31 Mar 2020

Community Organising at Pace

I joined the Institute for Community Studies Advisory Board in September 2019, keen to connect what happens in rural Derbyshire to policy, influence and decision making in London.

I believe wholeheartedly in the power of community – to enable citizens to lead and to seek out local solutions to local issues. The current public health crisis facing communities across the world offers a unique opportunity to reveal the value of community, both practically and emotionally, coming together whilst keeping a physical distance. Here’s an early account of what’s happening in my village: 

‘Potatoes’ was the subject header of an email several of us received early this morning.

“Guys, I’ve just been gifted some bags of potatoes from the chip shop (which closed yesterday). Would you be able to use two bags for your vulnerable folk?” 

And the network launched into action. Cathy would deliver them to the local caterers who are providing hot meals for isolated people in our parish. 

It’s only 10 days since our first video call to start mobilising efforts in Crich and South Wingfield. Four of us gathered on screen to discuss ideas for co-ordinating energy, volunteers, information and care in times of isolation and uncertainty. Not to create a service or a new organisation, but to connect the willing, network the strong and support the vulnerable. Collective effort in the face of adversity. 

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Crich Parish Community Volunteer Network

We began this community building work quietly in September not knowing how important it would be. Growing relationships, finding common ground, discovering potential and starting conversations to create an active, vibrant place where older people could access a range of opportunities and services to enable them to live independently for longer. Linda (Community Builder) had been weaving her way through local groups and organisations to make sense of what was already going on in the area. 

We believe passionately in the power of community to create its own health and wanted to showcase what’s possible when the social infrastructure is encouraged and enabled to lead when no-one is in charge. Through this work we were starting to unearth capacity and ambition for action, but it was siloed and unco-ordinated. Fast forward to 16th  March and this capacity was about to come together for a common purpose. 

 

Star Seeds 

Start with what’s strong – a community building mantra as chanted by one of our thought leaders,  Cormac Russell. So we did. The Chair of the Patient Participation Group, myself, Linda and the editor of the local publication ‘Crich Standard’ gathered on screen, each of us in back rooms of our homes scattered around the village. Existing  bonds enabled an honest, open and exploratory conversation about what’s possible and next steps. We realised that with almost a third of the local population being over 65 years old, communication would be critical and we couldn’t rely on Facebook, Twitter and websites. We started out creating a leaflet ‘Crich Area COVID-19 Mutual Aid’ and set up a phone line via  zoom  which allows several people to be ‘on call’ at any time. 

 

Growing the Network 

Several days later, a second video call was convened involving 9 key local volunteers who were already developing ideas for action in their groups and networks; a Luncheon Club leader, Careline  Operator, Dementia Group Leader, the Post Office Manager, and a  Social Entrepreneur  to add to the embryonic group. The reach and deep understanding of what matters to isolated people and the challenges we may face in our endeavours made for a practical and focused conversation with kindness at its core. 

From this we made a plan; leaflet printing and distribution, volunteer recruitment, vetting, safeguarding, cash handling, shopping guidance, call handling. So much to consider all at once. We agreed some principles: 

  • Share the risk 

  • Collective responsibility 

  • Keep it simple 

  • Distribute the leadership 

  • Enable others to lead 

  • Review and adapt as we go 

Sub-groups met on and off line to address key topics and further networks were mobilised to deliver leaflets to 7000 homes over the weekend. We secured resources from the PPG and Parish Council to pay for the phone line and a local printer kindly waived his fee. We considered re-purposing the Community Centre and looked for opportunities to build on the momentum for the medium and long term. 

 

Dilemmas 

Vetting – we decided that DBS checks would take too long to process and therefore we needed to find a simple yet effective solution. We looked down the list of volunteers and realised that between us we knew every name, so we have so far adopted a ‘peer referencing’ approach where two people vouch for the names on the list. Most of the volunteers who have registered are already volunteering in some capacity and many have jobs which require a valid DBS. For now, we consider these precautions to be proportionate to the level of risk given the unprecedented circumstances and need for immediate action. 

We are also debating using name badges for volunteers delivering shopping. This makes me smile and wince at the same time as I am not a fan of lanyards. In my view, it would detract from the ‘neighbourly acts of kindness’ and ‘community together’ culture we are trying to foster. We are still wrestling with it. 

 

Safeguarding 

Not to be taken lightly – for the residents as well as the volunteers. On day one of operations we identified a cause for concern which instantly tested the network. We are now trialling a tiered system from basic level encouraging everyone to look out for their neighbour through to serious concerns escalating to  Call Derbyshire

 

Going Forward 

I will take my first turn on the call handling rota this evening. I am armed with record sheets and guidance notes and feel well supported and ready for the challenge ahead. We have our next Zoom Network call tomorrow evening – 17 names on the list so the screen will be full of faces. And behind every one of those friendly faces is a wealth of experience, knowledge, common sense, connections to other networks and most of all, a desire to come together to find a way of caring for people in our neighbourhood. There are currently 140 volunteers on the register and we’re looking at regular briefings using on-line tools. 

Can we grow this culture of collective care? I think we can.