Michael Ridge, who died unexpectedly in July, 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.
In recent months, as the last person standing in the team (his much-esteemed colleague, Janet, having 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 his work and belief in the model of community social work that he practiced 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 fondly how he ‘d get punched in the school yard here 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 experienced 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 had strengths and assets which could 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 those 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 twenties he 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 and conservative policies.
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 2011.
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 that Janet and Michael carried out. The representatives from the council were gobsmacked and the team got a reprieve.