Place and space in practice — A radical view

First published by Nick Watts, B-MAG member, and co-founder and Director of Together with Migrant Children (TwMC) on 5 January 2019

What’s so important about place and space?

It is something discussed, though not nearly enough, in work with children, young people and indeed with adults. In my work with children in families with insecure immigration status’, place comes sharply into focus. The children and young people we work with experience ‘threats’ to their place in many ways;

*  Experiencing dispersal, such as when Local Authorities place families they are supporting out of area or indeed when families access asylum support

*   Experiencing disruption, such as threats of removal to countries where children may have little memory of, or may never have been there

*   Experiencing displacement, pushed out of places and spaces, through discrimination, exclusion or otheri

On the flip side, space and place can be used for a collective good. Drawing on principles of community development. Considering in my practice, for instance, the creation of safe haven’s for migrants, with the provision of timely advice, but also solidarity, community and safety. Also the use of space and place in activism, with a particular focus on collective action, between many groups and stakeholders to support and enhance change and highlight injustice.

It is also important to understand that place and space is not just a physical construct. but social, historical, cultural and discursive (Foley & Leverett, 2011). Space and place has an important role to play in the reproduction of social values and also the more radical, becoming potential sites of agency, change, counter-culture and subversion. It is hugely important to consider place and space when considering theories of social mobility, cultural and social capital. Space and place is experienced physically, socially, psychologically and undoubtedly spiritually.

Threats to place — Experience and countering threats

Whilst I tackle this from my standpoint as a practitioner working within migrant rights, I would argue this has wide reaching applications, including in work with older people thinking about transitions, and working with young people in the care system.

I call it a threat based on my own experiences in practice. Jenny (not her real name) was a then 9 year old girl who was born and raised in the UK by her mother, of Caribbean origin. Through some truly horrendous experiences, Jenny and her mum ended up leaving their family home, ending upon the streets and with a precarious immigration status.  Jenny, in her first nine years, had already experienced horrendous domestic violence, instability in accommodation and once considered ‘illegal’ by the state, threats to the very fabric of her identity.

Jenny considered herself British. She was born here, she could name the ward in the hospital that she was born in. She had developed her social and cultural capital in and around the communities of South London, her church, her school. Of course she experience Caribbean culture, through the teachings of her mother, in the food they ate, in the stories that were exchanged. Fundamentally, however, she considered herself British. This was, of course, at the odds of the state, who determined that she was not in fact British , but Caribbean and her existence in Britain was one of illegality. The Home Office proceeded to enter the family into the family returns process, with the ultimate view of removing them from Britain. The Local Authority, in the meantime, made meeting the family’s basic needs incredibly difficult, by first refusing the family any form of support and then, when challenged, providing the bare minimum to barely meet Jenny’s basic needs.

Jack (2008) describes ‘place attachment’, which goes deeper than simply considering the spaces and environments that people interact with. He suggests that place only comes into existence when people attach meaning to it. He suggests that to get the feel of a place can happen in a relatively short space of time, but to develop feeling for a place is something else, generating social ties, create personal meaning and linking significant life events to place. Though time (the temporal experience) of place is significant, he argues that possibly more significant is the quality and intensity of experiences.

Blending some theory here (perhaps rather clumsily), it is not hard to imagine how place attachment can develop over several levels, such as those suggested by Bronfenbrenner (1979) in his ecological systems theory — Creating spaces and places in the home, the community, a borough of district and in identity and ties far wider, such as country and nationality. I would argue that this means that interactions within the spaces and places of the family, community and indeed those with the state and its actors, shapes meaning of and attachment to places and spaces.

This starts from a very young age, from experiencing positive and negative interactions within and with everyday surroundings — With the key being how individuals interact with those environments and the quality of those interactions within them (Jack, 2008).

Back to Jenny and hopefully we can start to see how this idea of place and space plays out in her life. Growing up with domestic violence affected her from a young age, affecting how she conceived place and space, both in feelings of safety, but also in her belonging and ultimately how this shapes her identity. Now, considering this perceived ‘illegality — Throughout the course of my work with this family, this illegality created a metaphorical and physical barrier between Jenny and the community and indeed society that she grew up within. Her interactions with state actors, from social workers to Home Office officials (the distinction in this case was rather hard to tell at some points) were constantly pointing to a rejection from the society she considered herself to be a member of. She was being denied help and support, she was being told that she did not belong. It is not hard to tell that this would have impinged significantly on her attachment to place and later, as these clarified her psycho-social wellbeing and mental health. This is one of the bigger issues that we encounter in our work, the turning of helping professions, such as state social work, into that of policing and border control.

