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Chair's Blog: Community work as part of social work - vision and reality

During the first part of my time as Chair I had the pleasure of working alongside Luke Geoghegan, who was elected to Council at the same time as me, as Chair of the Finance and Human Resources Committee. After being re-elected with me in 2016, Luke stood down having become our new Head of Policy and Research, where he is developing a tremendous programme of work together with Policy and Research Officer, Godfred Boahen. Between 1998 and 2008, Luke was the Chief Executive at Toynbee Hall, the first Settlement in London’s East End, where Clement Attlee worked before the First World War. I feel a strong connection with the East End Settlements now myself, living near to them and being a frequent visitor to Oxford House and St Margaret’s House in Bethnal Green. This is a companion post to my previous “From Attlee to eligibility criteria”, in which I looked at the balance in social work between collective and individualised approaches. Here we focus on the former, beginning with an exploration of how the Settlement Movement helped to develop social work as community work.

Community work as part of social work - vision and reality

Social work is generally seen as having two sources: ‘casework’ growing out of the Charity Organisation Society, which was referred to briefly in the last post on this blog, and ‘community work’ growing out of Toynbee Hall, the first example of what was going to become known as the Settlement movement. But to understand how community work grew out of settlements, we need to know what a settlement involved and to know that, we need to know a little about Toynbee Hall.

London’s East End, and other big industrial cities in the Victorian period, had a tradition of ‘missions’ - Christians settling in poor areas. A couple, Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, took this idea and reinvented it for the new world by founding Toynbee Hall in 1884.

Their idea involved people coming from outside of the area to settle in the community in a particular building (hence the name ‘settlement movement’). At the heart of a settlement was a group of young residential volunteers – the settlers - who came from professional or upper-class backgrounds. The settlers ran clubs, taught adult education and got involved in local politics. The building usually involved accommodation for the settlers, reception and meeting rooms (hospitality was seen as important) and rooms for activities. But crucially, this involved the settlers living in the community and observing the problems that local people faced at first hand. For some settlers, the experience probably washed over them, for others it was a transformative experience. Once they had seen the scale of the society’s problems, they had to react. Attlee describes an example of the latter (possibly referring to himself) in his book The Social Worker

Unlike the missions, a settlement didn’t ‘do’ religion (that didn’t mean to say that the people involved weren’t involved in religion!), and Toynbee Hall was built without a chapel. Not promoting a particular religion was crucial not only to the foundations of community work, but to the foundations of the welfare state itself. For Toynbee Hall, it opened the door, literally and symbolically, to (Roman Catholic) Irish immigrants who feared that they might be expected to convert to Anglicanism, and also to the immigrant Jewish community who feared they might be expected to convert to Christianity. Indeed, Toynbee Hall formed and hosted the first all Jewish Boy Scout Group, when Scouting was about as Anglo-Saxon as it could be.

Settlements spread remarkably quickly. For example, an early visitor to Toynbee Hall was Jane Addams. Jane downplays the visit in her autobiography, but she did go back to Chicago and set up a settlement called Hull House. Jane Addams became a giant of social reform in the USA, eventually winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Jane is relatively unknown in the UK, but remains well known in the USA.

The Barnetts and other settlement folk were interested not just in individuals, but in individuals in the context of society - what were the structural forces that kept people in poverty? Out of this grew a desire to measure and document poverty. This was the beginning of social science. Working out of Toynbee Hall, Charles Booth documented poverty in a series of maps. A team in Chicago undertook a similar exercise – what became known as Hull House Maps and Papers. This was not simply about dry statistics - Booth’s work and the Hull House Maps were what we would call today ‘infographics’, powerful tools to communicate the scale and depth of poverty.

However, for the Barnetts and the movement they inspired, poverty was not simply about lack of money and inadequate housing, crucial though these were; it was also about lack of access to green space, lack of access to holidays, lack of access to art, and lack of access to hope. This interest in society also resulted in a huge emphasis on education as a liberating force, not just for the local community but for the settlers themselves.

Some of the settlement movement was very late Victorian; the Toynbee settlers were all men (though women’s settlements soon followed) and wore magnificent waxed moustaches, and yes, could use politically incorrect language. Later the movement was criticised (among other things) for being ‘colonialist’ - the fortunate few coming to live among the poverty-stricken many - but this omits to take into account some of the successes of the settlement movement including a major role in the foundation of the welfare state.

But the foundations of what became ‘community work’ were there: working alongside people, adopting their priorities (not the priorities of the agency, or constantly assessing ‘risk’), welcoming diversity, not using the work as a platform for promoting organised belief, using the arts to inspire and sustain change, documenting poverty and social need and using that to campaign for a better society.

Some of this activity continues in the East End charities and community centres that make up the legacy of the settlements there today. All established in the 1880s, Toynbee Hall, Oxford House and St Margaret’s House continue to serve the community, in a variety of ways. However, while Toynbee Hall - strapline: “For a future without poverty” - still provides the free advice services that have been a staple since the launch of its Legal Advice Centre in 1898, the latter two’s arts and community centre focus and clientele match the modern gentrification of parts of the East End.

Still, the existence of these centres as community hubs, providing spaces for group activities and volunteering opportunities, testify to a desire for involvement in the community and collective provision that has not gone away. We believe the same desire persists among social workers, and that it is an unusual social worker who would not want to work in a community-minded way if the opportunity presented itself. 

The late, great Bob Holman, who gave up his professorship in social administration at Bath University to become a community worker first on the city’s deprived Southdown estate, and later in Easterhouse in Glasgow, wrote an article for the Guardian in 2013 called “The case for preventive community social work is returning”. There has always been such a case, and whether or not we see such a social work practice returning is more a matter of political will.

It also requires a vision, and we believe that this is something that BASW can - and should - help to create. It is our duty, as the  professional association of social work and social workers, to assert what we believe social work to be. As we say within our 2020 Vision: “We will actively assert our ownership of our professional values, ethics, knowledge, education and practice”. If social workers are not currently practising community work, or community social work, this does not make it any the less a part of what we consider to be social work.

However, a word search in the 2020 Vision for “community” suggests that in constructing this vision three years ago, we were not sufficiently clear about the importance of community work as a part of social work. Over the next two years, leading up to 2020, BASW will be reviewing and refreshing its vision. This review will be guided by a wide consultation. If giants from social work’s past, from the founders of Toynbee Hall to Bob Holman, were consulted about a vision for the future of social work, they would assuredly want this to include community work as a part of social work. We believe that many of today’s social workers will want the same.

Luke Geoghegan, Chief Executive, Toynbee Hall, 1998-2008, Chair of BASW’s Finance & Human Resources Committee, 2014-2016, Head of Policy and Research at BASW, 2016-present

Guy Shennan, Chair of BASW, 2014-2018, resident of Bethnal Green in London’s East End.