by Josh Allen
As the extent, depth and potential duration of the Covid-19 crisis came into focus, ad-hoc, seemingly spontaneous groups of neighbours came together to cut through lockdown’s enforced isolation. Presented in the media as if emerging from nowhere, most actually drew upon deep roots and reserves of solidarity and community, building upon the work of existing organic networks of mutual-help and community support organisations.
On my quiet suburban street, as lockdown started, a neighbour took it upon herself to write a short note that invited people on the road to join a mutual aid Whatsapp group chat, printing copies for each house and posting them through everyone’s letter box. The note also pointed to a Facebook group with the same purpose covering the local district as a whole.
My road isn’t an especially close-knit community. However, throughout lockdown, phones buzzed constantly as neighbours previously unknown to each other checked in via WhatsApp and shared information, ensuring the elderly people living in a terrace maisonette at the top of the road had someone getting their shopping.
Seeing this positive response to the Covid-19 crisis unfolding on my doorstep resonated with me. My experience as a journalist and a historian working in communities – and as an activist myself – has taught me that community solidarity, mutual aid and effective voluntary action never comes from nowhere. Rather, it is fermented and compounded over time, through repeated action, shared resources and constantly evolving networks. This sounds complex but it’s often as simple as a person, or perhaps a small group of like-minded people, with experience of getting people together and organising, turning their attention to something. Or, an organisation making its home in a community, setting down roots, connecting people, and becoming integral to dialogues and practices that create positive change. Like a spider’s web, or other forms found in nature, these flexible, almost invisible structures can seem slight and delicate but they’re actually incredibly strong, efficient and good at what they do. They become safety nets that catch us and society as a whole, when we slip and there’s nothing else breaking the fall.
I was delighted when Multistory invited me to speak, both virtually and in person, with some of the resourceful, deeply embedded voluntary organisations that form the bedrock of community in Sandwell. I spoke with three in some depth, getting a feel for how they’ve coped, and supported others to cope, with the impact of Covid-19.
Lion Farm Action Centre
I began my journey at the Lion Farm Action Centre in Oldbury. When I reached out, Kate (the Centre’s Co-ordinator) was very helpful in terms of talking to me about how it had reacted to the changes. The Centre is practical by nature and is constantly adapting what it does to meet the needs of the community it is a resource for. Kate sums up their purpose as being to “provide a weekly programme of activities… whilst reacting to the needs of the local community… and providing support to individual needs and situations”.
This close link to the community presented the Centre’s team with serious challenges when lockdown was announced because, all of a sudden, the people who they knew and worked with so closely could no longer come through the door. They told me “…there is no substitute for that little chat you have here and there, and the instant support a person gets from just asking a question”. Sharon, who delivers the young people’s projects at the Centre, summed this up saying: “Working from home is hard. I’m used to working in the community with groups of people of all ages and with a team who support each other”.
Despite this challenge to the highly interpersonal and responsive way they usually work, the team rapidly developed new ways to keep in touch with the area they serve. On day one of lockdown, a notice was placed in the window of the old vicarage where they’re based that gave a mobile number for anybody who needed to get in touch quickly, whether for practical assistance or just for reassurance.
From this starting point, the Centre’s staff gradually, by leveraging support from other networks on the Lion Farm Estate and Sandwell’s wider community, began finding means to offer their usual services from a distance. Normally, the Centre runs a FairShare food bank to distribute surplus food to people in the community who need it. With many Lion Farm residents furloughed or unable to work, demand surged, illustrating the tsunami of need that Covid-19 has created. Unable to continue with the food bank, they set up a FairShare food delivery service, in partnership with St. James’ Church, so that the food could be taken to the homes of those in need. An added benefit to this is that the Centre began meeting people again through numerous driveway conversations thereby restarting their dialogue with the community. In doing so, they provided a lifeline for those in the area who couldn’t go out, such as single parents who were afraid of catching Covid-19 and didn’t have anyone who could look after their children. Further support was provided to families via Facebook with the Centre using their page to create a ‘virtual after school club’ for primary school children, funded by BBC Children in Need. The club offered activities such as cooking tutorials and quizzes and even hosted an ‘end of term talent show’.
Likewise, older people who usually attend activities at the Centre found themselves cut-off. The Centre worked to mitigate this by applying for a grant from the West Midlands Police Community Initiative Fund that brought tablet computers and internet connections to otherwise isolated people. The hope is that this new kit will form a nucleus for online chats and coffee mornings, re-connecting those who’d normally attend events such as bowls and card making at the Centre.
Sandwell Youth in Action
Grassroots organisations in Sandwell that work with designated groups of people as well as particular geographical communities have also adapted to the crisis. Sandwell Youth in Action is a Smethwick based youth work charity that works predominantly with young Black people and young people who have refugee status. Even more so than Lion Farm Action Centre, the crisis has spurred them to pivot away from providing their usual services towards ensuring that the young people they work with have their basic needs met.
