, Theresa May announced this week that the TMO will have its responsibilities removed and cease to manage Grenfell.)

For the next two days, Jacqui said “most of the estate was out, looking after each other and the overspill”. Jacqui and her neighbours began to coordinate on WhatsApp – messages of what survivors needed shot around. She’s also been involved in community meetings, making sure “legal questions” are being asked and answered. “So, really, we’re policing ourselves. They’ve got the money and resources and we’re the ones trying to make it work for us.” Jacqui doesn’t see herself as a volunteer, though. “What am I going to do? Sign up to be a volunteer in my place?” she laughs. “There are two sets of volunteers. You‘ve got the volunteers who linked up with RBKC [Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea] or some of the voluntary organisations, and then there are people in the community who just get up if this happens on your doorstep. You may call it volunteering, but we’re all so stupidly committed to our community that we’ll just eat bread for now.”

Historically, women don’t take ownership of their accomplishments or see what they are going as anything remarkable. Historically, women just get on with it. Everyone I did speak to named someone else who was doing the “real” work

I come across three women who have been working to rebuild the nursery that was at the bottom of the tower block. They need a new space – toys, books, furniture for the children. Randa, a 41 year-old photographer and filmmaker, who now lives in Brighton, had lived in borough for over 24 years, where she’d been taking pictures of local bands in Ladbroke Grove and Portobello Road. “Grenfell always seemed to wink at me in the early-morning light, coming from gigs. This building has soul and it shone right though that concrete.” She got in her car and drove to London with donations as soon as she’d heard what had happened. After reading comments on Facebook groups, she stumbled across an idea: “An event like this goes right to the jugular if you’re a mother, father, carer or anyone who loves a child. Grenfell had so many young families, babies. This stopped me in my tracks… We started as a small crew – just three of us. Totally different backgrounds. It wasn’t conscious, but we were all mothers. Girls with true fighting spirits.” She says the ultimate aim of their work “is to give kids and families time and space to heal. A woman can love her kids like a lioness, but she needs freedom from the cubs to go out and pay the bills or, in this case, the time to find new accommodation for her family”.

There are countless stories of the amazing work local women have been doing. Victoria Derbyshire, who covered the fire that first morning on her BBC show, and a month later with residents and the housing minister, tells me: “The first person I met in the early hours of that morning was a woman who'd been straight to her local Tesco to ask for loads of bottles of water. When I spoke to her, she was wheeling them in a shopping trolley to firefighters and residents. Her immediate reaction was ‘I have to do something’.”



Photo: Getty Images

Dawn Foster, who was covering the fire for The Guardian, recalls speaking to a woman who had been looking for a missing friend. “She looked completely haunted. It was 3pm and she’d gone to every single community centre. In the end, she and another three women who were doing the same thing realised that there was no centralised missing-person list and sat down and made it themselves.” I hear about Sister Luna, a nun who has been giving spiritual advice down by the Westway, and the women behind The Real Community, a highly respected Facebook group that’s been offering mental-health support. The Love Grenfell women made T-shirts, worn by the likes of Rita Ora and Cara Delevingne. One woman, who didn't want to be named, told me: “I've done all sorts, from shouty advocacy to driving a birthday cake from the mosque to someone's birthday party.”

“I admire not only the strength, but the fairness I’ve seen women show,” says Randa, “strong, hard women from the area who don’t take shit from anybody – yet who keep open minds and stem anger in meetings by opting not to shut people down. A recent retiree for the NHS has opened her own house and garden to sort donations. She’s registered her charity organisation legally and is doing in on her own time and money.” Randa mentions another woman from the Amazon Wish List who “quietly sorted out a rather large wish list out for us and delivered it in a huge van with a couple of young women helpers”.

I come across more and more women but many of them won’t talk to me. In the days following the fire, protesters turned against the press. Where had they been, they wanted to know. Why weren’t they reporting a higher death toll? Why have you never bothered with us before? But something else was happening: nobody wanted to take any credit, nobody wanted to be making this about them. Is that a inherently female trait? There’s a lot to be said for women working, cleaning, loving and caring without any fuss or thanks. Historically, women don’t take ownership of their accomplishments or see what they are going as anything remarkable. Historically, women just get on with it. Everyone I did speak to named someone else who was doing the “real” work. Take Emy, one of the local woman working with Randa on the nursery. She told me: “I haven’t done much, honestly. In my opinion, the real volunteers have been many of the survivors themselves and their friends and family. Survivors and their loved ones have been helping do deliveries til 2am and such. Helping structure coordinate sort organise deliver. They are the real volunteers.”

***

I’m introduced to Megan Hession, strategic head for performance and transformation for RBKC council. This is the first interview she’s given: “I told my team if they did press, they were out, but now we’re in recovery and I want people to know how amazing they were.”

Megan’s team is away from the town hall. She’s in charge of culture, sports, the market. She calls it the “fluffy stuff”, but then regrets calling it that, explaining, “It’s actually really important, but it’s not social care, it’s not housing, it’s not planning.” She’d been in the job for just four months when the fire happened. “It was our faces that residents saw and I’m really proud of that. I don’t know how it happened like that – it just did.”

