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Acting locally in the Covid-19 era

Covid-19 has been like a viral version of globalisation. It’s the import and export of a deadly virus that pays no respect to national borders. So what’s local community action got to do with an international pandemic?

At a national level, of course, we have needed to mobilise the public sector, most notably the NHS. At a personal level, social media has provided ways for us to communicate with friends, family and colleagues across continents. But has the pandemic either stimulated – or stifled – local community action?

At one level, helping a neighbour with shopping; waving through the window to someone in isolation; sticking up a poster about a Mutual Aid scheme; all represent important contributions to our local communities. We could think of these as individual civic acts. Alongside this, mobilising our contacts with voluntary, community and co-operative organisations in our towns and villages has also been crucial. Local community action has an important complementary role to play in the current crisis but it also faces challenges.

Vulnerable people hardest hit

First, it’s important to note that community groups were already providing frontline support to people before the crisis. For example, they may have offered support or advocacy to people who were homeless or living in overcrowded temporary hostels; to undocumented migrants who encountered barriers to accessing health care; and to people on low incomes who relied on food banks to survive.

Second, it’s worth recognising that local groups have encouraged the associational life that is so important for mental wellbeing and local engagement. Over the last months most community centres have necessarily remained closed. These were places where people might learn yoga, drama or juggling; or organise and advocate for local needs; or provide places to socialise and meet friends. These are not frontline emergency services. But they may be vital locations for fostering mutual support and wellbeing.

Practitioner Voices

Let’s take two examples. At one community centre, in a densely packed neighbourhood in the south, volunteers have been regularly cleaning the garden as a convivial social space. Janet, one of the trustees, pointed out that the centre’s normal activities had ceased following government guidance several months earlier but ‘we have kept the garden open for local residents with strict rules on social distancing’. They rely ‘purely on room hire and fundraising activities’. At present ‘there is no income coming in’ and ‘we don’t get grants’. 

Meanwhile, a community centre on a new-build estate, have been operating an independent food bank. Sam, a committee member, underlined that health, housing and food were ‘the most basic aspects of life’. In this locality, ‘most people coming to food banks are on universal credit’ and, according to Sam, they are ‘self employed on low incomes that aren’t sufficient to cover their costs’. Their policy was that there would be no means test. Meanwhile, donations of money are preferred – rather than odd combinations of non-nutritious items – so that quality food can be distributed.

For him, the reason that Covid-19 had been such a disaster was because ‘for many people affordable secure housing, sufficient nutritious food and decent access to health services was already not part of their world’.

These two vignettes illustrate some modest but important examples of responses to the effects of Covid-19 by local community groups as well as indications of their own organisational fragility. Certainly, Public Health England’s (2020) [1] examination of the pandemic points to the higher risk faced by older people, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups, as well as for those living in deprived areas or in medical and menial employment roles. Local community action groups work closely with many of these groups.

The Outlook

It seems a different era since headlines on the 31st January 2020 read ‘First case of Corona virus confirmed’ [2]. For analysts such as John Gray [3], the arrival of the virus did not represent ‘a shift to small-scale localism’ however he argued that ‘…the hyperglobalisation of the last few decades is not coming back either.’ Gray’s analysis holds echoes of Paul Hirst’s [4] ideals of a local or regional associationalism that sought democratised private and public agencies.

The important support roles of local community action can easily be overlooked. Their multiple voices need to be heard in any post-Covid reappraisals of our social and economic structures. Their practical, social and convivial roles remain a vital contribution at the local level.



References



[1] Public Health England (2020) Disparities in the risk and outcomes of COVID-19, London: PHE publications.

 

[2] Burgess, K. (2020) ‘First case of Corona virus confirmed’, The Times; 31 Jan, 2020. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/world-health-chiefs-declare-coronavirus-is-global-emergency-9pc9jkkfk.

 

[3] Gray, J. (2020) ‘Why this crisis is a turning point in history’, New Statesman; 1/4/2020.

 

[4] Hirst, P. (1994) Associative Democracy. New forms of economic and social governance. Cambridge: Polity Press.

