Q. When is a table not a table?
A. When it is the expression of institutional power and professional entitlement.
(Oh and It is also a plea to those within Newham Council’s property management team to help us find a new building.)
I, and many magnificent yet marginalised mums, supportive professional partners, and volunteer community members, run The Magpie Project. We work in Newham with mums of under fives who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
These mums are having to parent their children in the most extreme circumstances, in circumstances that you would not believe occur in our brilliant, vibrant capital city.
Our mums have to live in rooms no larger than a single parking space, chronically infested cockroaches and mice, without regular hot water, sharing a bathroom and kitchen with up to 5 other families. Some have limited washing facilities. Some have to wait 2 hours to cook for their families in filthy shared kitchens.
This is not an act of God, it is not a natural disaster, it is a choice
These circumstances, and the protocols we have to put in place to alleviate them, often remind me of emergency responses to earthquakes or war. Groups of people without basic amenities – worrying about formula fed babies because it is not clear that mums will be able adequately sterilise bottles. Giving out food bags designed for people with access only to a kettle, no cooker, no fridge. It is jarring – when find ourselves in the mindset of ‘disaster’ planning – to remember, repeatedly, relentlessly, that this destitution, this misery is not an act of god or a natural catastrophe. This destitution and misery is the result of repeated political and personal decisions. This destitution and misery is not inevitable or beyond our control. We choose this, every day, we decide not to change it.
But that is an aside.
The people who were hanging on to the bottom rung of the ladder have fallen off
The point is, we have seen a massive increase in demand for our services due to Covid.
It is as though the whole country is ‘adjusting down’ a few rungs on the ladder of financial wellbeing, and those who were only just hanging on to the bottom rung are falling off altogether. Notable in this group are those who have the legal right to live and work here. Indeed many are the very people we are clapping on our doorsteps every week, carers, NHS workers, delivery drivers, shop workers. The only difference is that they have a No Recourse to Public Funds condition placed on their visa. If they become ill, unable to work, or lose their jobs, or their zero hours contracts are no longer delivering any hours, they have no furlough, no universal credit or sick pay, no income.
These families and children, new to destitution, join many Magpie Mums whose asylum-seeker, or insecure immigration status has seen them endure enforced destitution for years, even while recovering from horrific abuse, slavery and trafficking.
The long and short of it is, where we are now, Forest Lane Lodge, is small. We are too many, we have too much stuff to store thanks to constant donations and incredible generosity from our community. We face having to turn people away, and we are infuriating other community groups with whom we are supposed the share the building. We need a bigger space.
We are going to need a bigger space
When rolling lockdowns and tier restrictions are finally over, our families will need to spend time out of their cramped, infested, cold and dangerous accommodation more than ever. Not only will their physical, but also their mental, health will need mending.
Can they spend time in community hubs? You might ask.
There are. While many staff are , humane and do what they can to accommodate, some see our mums and toddlers as a problem.
‘They sit there, they don’t watch their children, they are just on the computers, or their phones, sometimes they fall asleep.’ they say.
For as long as staff see these mums and minis as a problem, they won’t ask them why they need to feed their children in the library.
The answer is that they can’t get home because their older children are at school in Newham but they were rehoused to Redbridge, they don’t want to disrupt their children’s schooling so they are not going to change schools, but they can’t afford the time, the bus fare or the energy it takes to bring older kids to school, go home, come back and pick them up. So they need somewhere to be between 9 and 2 with their younger children.
They won’t ask mums why they just sit there on their phones or on the computers for the 20 minute session they are allowed.
The answer is because they don’t have wifi, and they are desperately trying to communicate with their solicitor, or their housing officer, or their social worker.
They don’t ask mums why they fall asleep.
The answer is because they have not slept, because this is the first time they have been warm in days.
For as long as some staff don’t recognise the exhaustion, the fear, the need for warmth, for somewhere to be, in our mums their behaviour in this public space will be seen as a anti-social. It seems our mums are not the right kind of ‘community’. This community space is not for them. Their presence is a problem.
