I have spent a lot of time recently reflecting on not just the details of my work but the bigger picture. Questions like ‘why do I do community work?’ and ‘why is it important?’ have had a particular urgency.
Communities have clearly played a crucial role in our response to the COVID-19 pandemic and community workers have been central in supporting this response. As a community worker I have felt that we have been involved in something incredibly important and worthwhile. However, vital as it has been, this immediate response is not my focus here. I’m now feeling a growing concern about what happens next. If we are serious about social justice, the role of community work is even more important.
The crisis has affected many people in many different ways. It is also clear that it has and will continue to exacerbate vulnerability and inequality, affecting those at the bottom the most, those who are the least able to afford it. Here’s a typical example:
Josephine is a single mum with two young children. She is struggling to home-school them; she is also struggling moneywise without the child support contributions from their father, who was on a zero-hours contract. The worst part of it for Josephine is being separated from the support of friends. Family has never been a support for her, so friends are important. There are problems with food, not only the cost of buying it, but also the expensive ride on the bus to the supermarket with two small children in tow. Fortunately, there’s a local charity delivering food parcels. At first it was hard to admit that she needed them, but her neighbour, a woman in her 80s, had told the charity to call round. Josephine had never before accepted charity. She was grateful for the box but she found it difficult to return the smiles of those delivering or accept their cheery instruction to “stay bright, it’ll soon be over”.
What she really needed was shampoo. She could not bring herself to make a phone call to the charity to ask for it. It was partly embarrassment, partly shyness and partly a need to cope with being closed off from other people. If she let go and spoke to someone then maybe she would cry. She used soap for shampoo and that seemed to work, even if it did not lather very much. Everything was so close to the surface for Josephine. She felt so lonely but could hardly bear to speak to anyone. Yes, she had a few friends in the town 20 miles away, but she was reluctant to bother them.
Of course we need the people who have been helping at a local level with food boxes. However, we also need much more than that for people like Josephine. We need people who will care about the community at a political level. The welfare system used to be an insurance for people like Josephine. Now it seems to be a bureaucracy designed to deter them. Josephine’s husband, Fergus, tried to get Universal Credit but was put off by the difficulty in registering and instead relies on family. But this does not help Josephine. Josephine is hidden from view. We need people who will look out for the Josephine’s and hear and respond to them.
And this is why community work matters now more than ever. We hear talk of the ‘new normal’ that will appear after COVID-19, but whose new normal will that be? Those who are vulnerable rarely have a voice and are unlikely to be heard. They run the risk of becoming even more marginalised. Vulnerable people are rarely confident to use the systems and structures that remain within our society. We need to engage with those who have fallen through the insurance nets. We need to help them to have a voice and support them to understand and access the powerful systems and structures from which they are excluded as well as facilitate change in those systems and structures to ensure they are fit for purpose for all of us.
Of course interrogating power can be a challenge and, as community workers, we need to support each other as we do it. It will also be particularly challenging in a context where community work may be seen as an easy target for increasingly cash-strapped local authorities and other funders. Now more than ever we need to be able to articulate both the value of what we do and crucially the importance of being there, of having a presence in communities, to do it.
Community workers have been pretty good and creative at carrying on with their work through this crisis using whatever means they can – social media, virtual meetings and so on. What all this has emphasised though is that these can never be enough, that there is an importance in being there in person. This importance is in part a question of knowledge. Our knowledge base as community workers is collaborative. It is not just about us or other partners or even about the voices on social media. It’s about the multiplicity of views and understanding how power mediates these views, but we can only understand and know these views when we are out there among them in the sometimes messy and other times lovely life of the community. But the importance of being there is also a question of social justice. We have to be working with communities to fight inequalities and challenge power. It is only through actually being out there in communities that we can really support those marginalised voices like Josephine’s.
Ed Garrett combines an academic background in research and teaching with over 15 years’ experience as a community development worker in the voluntary sector.
The Impact of Community Work by Karen McArdle, Sue Briggs, Kirsty Forrester, Ed Garrett and Catherine McKay is available from Policy Press, imprint of Bristol University Press. Order the book here for £22.39
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