At 19, I went for a job as a children’s residential worker with Tower Hamlets council in east London. At the time the big ‘village homes’ had been largely superseded by much smaller community-based homes, but the institution that I applied to still had 12 houses on a single site and over 100 children in residence, from babies to teenagers. The interview with the superintendent went much as I expected until the final question. “Many of our children are very troubled. You are young, not much older than them, might you take their problems home?”
“Well, maybe, yes”.
I kicked myself all the way back. I had fancied the challenge, needed the money and knew I should have said that, like a good professional, I could compartmentalize and separate my emotions.
Surprisingly, I was still appointed. The job was indeed deeply affecting and also achingly joyful. I lived alongside children in small ‘families’ and in big friendless units. I saw the very good and the very bad.
On my last day I asked the superintendent, a man who had devoted 35 years to residential child care and whom I had come to admire enormously, how I got the job after answering with such naivety. He said, “Your answer wasn’t wrong. I’m not interested in employing people who have so little love for our children that they don’t take the job home”.
By this time I was also studying and learning about child care in other places and at other times. Many of the things that I was sure of at 19 I find more difficult today, but of this I am still certain: A society can be judged by how it cares for someone else’s baby.
Faith can sustain us. The natural world is timelessly invigorating. Stories, music, art, entertain and at best inspire. But it is our ability to notice and to care, for, with and about one another that makes us civilized.
I left child care to work full time on Community Links – the social action charity with which I have now been associated for more than 40 years. Over this time, we have worked with families and individuals in a variety of circumstances – homeless people, people leaving prison, lots of children in, or on the brink of, care. Repeatedly unpeeling these problems has revealed relationships that have either broken down or never existed to a meaningful degree and, equally consistently, the building or rebuilding of good and meaningful relationships has been a big part of the answer.
Relationship building, in different forms and contexts, had been a consistent thread in my working life but, as a society, we have been moving in the wrong direction. Of course, we network and transact now as we never could before, but being well connected is not the same as connecting well. Meaningful relationships are increasingly designed out of the services we need and the places where we live and work. This has implications for us all but especially for those who are already most disadvantaged.
Two years ago, I set up The Relationships Project to challenge and reverse the drift. More than ever, I believe that investing in good relationships, caring for one another, loving someone else’s baby, is what it is to be civilized.