We meet on Portobello Road; she’s a small, blonde, 40-year-old American who had previously worked in sports and in the city. Everything was new to her. Except it wasn’t: “In a very weird twist of fate, I was in the World Trade Center on 9/11.” When she heard about the fire, she was pretty much down at the Westway Sports & Fitness Centre for two weeks on 16-hour shifts straight. “I hate to say it, but I was just trying to get away from 9/11, literally remove myself from danger. This is different because you run into it.”

She tells me she was there as both a 13-year resident of the borough and as someone from the council. “There is a lot of misconception about what the centre was and where people were placed. We never had more than 10 to 15 open-sleeping at the Westway [Centre] and, if they were there for more than a week, that was by choice”. She handed out petty cash (“Why do we have to get five signatures for this?! Yes, I appreciate it’s other people’s money, but we’re in a disaster”). “We did meals, we broke fast, we tried to make it a safe place. This was before we set up services like the passport office, finance. I don’t have kids, so I did overnights. They were quiet, but there’s when you see the most vulnerable.”  

'We’ve had the teddy boys, we’ve had the riots, we have been through so much down here! There’s absolutely no way we can just sit back and die and let it all fall apart'

Since then, Megan has been helping residents who don’t have a legal status in the UK, and on Fridays, with the street trading office, they run Operation Cup of Tea, which sees around 150 people a day and allows a lot of market stallholders to say: ”This is my hood; I’ve lived here my whole life. What the fuck just happened?” Megan’s also got questions: “Everyone knows I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about the Simon Cowell single – it was so quick and so opportunistic and nothing ever came of it. Nobody knows where the money is. I keep asking and nobody knows.”

Megan is not the council we’ve heard about in the press; her private-sector “do now, apologise later” attitude gives her a “fire me – I don’t care” approach to how she’s been helping residents and she by no means defends her employer. “In the town hall, I’m like, if you don’t like how I’m talking to you, fire me. Some people didn’t even know I was an employee! They thought I was a volunteer. I’m like, guys, I work for you. Come on!” Things have changed, however, she says. “It’s a new world order now – the council is not the same council it was two months ago.”

Megan says residents have become like family – she’s the “huggy” American who makes her British colleagues feel awkward. “You see the best of humanity. They’re very resilient people. They are strong. You can see it in carnival, you can see it in the market, you can see in the mothers coming and going from the mosques. They say, ‘God bless you!’ and I say, ‘No, God bless you!’”

The pride of this community lifts the heartbroken streets like the yellow ribbon down Silchester Road. “I felt so proud watching them,” Randa tells me. “My love for the area doubled, tripled – the area I always knew had a heart of a lion.”

“I am so proud of my community and how we have put our case forward,” Jacqui echoes. “This is a strong, tight community that can’t be infiltrated from the outside and we are historically tight. It’s in our genes, this community thing. We’ve had the teddy boys, we’ve had the riots, we have been through so much down here! There’s absolutely no way we can just sit back and die and let it all fall apart.”

And they are doing their damnedest. Dawn Foster tells me that the first council meeting with residents lasted five hours and was “one of the most incredible things I have ever witnessed. It was harrowing. It was frustrating. It was very very troubling and it was also the first time the survivors had been listened to by the council”. This week, Grenfell survivor Ines Alves made the front pages for getting an A in her chemistry GCSE, an exam she sat the day after the fire (the only thing she saved from her home was her phone and her chemistry revision notes). The government has launched an inquiry, which will hold its first hearing on September 14. There are still big questions about where donations have gone. Earlier this month, only £2.8m of the £18.9m given by the public had been distributed, and today still less than a third of the total fund raised has reached survivors.

Jacqui, Megan and Randa all say it feels like the world has moved on; Foster says it’s a story she’ll be covering for years: “At the moment, I can’t see an end in sight; the inquiry will take a long time, the criminal investigation will and then we’ll follow what happens to the survivors and their lives, and what happens to the area. And it’s really, really driven me to tell survivors’ and residents’ stories across as accurately as possible, and in as much depth as possible.”

“Lest we forget,” Jacqui says. “I keep saying we should get that on a T-shirt.”

***

I get back on the Tube, back past the yellow hearts wrapped around the tree trunks; the tower lingers over, but it’s not winking the way it did once at Randa. I leave behind the soggy teddies and the prayers and the message of love. I make my way into central London. There is no yellow there.

You can only hope that Grenfell is a watershed moment – a line in the sand that changes things for ever. You can only hope justice is served. You can only hope that this tightknit community, the "girls with true fighting spirits", help each other through the months, after the carnival, when the world looks elsewhere while the black burnt-out apartments hang heavy from the sky. You can only hope that the yellow hearts stay proudly on the streets of North Kensington, reminding us of those we are missing, reminding us, “lest we forget”.

All the people I spoke to – be they residents who refused to go on the record or journalists covering the story – have been irreversibly changed by this experience. But it was Randa’s words that stayed with me: “It’s not just about volunteering. It’s about us all asking the question: ‘How can I be a better human being?’”

Let’s start by asking the women, the men and the children of Grenfell.

@marisajbate

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 Picture: Getty Images
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young women and girls
women's safety
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