NB Names of those interviewed are anonymised at respondents’ request.

How can we – as funders – help communities to deal with the pandemic?

Over the past 15 months, we’ve been supporting grassroots, community-based grant-making in each of the four home nations through Comic Relief’s UK Intermediary Funders initiative¹. Learning has been key to our approach as we want to understand how we as funders can share and shift power to people in communities through ‘lived experience’ and community-led approaches, both in the grant-making process and the grants themselves. Now, in the midst of a pandemic that is deepening inequalities and creating an environment of prolonged uncertainty, how can we continue to do that? What are we learning as a group of funders that we can hold onto as we move into recovery and renewal?

Through this blog, we wanted to share some of the questions being discussed amongst our grassroots intermediary funders.

Emergency vs the longer term

Most charities are really anxious about funding – they may have some money now for emergency work, but with no fundraising and limited grant-making for non-emergency work, there will be a gap very soon. We are really conscious of this, and know there is a role for us, our partners and other foundations in protecting charities for the future.

However, this comes with a set of challenging considerations: 

  • Should we stall some emergency funding, in case there is a second ‘lockdown’ in the autumn and winter? Or should we hope that we will be able to meet future needs through additional fundraising?
  • How can we work to ensure that emergency funding is accessible to those who need it and supports organisations on the frontline to deliver crisis support whilst sustaining them so they are able to provide in the medium and long term? What’s on the horizon?
  • We can’t yet predict when something vaguely resembling normal life will resume, and what exactly that will look like. What does that mean for the timing and focus of our support, and our expectations of charities in relation to plans and activities? When should we seek to shift from emergency to recovery?
  • We do know that the pandemic is exposing and deepening inequalities, and that both the charity and funding sector will need to adapt – to both changing needs in communities and shifting priorities. What will that mean for future grant-making processes? What can we do to retain the flexibility and collaboration that has emerged between many funders over the last few months?
  • Many organisations are providing emergency support beyond their particular area of experience – like mental health support or working with women affected by domestic abuse. Can or should this work be sustained over the long term, ensuring those intervening in such complex issues have a ‘do no harm’ approach as a starting point? This will ensure those doing this work have the proper expertise to deal with the issues responsibly and effectively.
  • Many emergency funds ignore so-called ‘nice to have’ things in the community, like cultural arts, theatre and sports – in the long run, how is this going to impact on people’s lives and social values, especially young people’s education and mental health?

What will the role of unconstituted community groups be?

 

New community groups have formed across the UK in response to Covid-19, and they aren’t waiting for funding – they’re just getting on with it, driven by empathy and with little ambition to be constituted organisations. Some of us have funded residents’ groups even though, in the past, we would have preferred something more structured; others are looking at whether this could continue beyond emergency: ‘I don’t think there is anything stopping us, it is us that strangle ourselves’. How do we support these groups as drivers of community change? And will they want to continue or disband after the pandemic? ‘In a time of crisis and chaos, there has been a new order established around shifting the power which has communities and their responses at the heart’.

 

As funders, while appreciating the myriad of amazing community responses, we need to be mindful of the groups that already exist doing responsive work. We must not forget them, and we must remain alert to the possibility of duplication – between longer-standing activities and newer, emergency responses: for example, established food banks working on ending food poverty, alongside newer groups doing similar work, could lead to an over or under supply of food.

 

Doing the right thing – ask funded partners or potential funded partners to help us think about the future

 

Communities have shown tremendous power in leading from the front, reacting first often ahead of both established charity and statutory organisations’ responses and support. They are becoming first responders by asking for feedback from people on the ground to understand local needs. As funders, we must find ways to support and embed this shift in power right down to the local community level. And we must also be conscious to proactively reach out to those groups who are disproportionately affected, may not be well represented in broader community responses, or may not have the means and avenues to be able to directly ask for help? (For example: BAME communities, LGBTQ+ communities, young carers, and people dealing with loss and grief.)

 

Grassroots organisations are already thinking of ways they could deal with the challenges lockdown has thrown up, for the longer term. Things like mental health, isolation, increased inequalities and child poverty, and domestic abuse. After the pandemic, how can this surge of community action help us to understand what is needed and how can we support this community response for resilience and rebuilding?