Other ‘public’ spaces have been either privatised or colonised by groups with more voice or cultural entitlement. It is not just our families who are being marginalised, reading Joy White’s book Terraformed will knock anyone who lives in this part of East London.
We need more than a building, we need a space.
When we say that our 250-strong band of magnificent, marginalised, Magpie women and more than 300 children need a building. We are talking about the space that a building affords. Where you, our mums can be.
Space in the day to sit down and have someone else share the overwhelming, exhausting, responsibility of keeping your child, happy, healthy, well under the extreme duress caused by destitution. (some of you have cried when we offer to hold your child while they eat or while they talk to a professional – yo tell us nobody has helped with their baby since birth).
Space to breath and not be judged. Where, mums, you can express fears, hopes, and start to heal from past trauma. Trust takes time. You don’t have to tell us your story, you don’t have to re-bleed your trauma and terrors for a bag of nappies and some hot soup.
Space to sit and stare and the wall, to sob, to give up (at least for 20 minutes) and not have justify why you are there are what you are doing to help yourself.
Space designed for you and your child, where you are neither too noisy, too messy, too baby, too toddler, too emotional, not emotional enough. Where you never have to walk the tightrope between being passive enough not to be called aggressive, and active enough not to be told you are failing to engage.
Space where your children are celebrated and nurtured – not seen as additional problems, as burdens. Where nobody will ever ask you: ‘Why did not have children if you can’t support them?’ Or say: ‘You’re not pregnant AGAIN are you?’.
A nest, a stronghold, a power base. SPACE.
But buildings bring their own problems
We know that many buildings are intimidating. Many buildings are the petrification of power structures that put those entering them seeking help at an instant disadvantage.
We don’t want a building like that.
We don’t want a building with a wall of glass and paperwork at the reception.
We don’t want a building where you have to shout your business across a barrier or through glass for everyone (except weirdly the receptionist) to hear.
We don’t want vulnerable women and grouchy kids having to wait in corridors or cold receptions, on the hard chairs, to be buzzed in through doors which someone else decides will open or remain closed.
We we don’t want doors!
We don’t want professionals to be able to barricade themselves, back to the wall, in the power seat while mums with toddlers have to hug the walls and perch on chair or benches in order not to disturb the ‘real working’ of those in the building.
OK, obviously we need doors! We need walls, we may need the occasional table. And that, at last, is where the riddle at the top of this piece comes in. When is a table not a table?
First the background
We invite only the most engaging and brilliant professionals in to our space to engage with our mums. We vet them, we make sure they will treat everyone with dignity and respect.
These professional then engage with our mums in on our mums’ terms. On our mums’ terms. In our space where mums are safe, supported, scaffolded.
London Black Women’s Project, Shelter, Children’s Centre Family Support Workers have all been with us from the start, they are brilliant at this opportunistic style of working and feed back that their case work and reviews are made easier because mums are comfortable and at home their our space. For us referrals are literally warm hand-overs. We take a mum by the hand and introduce her to the professional.
One day I was looking for our incredible, highly trained, massively knowledgeable legal mind from London Black Women’s Project to introduce a mum with an emergency need.
Looking round I spotted her being pushed around on the roundabout by three very excited toddlers. No ice to break, no need to work to put the anxious, traumatised new mum at ease.
So far, so good. Then one day our nursery nurse asked for a table.
I said ‘NO. You cannot have a table’.
In my mind, I thought: You will not engage in the power politics of having your own table. We are all women with our own skills, knowledge, experiences, your ‘professional entitlement’ does not fly here, it will not get you a table with which to terrorise unsuspecting and unsure mums.
I told my colleague Sam Ward, who is much wiser, more pragmatic and reasonable than I am. Sam said, ‘I think she needs somewhere to put all her leaflets’.
Oh, I said, slowly reining in my high horse and dismounting.
‘Well she can’t sit BEHIND the table’ I retreated. ‘She has to sit in front of it or to the side of it. She must be on the same side of the table as our mums’.
In conclusion, and in answer to the member of the local authority building team in Newham’s scoffing question: ‘So, are you looking for a beautiful building at next to no cost’. Yes, we are, we want a building. But most of all we want a SPACE.