Jenny felt like the other. She was threatened with a removal and given a date that this would take place. She and her mother had 2 weeks. She had two weeks to prepare to move to a country she had never been to, to a country where the mother had no remaining links or ties, no plans or way of support on arrival. She had 2 weeks to mourn the loss of her place and crucially, her identity. I use the word mourn intentionally, as this was my experience in my interactions throughout my work with her, she began to mourn the loss of what she considered to be her nationality and identity, her friends, her social ties, her links to what she considered to be her community. As arguably a stakeholder in these systems, her society and community, she was denied this, excluded from it and prevented from exercising her agency within them.

Thinking about place and space in practice

Ferguson (2011) wrote about the spaces of child protection work, arguing that within the current literature at the time, very little emphasis was placed on the spaces that it operated within and the meanings of place of the children and adults with which it intervened. Jack (2011) reaffirms this, arguing that the literature and resulting practice places significant emphasis on attachments to people and very little on children and adults attachment to place.

I would argue that to a great extent, this is still very true. However, I do think place and space thinking and theory has a lot to offer practitioners. Whilst I have focused on my own work here, it is not hard to see how place and space impacts on many aspects of work with all people. Places and spaces are still determinate in many ways, or at least influential, in what opportunities you will have, whether you will live in poverty, whether you will be a victim of crime, whether you will have access to the best healthcare. Place and space plays a significant part in our identity and our values. Our membership of society hangs largely on places and space, our nationality, our communities, our schools, our workplaces.

For Jenny, highlighting and explaining the importance of place to her was an important part of challenging what she was facing. Talking about her identity and how place shaped that was crucial. Thinking about a change of space and place, to a largely unknown culture, systems and way of thinking and the impact on Jenny was crucial. Thinking about place and space in the frame of destitution and homelessness, domestic violence and disruption was very important to understand her experiences and the way she perceived things. Exploring how she had developed these place attachments, from her memory of the ward she was born in, to her involved in her South London community to how she identified as British, to how she was labelled ‘illegal’ are all part of exploring her life story and how she shaped and interpreted her own identity. Organising these experiences, alongside other domains and aspects of her life was important, to understand how place, space and everything else knitted together to form a ‘web of relationships. Ecological systems theory offers a framework to hang this from, given it’s ability to organise multiple and competing ideas and theories (O’Dell and Leverett, 2011).

Using this radically meant launching a legal challenge. For Jenny, this was more than a legal argument, but also challenging the discourse that she was ‘illegal’. Created an argument that in the place and space that she operated within, she belonged, she had a right to that space. Theoretically, I suppose that it meant challenging the individualisation and onus on the mother and Jenny as illegal, by arguing that the structure, policy and legislation was unjust and treating Jenny unfairly and that if it went ahead, it would severely harm Jenny’s welfare. I am pleased to say that this was successful, thanks to well meaning assessment, robust legal challenge and a firm belief that what was happening was wrong.

Less specifically, the applications of place and space are in my mind huge and should be fairly high up the list of everyday practice. Not only in how space are perceived by those we work with, but how we have the potential to alter spaces as practitioners by our presence and actions.I have recently had the pleasure of reading ‘Protecting Children: A Social Model’ (Featherstone et al, 2018) and am so pleased to see a text of this type. It describes a more radical practice, with a far more nuanced and deeper appreciation of structural inequality in safeguarding. In viewing safeguarding in this way, we create a far better space for considering space and place and how it can contribute to social harms, alongside everything else.

For Jenny, practice was thinking about how we created a space that we could work within which respected her identity and culture, created safety and allowed her to acknowledge and explore the harms that she had experienced. It was creating a space that allowed this to happen, whilst in doing so allowing the evidence to be gathered to challenge what she was experiencing. It was, in short, creating a space where she felt belonging, acceptance and safety.

In day to day practice, practitioners need to think far more deeply about place and space. Thinking about, for instance;

*  The impact of a home visit, entering and potentially violating this space. How do we do this in a way that is respectful of place and space and creates the healthiest environment for relationships.

*   Inviting someone to the office for a meeting. What is the impact of an official space, what message does it send. What barriers does it put up, what opportunities can it create?

*  The impact of place and space of children, young people and adults. How they reflect on and tie their experiences to the ideas of place and space. From home, to the community, to society and nationality.

*  How spaces creating meaning for children, young people and adults. Particularly in regards to their culture.

