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PSW: Tribute to passionate advocate for Gypsy, Traveller and Roma community

Michael Ridge devoted his professional life to supporting one of Britain’s most marginalised communities. Following his death, aged 62, friend and colleague Jenny Daly remembers his life and work

Michael Ridge

Michael Ridge was a social worker of exceptional skill, integrity and kindness. Since 2000, he worked relentlessly in the Haringey Travelling People’s Team where he brought a unique mixture of emotional sensitivity, political awareness, and creativity to his work. Not to mention a trojan work ethic. He practised a model of community social work in which he believed passionately. This involved investing in relationships and building trust with Travellers that live in the borough, both on sites and in houses as opposed to just turning up to deal with a crisis without knowing much about the cultural and everyday context of their lives. 

In recent months, as the last person standing in the team (after his much-esteemed colleague Janet Allen passed away at the beginning of the year), Michael found himself under a lot of pressure. He was determined however that the service provided by the team – a term that was now synonymous with Michael himself – would carry on. This placed a huge burden on him professionally, but such was his commitment to community social work – and the trust he had built with Travellers over the years on which it was based – that he kept on rallying and worked even harder in the face of local authority austerity.

Michael grew up in Hatfield where his parents had settled after emigrating from the West of Ireland. He used to recount with amusement how he’d get punched in the school yard for being Irish – and then the same would happen when he went to Ireland, where his English accent marked him out. These experiences lent him an insider’s perspective on the everyday racisms faced by the Traveller communities he worked with, many of whom, like him, were from working class backgrounds.

Michael had a very non-judgemental approach to his work and believed that everyone has strengths and assets which can be drawn out with the right support and understanding. He applied his considerable versatility, intelligence, and creativity to this end. Over the years he never tired of building alliances with Travellers and agencies as well as setting up projects to help young Travellers pass their driving theory tests, making links with local sports clubs and even offering his own art therapy to the young Travellers he worked with.

His friends will remember Michael as a natural scholar with a love of learning. He did not shine at school, however, and in his early 20s would be diagnosed with dyslexia which explained much of the trouble he had reading in his younger years. He never forgot this formative hostile learning experience and struggled with dyslexia throughout his life. Later he studied politics at the University of York where he thrived intellectually and developed his lifelong passion for political analysis. No matter how much pressure Michael was under at work, he enjoyed nothing better than to offer a critical analysis of the contemporary political scene – not to mention where Travellers and other minority groups fitted into this – which involved a carefully argued critique of prevailing neo-liberal politics and values.

A man of many talents and interests, he trained to be an art therapist and was a gifted cartoonist. A work placement in the Maudsley hospital before he qualified as a social worker fostered a lifelong interest in therapeutic approaches to mental health. A lover of life and always curious, he was an avid traveller, spending time in Mexico and India.

One of his many skills was an ability to see beyond the particular drama unfolding before him to the wider systemic and political context it was drawn from. He was often appalled at the levels of ignorance he encountered regarding Traveller communities, including from service providers. Despite this, he was never reactionary and was always aware of the underlying fears and unconscious motivations which drive attitudes and behaviours. 

Many of us encouraged him to go into academia, where his knowledge and love of learning belonged. However, he was always drawn back to the struggle on the ground, dedicated to helping service users and their families, many of whom didn’t read or write and who were especially vulnerable to the service cuts when austerity politics was introduced.

In 2014, the future of the Travelling People’s team was looking very precarious and ever the strategist, despite the huge strain he was under, Michael masterminded a courageous resistance by mobilising key alliances with Travellers, voluntary sector organisations and other supporters. He organised a meeting in the civic offices where a great show of supporters turned up, including a number of Travellers who spoke very persuasively of the important work he and Janet carried out. The representatives from the council were gobsmacked and the team got a reprieve.

Very sadly, in the space of six months both Michael and Janet have left us, unable now to continue their work and to defend its importance to the communities they served. It’s hard to imagine the Travelling People’s team surviving, and the loss of the knowledge and trust built up over many years seems inevitable. For those of us that are still here however, we must continue to fight for the values championed by Michael in his lifetime and find ways to continue the conversations he started.

Michael’s wry sense of humour, ability to listen and to tell a story lent him an ease with people, whether in a one-to-one with a client or a colleague or giving a talk to an audience of policy makers and academic. His commitment to his work, passion for social justice and skills as an advocate, educator and bridge builder helped and inspired those who had the privilege to work with him, know him and to be his friend.

Rest in peace, Michael Ridge.

Jenny Daly is a former community development officer at the Traveller Movement, social worker and friend of Michael Ridge