 

So…

 

Like many funders, we have adapted our processes and made them simpler; we have been flexible in our grant-making; and we have set up emergency funds quickly in response to Covid-19. But it feels like we’re at the start of a period of sustained evolution and adaptation. We hope to work closely with people, communities and other funders as we face the future together.

 

Please do share your thoughts in the comments below.

 


[1] The four intermediary funders are The Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, Corra Foundation in Scotland, Wales Council for Voluntary Action and Groundwork in England.

From disused bus stop to community hub

Stainsacre is a Yorkshire village 2 miles from Whitby where transport via bus has stopped due to cutbacks. This has had a big impact on the people living there causing some to relocate. As a Totally Socially Development Worker and Stainsacre resident, I wanted to get the community talking about solutions to the transport issue, but where could we meet when there was no obvious place? If I tell you that we first met at a bus stop, surely you would be intrigued to know how this came about and where we are now.

Why a bus stop?


I was walking my dog and walked past a disused stone-built bus shelter. It occurred to me what a great little space it was and made me wonder if people would meet me there to discuss our local transport issues. I asked my mum (and fellow Stainsacre villager) to come along for moral support to help me start a meet-up. We started by cleaning out the bus shelter to make it a place that one wouldn’t mind passing an hour or too. We added cushions, chairs, stools, fairy lights and a trolley full of tea, coffee, cake and biscuits. Then we made a basic leaflet and spent three hours walking around the village talking to people about our intentions and posting the leaflet through doors.

At the first meet-up, 20 people arrived. In fact, they came early and left late! People discussed how the lack of transport had effected them and people they knew – some of who were now stuck in the village or facing a long walk (often pushing a wheel chair) down unsuitable paths or roads. It was a really happy event and we decided to do it all again and meet once a month.


Unexpected results


In terms of progress in dealing with the transport issues, many solutions have come out the meet-ups – not just the one! For example, small pockets of people have begun to share taxis, a conversation with the local community transport organisation was held and an offer made, and some neighbours help each other out by giving lifts to town or doctor’s appointments.


Our monthly meet-ups have become more than a way to solve local transport issues now. Parish Councillors have made a good connection with the group and are now a huge part of running it. It’s used as a way to feedback from council meetings to people who were unable to attend and to ensure that people are able to have their say and their views are taken back to the parish council meeting. Organisations focussing on health and security, such as the Fire Service, have also shown an interest in attending. It is seen as a great way to access the views of a group of local people and get knowledge to them.


The community has become generally more connected – people now know each other and, in some cases, by their actual name not just “the egg lady”! At the meet-ups, those attending talk about many things such as the history of the village and their past. They swap vegetables and books. Some of the elderly people have begun to mix with people they didn’t before and it’s become a gathering to look forward to. As people began to know one another, they decided to host in their own homes (not just the bus shelter) and assisted those who might struggle to do this. In one instance, a meeting host struggled to walk, so his neighbours made the tea and helped him to set up. What is great is that people from nearby villages have also started attending, often with a view to setting up something themselves or to feedback to the group because of their own community connections.


As a result of the unexpected popularity and success of the group – now known as the ‘Stainsacre Social’ – the reason for meeting up has widened to not just be about finding a permanent solution to transport, it now aims to connect people in order to form their own solutions to wider local issues. Looking forward, the group would like to formalise and work on other things like running a village hosted event. Who knows where the Stainsacre Social will go next!


Taking a risk and not having an initial ‘outcome’ has been liberating. It is very much the Totally Socially way! People create their own aims and form their own solutions based on the knowledge and skills they already have. They have their own strengths and ideas and they should be allowed to try these out and, if necessary, fail and learn for next time. Being part of the Stainsacre Social has been great on so many levels. As a resident I now know many more people, some well enough to offer a lift to the local shops. On a professional level, it’s great to see that people only need the seed of something new in order to mould it into something far better themselves.


The Totally Socially project is funded by The National Lottery Community Fund and run by Coast and Vale Community Action. For more details, please check out Totally Socially on Facebook or www.cavca.org.uk.

