Collaborating with Communities

For everyone who attended the sold-out Collaborating with Communities conference, finishing up with the Be Happy Be Sad Party hosted by St Christopher’s Community Action Team and members of Croydon Mencap, it felt like precisely the right thing to do and provided the perfect visualisation of everything they’d heard about during in the day.

In fact, many had been struck by the words of Sarah Burns Director of Communities, Croydon Voluntary Action, when, reflecting on the question of what makes for a good relationship with community organisations, she said it was always better to have a party rather than a meeting.

This was one of the nine key and sometimes surprising messages from the conference designed to inspire and enable people to transform end of life experiences for everyone’s benefit. By the volume of the clapping and cheering at various points during the day, it’s safe to say there was a strong desire amongst delegates to embrace these action points and continue this collaborative approach to finding the best ways to engage with communities.

So, hosting a party is better than a meeting is key point number one as it provides an opportunity for people to engage in conversations in a relaxed, informal setting, to demonstrate their gifts and strengths and communicate their needs.

2. Invite people to come together

Just as you’d invite people to a party, it’s crucial when building relationships to invite people to come together. Dr Guy Peryer, of the National Institute for Health and Care Research, said that with death affecting three million people every year in the UK, we have to invite people to come together to talk about, because if it’s not affecting you now, it soon will be. Further, rather than simply making a non-specific ‘let me know if there’s anything I can do’, offer, spell out something you can do and actually do it.

3. When inviting someone to do something, think about what’s in it for them

We need to take care in crafting any invitation, Guy said, adding that we have to be clear in our ask and in describing what’s in it for the recipient, in a genuine spirit of reciprocity. A curated conversation with three community members, all of them engaging in some kind of volunteering, illustrated the importance of a two-way relationship. Janice, who is a Compassionate Neighbour, has developed an outstanding relationship not only with the older woman she visits regularly, but also with her family. She adds that it’s helped her find purpose in retirement and she hopes, “someone will come and see me when I get old and can’t go out any more.”

4. Embrace the adventure, don’t fear the risk

It was another of the volunteers, Mark, who’s been signed up with Good Gym for a number of years, that verbalised a theme rumbling under the surface throughout the day. The Good Gym model means that Mark rarely knows what to expect on any given day at the end of his run. “I love the adventure – never knowing what I’m going to get and who I am going to meet. But by always going to new places and meeting new people I am making a connection with the community.”

Mary Hodgson, Head of Community Action and Learning at St Christopher’s, urged everyone to embrace this sense of adventure – to see the uncertainty as an opportunity, to break loose from the shackles of quantitative data, to try new approaches, to make contact with new communities and risk making mistakes. As Guy Peryer emphasised, “It’s all about social learning. There is no such thing as failure, it’s all about learning.”

5. Embrace anxiety and discomfort

In the same spirit of bravery, more than one of the speakers advocated for people embracing their anxiety and sense of discomfort, seeing them as opportunities to by turn, change and grow, and acknowledge vulnerability when dealing with communities with whom they’re not well acquainted.

“Knowing there are no simple answers is a great place to start,” said Rekha Vijayshankar, Deputy Head of Quality & Clinical Governance, Marie Curie UK. Rather than pretending to be culturally competent, Rekha urged delegates to sit with discomfort to see the importance of sharing space with fellow humans and to embrace cultural curiosity alongside a willingness to listen and learn.

6. Everyone has gifts to give

Sarah, from Croydon CVA, made a compelling case for maximising the benefits of collaboration, firstly by acknowledging that everyone has ‘gifts to give’ and then dovetailing them with others’ gifts. “In our most successful community partnerships we start from hearing about and celebrating people’s gifts and then try and link them together. I do what I do best, and you do what you do best and then we come together and work around those strengths.

Helen, a bereavement buddy, shared her experience of supporting a woman who, for a long period was very stuck in her grief, pushing Helen away and refusing to attend any formal sessions. Now this woman attends the Bereavement Help Point and organises lunches. “People have gold inside them,” Helen added. “As with this woman, they just don’t see their own potential. Just by creating a space and trust she discovered her gold.”

7. Go to where people are

Successful community collaborations need to start in community spaces, said Shelly Bardouille, Mental Health Coordinator at Croydon BME Forum, who has collaborated with St Christopher’s Croydon Death Literacy project.  “It’s better for the community as we can build a rapport and learn their strengths and weaknesses and the approaches that work while also become acquainted with their cultural norms,” added Shelly.

Guy Peryer extends the point, stressing the importance of paying attention to how we gather – ensuring people are in a comfortable environment and are given a platform for sharing knowledge.

In the workshops, the Community action team presented new ways of thinking about how we can help people, focusing on the simplest elements of our work which can have profound impacts. We spent time in garden space, listened as a radical act and considered how we rebalance power in learning.

8. Don’t be limited in your definition of a community

Mary Hodgson started the day by challenging delegates to reconsider their concept of a community. Mary said that while a community can be a place that binds us together it can also exclude us. To mythologise community could be as dangerous as ignoring it altogether. Unless we take time to consider precisely what a community is, and it’s definitely not simply defined by geography, then it can feel like a problematic concept.

Polly Maxwell in her talk about Death and Dying in the Queer Family invited delegates to consider the evolution of ‘family’ and next of kin and think about networks that go beyond the family norm.

9. People just want a voice

The conference’s first speaker, Dan Farag, Director of Innovation & Practice, The Young Foundation, painted what could have been a solely bleak portrait of the world in which climate change, war, inflation and fuel poverty is threatening the traditional systems of global hierarchy and power. More than anything though, public disharmony and distrust of the current world order is born of a sense of lack of voice. People just want to be heard, Dan said. This he said presents a real opportunity – particularly for those organisations, like hospices that can find news ways of listening – listening to understand.

Collaborating with Communities: Transforming End of Life Experiences Together

White woman with blond hair pulled back into one smiling with red lipstick.
Mary Hodgson, Head of Community Action

With St Christopher’s next conference, Collaborating with Communities: Transforming End of Life Experiences Together, fast approaching, our Head of Community Action and Learning, Mary Hodgson, asks colleagues from across the sector to come and find out how to see local people and communities as supportive partners and activists at the end of life.

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