As community workers, we often struggle to say what it is we do and why it is so important. During the COVID-19 crisis it has been very clear why our work is important. We have leaned into this crisis and we have mobilised ourselves.
We both watched in awe as colleagues across the country quickly responded to needs around food distribution, crisis grants, home education, childcare, managing benefits, rent and so on. We were not surprised to see how adaptable colleagues can be and how their network of community contacts and local knowledge meant they were well placed to set up different forms of humanitarian support.
In the early days of the crisis there was a certain amount of professional shock. Keeping safe underpinned everything. We are used to throwing ourselves at things, but we had to think carefully about close working with communities. Of necessity, we often work without clear frameworks, creating resources on the move, as one size virtually never fits all. This practice builds adaptability and becomes a strength as has been evident. Those who had clear understandings of their community of interest or locality were better able to adjust to working during the pandemic. Those who were clear about what they did were able to quickly say ‘it is going to be done differently, but I know what I do and why I am doing it’.
COVID-19 has exposed poverty and inequalities and digital poverty has increased this inequity. The responses that have been successful are those where the starting point is an understanding of the community, individuals, and the resources and strength of social capital.
In this crisis, our delivery models were challenged. Many of us moved our work online and learned skills we never thought we would need. While the bread-and-butter work for community workers before the pandemic was face-to-face engagement, now we have to set up online group spaces, emails, chats, videos and phonecalls with participants.
Many of the people we work with are isolated, so we work hard to let them know that we have not forgotten about them when it might feel to them that everyone else has. Some are living with abusive partners; some are refugees with previous experiences of lockdown situations or imprisonment; while others are socially isolated because of geography, mental health or because they are single parents with no support. These are the people we worry about.
And while many have responded well to our emergent ways of engaging, there are significant challenges for others. Countless families with whom we work are struggling with being at home all the time and they do not have the technology to access the online learning available to them. Online engagement just doesn’t match the level of interaction and support that is offered out in the community. Despite our best efforts to make it as accessible as possible, there are some for whom this is just too big a jump. As our colleague, Ed Garrett, has said: ‘It is only through actually being out there in communities that we can really support those marginalised voices’.
Working during COVID-19, colleagues have been scared and we have felt fear not previously experienced in a professional context: fear for one’s own family and the realisation of how significantly they could be affected by our decisions about work. And yet, COVID-19 has given us an opportunity to engage with other people who really need us.
Regrettably, some colleagues have been reluctant to move beyond the way in which they are accustomed to working. Community engagement is not in the comfort zone for a lot of people. For instance, we find it quite startling that some community workers have been uncomfortable knocking on doors, to check on those who are shielding. There is much to be learned from talking to people, but it would seem that street work, which used to be one of our most basic tools, has been lost for some (Henderson and Thomas, 2013).
Others have thrived in this context. We are excited to see how community workers can maintain relationships and create new ways of working with communities to overcome vulnerability in the future. For many, the rapid deployment of our skills in emergency settings has been accepted as normal, and workers have flourished under pressure. We hope that as a result of this, community workers can rediscover a professional courage.
Now we face the challenge of moving out of lockdown without a clear route map. There are many variables: national and local plans, changes to funding arrangements, arrangements for education and its consequent impact on whether adults can engage in learning and community activity for themselves. We will have to prioritise needs, at a time when need will be greater than we have ever known it.
The future might present opportunities that we have not thought about before. Charitable work in the community has been great during this pandemic, but as Marjorie Mayo discusses in her article there are challenges around identity and, importantly, sustainability as volunteers return to careers while many in our communities are left behind. We need an approach that enables people to take control of their OWN lives. This is our domain and our work will be more in demand than ever.
Against a backdrop of public sector reduced spending and pressure on budgets, we may yet be casualties. In parallel, the world could become a worse place for many people, because resources are reduced and skills are not available to support those who need them. Here then is a different fear.
Kirsty Forrester has worked extensively as a community learning and development worker in local authority, third sector, social work and health settings.
Sue Briggs is a local authority development officer with experience of managing quality improvement approaches, professional development and community learning development practice.
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