The power of reporting by film: Three things to think about

Vita Terry (IVAR Senior Researcher) reflects on using film to document the process and progress of an intergenerational dance project and shares three things to consider when using film as a research method or for reporting to funders.

Why film?

Recently, there has been a rising recognition of the advantages of using film as a research method and, in addition to this, from some funders on the benefits of using film in grant reporting (see our recent blog Freedom to report visually). Voluntary and community organisations are required by their funders to demonstrate the value and impact of the projects they deliver. However, for some projects where personal stories, emotion, and relationships play a large part (like Growing Together described below), it is arguable whether written reports or end of project evaluations are the best way to capture these things. This is where film can become a powerful tool.


Capturing the process

From March to July 2019, the intergenerational dance project, Growing Together brought together pupils (from Redbridge Primary School) and older people with early stages of dementia (from Remember to Dance) to take part in weekly dance workshops led by Green Candle Dance Company.

An accessible film production team (comprised of myself, Kate Dangerfield and Joe Mannion) filmed the process and progress of the Growing Together workshops. The project was delivered through workshops over 16-weeks and film was identified as a useful method to track these over time. We were interested in exploring how dance can be used as a tool to address social issues and to illustrate the development of relationships between the children and older people. By capturing key moments, spaces, and interactions of the developing relationships, film provided the opportunity to learn and reflect on this experience.

My experience, in the role of producer, highlighted some issues and learning which I share below for others considering using film as a research method or for project reporting:

 

1) Be clear about the reason for using film

It is important to think about the purpose of using film. Is it to create a ‘polished’ film to promote the project to wider stakeholders? Or to use film as a tool to unpack the experiences and process involved? These two things are not always aligned. The latter might involve filming scenes that are not visually ‘attractive’ or that don’t have a clear narrative, and to capture an unfolding process is often more time-consuming.

 

2) Be creative and experimental

Be aware that not everyone is used to being in front of a camera, which can create unease for some individuals. To make the experience enjoyable for all, particularly for those that are more marginalised, the film team should be thoughtful and creative (throughout the process). For example, when working with children using activities and visual methods can make the experience of film more accessible.  

 

3) Be aware of time and resources required

Using film, as a research method or as part of reporting, can be more time and resource consuming than traditional methods. Experimenting on how to explore the process using film, equipment, audio, and editing can be an added cost to a project. However, it is arguable that the benefits outweigh these concerns. For filming projects to be performed in a meaningful way, more funders need to give funded organisations the confidence to include these costings into evaluations, rather than being viewed as an add on.

 

If you are interested in knowing more about the opportunities and challenges of using film in practice, please get in touch or read our paper Participatory filmmaking in voluntary sector research: innovative or problematic? 

You can watch the video from the intergenerational dance project – Growing Together – here.

Empowered communities 2020s

Help shape the future of community development.

 

IVAR has been appointed by Local Trust to carry out research that will scope and support the future of community development. We will look at what it needs to look like and who needs to be involved in order to empower communities in the 2020s.

 

We want to ask:

  • How can communities become more empowered and vibrant in the next ten years?

  • How can communities identify and articulate issues and take collective action to address them over the next decade?

  • What might help people imagine what the future will look like, especially given the uncertainty ahead, and give them the tools to shape that future?

  • What needs to happen for communities to become more empowered in the future? 

 

What’s happening?

We’ll be hosting three dialogues with people, groups and organisations in the public, voluntary, business sectors that support individuals and communities and build movements:

 

Issues dialogue– Exploring issues that intersect with community development and empowered communities, such as income inequality, local ageing populations, housing, immigration or climate change.

 

Nations dialogue – Visiting the four UK nations to hear from people who work with communities.

 

Places dialogue – Conversations in four communities of place, to hear from people who work with, or in some way support communities.

 

Get involved

To sign up to email updates on the project and hear about opportunities to contribute,
send your name, role and organisation (if applicable) and email address to
Lisa-Marie.Giquel@localtrust.org.uk

 


Find out more about the project at localtrust.org.uk.