Community is for Life, not just for Covid.

by Wendy Lansdown | Twitter @wendylansdown

Following Neighbourhood Cares – my favourite job ever – I feel lucky to have stayed with Cambridgeshire County Council and found a role whose potential excites me just as much.  As Place Based Coordinator in our new Think Communities team.  My role is all about collaborating across the public and voluntary sector to see how we can team up better to support our communities.  Whilst we would never have wished for it, the pandemic has demonstrated the amazing power of community, and shown that community spirit isn’t something that we lost decades ago, but something that’s here and now in big bold colours today.

I love the diversity of responses from our communities.  In East Cambridgeshire where I work, we have a rich mix of examples; from neighbours-helping-neighbours, to Mutual Aid groups, to Timebanks, to Parish Council led volunteer teams, and in some cases a partnership of two or more of these.  The trend – even now with people going back to work – is that the community groups have more offers of support than requests for help.

The head scratcher for me has been to work out how I can be most useful.  Alongside colleagues from the District Council and the charity Care Network we realised we needed to understand how things were going for those who really know.  So, we listened to; those leading community responses, colleagues across the public and voluntary sector, people being helped, concerned neighbours and co-workers who were speaking to residents who are shielding. 

Following some one-to-one conversations, we held an online catch up with Parish councils and people leading community responses to ask how they were doing, and how we could help.  We found strong insightful groups who had creatively shaped their response to suit their community.  What seemed most helpful on the initial call, wasn’t anything to do with our statutory duties as councils, rather offering the space to hear from each other, empathise over shared concerns, and share experience on what had and hadn’t worked for each community. 

The enthusiasm and connections made on the first call, led to us suggesting another, and so began a regular on-line get together.  The most important messages and the inspiration in these calls always come from local communities.  It’s taught us as Local Authorities that rather than ‘telling’ people what to do we can be way more helpful by listening to what’s needed and asking what we can do to help.  On both sides of the conversation we’re honest about our parameters and through constructive conversations work out the next steps together. 

After the first few virtual catch-ups a shared concern was emerging – community leaders not being confident that they had reached everyone, particularly that those who aren’t online may be out of the loop and not know the local help and support that is available.  A second emerging theme was the uplifting stories that people were sharing from each community, how each community had used its own unique mix of skills, needs, connections and personalities which led to a plethora of brilliant and community shaped responses – from the local windmill keeping everyone in flour to the 80’s band sharing their songs from a front garden, to Captain America delivering Easter eggs, each created their own trademarks and in so-doing built new connections and new friendships, often between people who have lived in the same village or town for many years now making the most out of the opportunity to connect with new acquaintances.

The regular catch ups have now got a name – the Parish and Community Forum, and through this meeting space we are finding new ways to collaborate.  To ensure all residents had the info about local support whilst also celebrating the community stories we came together to produce this Community magazine for the District.  A real collaboration- with communities leading the way by contributing stories, one wonderful furloughed volunteer, Zoe, offering her comm’s skills to capture them.   East Cambs District Council covering the printing, public and voluntary sector providing key info, and County and District councils collaborating to bring the edition together.  Then a huge wave of volunteers helping to deliver door-to-door across the district.

As we’ve got to know each other and hear about each other’s ideas, so they have spread.  In Soham local community leaders noticed that many, often older, people were increasingly feeling the negative effects of isolation, but did not want to be ‘befriended’, rather were looking for a reciprocal relationship.  VE day provided the inspiration for a themed letter writing project between school children and community members, one which has evolved to include the local care home making a film of their residents’ memories, home-made gifts exchanged both ways – from pictures to embroidered bookmarks, and an evolution of the idea to incorporate sharing of crafts!

Reciprocity is also happening at community-scale with the exchange of ideas – Fordham, the neighbouring village has started their own community pen-pal scheme, and Soham residents are inspired by Fordham’s Wish Tree – the hopes and aspirations of locals may well be fluttering in the Soham breeze soon!

Personally, I’m learning that to be helpful in my new role I don’t need to be controlling anything or telling people what to do.  Listening, being open to ideas, connecting and being alongside has been where I’ve felt most useful.

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