*  Through our behaviours and dialogues, what spaces are we creating, are we creating discursive spaces? Are we creating safe spaces? Are we creating oppressive spaces?

Place and space as a force for change

Most who have read my blog will know I am a little partial to some radical theory, particularly Freire. He creates a framework through his theories that allow for a radical community development, allowing space for ideas such as challenging oppression, poverty and other social harms. I have been lucky since starting Together with Migrant Children to experience these places and spaces. From places like Hackney Migrant Centre where we run a drop in, which does a fantastic job of creating an environment of hope and change, despite the often desperate situations people attending their sessions will be facing. Spaces like Akwaaba which focus on creating a radical, anti-oppressive space to provide a social centre for Migrant Communities, who in doing so embed their work within the wider Hackney community. North East London Migrant Action is not a physical place, but creates powerful discursive spaces through accompanying people to Local Authorities when approaching them for support, changing and challenging the often oppressive space of the local authority place to something a little more equal, altering power structures that exist within every space.

Ledwith (2016) describes a framework for community development based on the work of Freire. Nita Freire, in the foreward to this book, writes;
As modern capitalism reveals itself to be a system leading the world to chaos, it has become obvious that the wealthy countries and individuals become wealthier, and the poorer countries become poorer, generating unprecedented injustices of all kinds. One can no longer hide from the fact that the inequalities between countries and people today are more dramatic than ever before. (pp. vii)

Ledwith argues that community development begins by ‘extraordinarily re-experiencing the ordinary’ and by questioning the every day of our lives. Spaces and places, I would argue, can play a huge part in this in altering the alienation experienced by groups, particularly at a community level but also in creating discursive spaces in which collective action and movements can be born and be successful. Ledwith explains, and I most certainly agree, that this involves taking sides and acting in solidarity, creating awkwardness in which people can confront realities, reflect on them and then take action. To do this requires creating a meaningful and safe physical place and an experienced space to make this happen.

It is not enough to sit on the fence. Radical community development suggests that democracy may not be best to achieve this. The purposes of these spaces should be to create situations in which conformity can be challenged and reflection can occur. This has always been my argument, for instance, in fighting for change from the ‘inside’ — As it may not necessarily create a space to achieve the change that is desired and instead encourage conformity by stealth, with the delusion that things may indeed change. It is why I reject the notion that professions cannot or shouldn’t be ‘placard waving’. Neutrality in space and in action, is not ideal.

We have enacted this in several ways with our partners and in our practice. Running children’s rights workshops which allow children in a safe space to explore oppression and discrimination and radically reimagine their rights. To creating a women’s space for women who have been at the receiving end of NRPF social work, to lead the creation of a guide for other families who are approaching local authorities. I am still thinking hard about how we create a space for local authority social workers in these positions to understand that harm that is caused in the course of this practice and how reflection and action may follow from this.

Combining radical change and individual space and place considerations in practice — Refugees at Home

Refugees at Home deserve an incredibly special mention in this blog. It’s simple really, they match destitute asylum seekers and refugees with hosts, usually in their own communities. A host will take someone in and share their home with them. Now, this has the potential to be incredibly paternalistic and in turn oppressive. But Refugees at Home have done something spectacular, creating an activist, radical hosting scheme. In the hosting itself, it acknowledges the need for place in one of the most simple ways, the need for a roof over one’s head. In a more psycho-social bent, it acknowledges the human need for belonging and that attachment to place, that feeling of safety. It recognises the need for people to remain in their communities and the groups that they have associated with, the social web that they have woven.

The act of hosting, in my view, is radical in itself. It is a direct challenge to government policy, to the injustices of asylum support in this country, to the wider law surrounding it. It probably would have been easier to set up a hostel, a shared space where people come. But in weaving this concept throughout communities in Britain, they create a discursive space of challenge, love and belonging across many, many places. The act of hosting becomes an act of love, solidarity, respect and protest.

Across the times of working with refugees at home, both when we have been referred to and as the referrer of our families to the scheme, the love and compassion shines through, from the founders, to the people that do the matching, to the people on the ground actively welcoming people into their spaces. What is fantastic, that I have noticed, is that they are not their spaces, the hosts co-construct a new space with each and every person that comes through their doors.

In short, I believe radical places and spaces can create radical change. From everyday practice, to challenging inequality, to recognising and then acting on harms. For the individual, places and spaces hold significance and in harnessing both their harms and potential, we have the opportunity to create a powerful movement, if we only rethink the spaces and places we operate within, and how we operate within them

Nick Watts
@TogetherwithMigrantChildren

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