I exchanged e-mails with Morris, the charity’s Co-ordinator. He tells me Sandwell Youth in Action usually offers “a cookery club, computer literacy club, a job club and a homework club”, alongside providing constant access to advice and guidance as needed. By contrast, during the pandemic, and with help from Midlands Heart Foundation, they have “provided practical help to the most affected young people… delivering food and maintaining regular contact over the phone”.
Morris explains that this shift in focus towards seeking to meet the most essential needs, happened because they identified the key challenges facing the young people they work with as being “poverty, lack of jobs… lack of enough food”. Like the Lion Farm Action Centre, they were able to rapidly retool their existing network to meet these pressing needs in a way that an organisation working at a greater distance or lacking a well-developed relationship with the people who use their services, would struggle with.
The youth workers have also tried to keep the social aspect of what they offer alive. Despite being young, many of the people they work with experienced isolation even prior to the pandemic. In order to combat this, Sandwell Youth in Action have been texting the young people, setting up video meetings and hosting Zoom parties, to keep in touch and provide social lifelines.
Common Ground Sandwell
As lockdown began easing, I travelled to Smethwick to meet Nick, the Associate Priest at Holy Trinity Church in Smethwick. It’s a large Victorian parish church now used for numerous things besides religious services. Its outlook is open and pragmatic, focusing on providing a welcoming and reflective space for Smethwick. This can be seen in their decision four years ago to create a community orchard at Londonderry Allotments, managed by the church but for Smethwick people of all faiths and none.
Part of Nick’s role is managing the development of the community orchard and also supporting the management of the allotments as a whole. He hasn’t always been a priest; pre-retirement he taught at Birmingham Medical School. He went to Smethwick as a curate and felt it was the place he wanted to continue his ministry.
Having met Nick at the church, we head the short way to the orchard. On the way he tells me about how the challenges of a busy urban parish have been compounded by the coronavirus. The church hosts Smethwick Food Bank and Nick reckons the number of households visiting each week has increased from 25 prior to lockdown to around 100. A fourfold increase, meaning the queue for assistance now stretches halfway down the road from the church’s porch all the way down the side of the Royal Mail depot. He ruefully notes that Covid-19 precautions and surging demand, have mean that the Food Bank has needed to shift from giving attendees the chance to have some choice in what they want, to only allowing pre-packaged food parcels to be collected. This eliminates some of the opportunities for the food bank’s volunteers to get into conversation with attendees and build relationships with them.
There’s a similar story at St. Albans, a community centre for older people based in a former church where Nick also assists. Unlike in normal times when members attend a day centre and have a cooked lunch, lockdown means they have to remain housebound with food taken to them. Nick and the other volunteers have been driving as far as Wednesbury and Tipton, delivering meals to day centre members who otherwise might not have any contact with another person.
It’s a drizzly day so, when we arrive at the allotment, Nick and I hurry up the hill to where the young trees are growing and stand under the open sided shelter recently erected to counter days like this. With the sound of traffic from the road, it is far from quiet on the allotment but, amongst the turf, the young trees and all the produce being grown on neighbouring plots, it is rather tranquil.
Nick tells me how sorry he is that Covid restrictions mean pupils from the local schools the orchard works with can’t attend the special classes they usually run. Likewise, a combination of safety restrictions and general pandemic induced pressures, mean the project’s volunteers are struggling to work on the orchard. Plans for a herb garden on an overgrown – but picturesque – patch of ground adjacent to the orchard, are currently on hold.
The picture at the allotments as a whole, however, is encouraging. Interest in plots had been rising prior to the pandemic and has increased during lockdown. Nick wonders whether this might be because “being out in the open… and having control over your own food and where it comes from” is something people are newly interested in, or value more, after experiencing confinement and the crisis.
Before leaving, we brave the downpour to walk around the orchard. It has developed rapidly in the two years since it was planted with many of the 135 trees bearing ripening fruit. I ask Nick whether, as the trees grow, some will have to be cut down to allow others to flourish. He tells me no and explains they were carefully spaced from the outset ensuring that, as they grow, they’ll all get the nutrients, light and water they need.
“What we’re doing here”, he says, “is creating something that’ll last and keep on growing. Sometimes in Sandwell it can seem like there isn’t much looking to the future. It’s all about looking back to when the area was a thriving industrial hub… or another aspect of the past. These however…”, he gestures to the trees, “are all about creating something for the community now and in the future”. An apt metaphor for what grassroots organisations and their associated networks across Sandwell, across Britain and throughout the world are doing to get people through the Covid-19 crisis. Working with the rooted organisations and the connections that already exist in our communities demonstrates that, with nurture and care, perhaps everyone can grow when they too are given the nutrients, light and water they need.
Josh Allen is a contemporary historian and writer based in south Birmingham. His work has appeared in publications as diverse as Vice, The Observer, New Statesman, Novara Media, Apollo Magazine and the London Review of Books, as well as a wide array of regional and specialist publications. Whilst as a project manager and content producer he has worked with creative and cultural organisations across the midlands including Flatpack Projects, the Living Memory Project, the Past & Present Society and the universities of Warwick and Birmingham. He holds a BA in History from the University of York and an MA in Modern British Studies from the Centre for Modern British Studies at the University of Birmingham.