Communities acting for each other

5 things we learnt about working with communities this year

19 November 2020


A blog by Mary Hodgson, Community Action Lead at St Christopher’s

A report from Nesta, Marie Curie and St Christopher’s on reshaping future experiences of death and bereavement focuses on what people from different sectors and places learnt from COVID-19. One major theme has been communities in the lead. Here are five thoughts on what we learnt about communities this year.

1. It is good for us to have a collective conversation about challenging things

As COVID-19 thrust existing societal challenges such as differing health outcomes or inequity of care into the mainstream we saw that more people joined in a conversation about inequality and things that were wrong in society around them. People started to listen to other people’s experiences of life and inequality in a way they hadn’t done before. We asked what is the relationship between inequality, ethnicity and health outcomes? As a society we recognised how hard healthcare workers work and we asked, what work have we valued most? We asked, how do we care for our sick and elderly? Why don’t we talk about death and loss? Have we talked enough about this? We haven’t, but more people have realised this conversation is taking part and joined in.

2. People power can make things happen in new ways

Faced with the challenges of COVID-19, social distancing measures and their immediate impacts, we saw people act. People didn’t wait: they got out and about and made things happen in their communities. Thousands of people stepped forward to self-organise or to volunteer. One example was the gifting of food between people and the scale of actions: groups delivered thousands of food packages to other people and others shopped and cooked for their neighbours. My local hospital was supported by an amazing group of people who organised food donations for NHS staff.

People didn’t wait: they got out and about and made things happen in their communities.

3. When we act for ourselves we act well

While often we see that a starting point for social action is about tackling challenges, a lot of the way this happens builds on what already works well for people in their lives and communities. During COVID-19, we saw that people used their skills to express new and existing mutualistic forms of self-care and social action. I hope more people have seen the specific assets and contribution of community groups and activists to wellbeing and living well, and the existing skills and talents of the communities around us.

4. Responsibility without resource?

However, quite a lot of responsibility landed on people’s shoulders without resource. Many people mobilised, helped other people and then, perhaps at times were not helped well themselves where they could have been. For me that’s the big gap. We saw a lot of responsibility taken on by community members and community groups to support vulnerable people, but not a huge amount of resource transfer. Historically, community groups haven’t had a lot of visibility, but they are making things happen in their communities. They’re the first people to lose money to cuts or to the interests of funders or austerity. As a society we need to do more not to see community organising as great free labour, but to see it as really valuable therapeutic and caring activity and then distribute resources to it. We need to make sure that those groups get the resources they need, not just pats on the back.

5. We now have this experience of having acted collectively

Overall, what we could say is that communities saw a need and acted together and we now have the experience of doing so. Many people came together to participate collectively in social actions that had mutual benefits – whether it was clapping or driving meals around or checking on neighbours. We were probably more thoughtful about what we do with our lives and mean to each other and how we can care for others, and that won’t go away. This moment of good intentions was likely good for us in the face of a very challenging event, and the report makes it clear that once we’ve had a bit of practice we’ll find it easier to do it again.

COVID-19 has been very difficult and challenging, and it is too early to say what has happened. But these five things are all good ingredients for change, and now the real work begins to make it stick.

19 November 2020


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