As the authors of The Short Guide to Community Development, we have just started work on a third edition, to be published next year. But when we proposed this to Policy Press in January, we had no idea how much was about to change.
A fault line has opened up in our lives whose name is COVID-19, but there have been other shifts, too, that will affect our futures – notably Black Lives Matter and Brexit. If the new edition is not to be out of date before it is even printed, we must ensure that it is relevant to whatever the new normal turns out to be.
In this article our focus is on COVID-19, its impact right now on communities and what this means for community development in the future. Much has been written about community responses to the crisis – heart-warming stories abound of neighbours helping neighbours and a revival of compassion and solidarity. Recent research has demonstrated that small-scale local groups mobilised swiftly to provide immediate support and ensure that basic needs for food, medicine and information were met. Informal neighbourhood networks quickly emerged using social media to coordinate activities and keep in touch with the most vulnerable. These local groups and networks were often the first line of response, before more formal schemes were devised and while high-profile national volunteering initiatives faltered. Their local knowledge proved vital in targeting service gaps and combating social isolation. New connections have been formed within communities, which may well outlast the immediate crisis, creating the potential for new forms of self-organised collective action to evolve. And online platforms for social interaction, such as WhatsApp and Zoom, have offered a lifeline in situations where face-to-face meetings are no longer possible. These have now become familiar and will continue to be used for community organising as we move into the next phase.
So far, so good. Maybe the third edition will be able to celebrate a renewal of interest – and investment – in community and in public life. But the picture is inevitably more complicated.
Firstly, while social media has been vital for many, relying on these platforms has its challenges. Not everyone has access to technology and dependable Wi-Fi or is comfortable with using it. And it cannot replace the unplanned, casual face-to-face encounters – on the street, at community hubs and in ‘third places’ – that have been lost because people are not out and about so much. Many shared spaces are still closed or have restricted access, reducing opportunities for serendipitous and spontaneous community interactions that are difficult to sustain through scheduled online conversations. People are complaining of being ‘zoomed out’. Current evidence suggests in any case that social media and face-to-face communication work best in tandem.
A second complication is that ‘we are not all in it together’. The crisis has exposed the fragility and injustice of many people’s lives, with food banks overwhelmed and a growing reliance on benefits. People living in overcrowded accommodation, in poverty or insecure employment are suffering most from the disease itself as well as from measures taken to control the pandemic. In this sense, a return to life as before is not acceptable. The Black Lives Matter movement has focused attention on race inequalities, and the emergency has also raised issues in relation to ageism, women’s roles, domestic violence, disabilities and mental health. The coming months will see an enormous divergence in employment and income security, resulting in growing resentment and frustrations. For children and young people – perhaps more resistant to the virus – there are huge questions about the long-term impact that lockdown and the expected recession will have.
Thirdly, the flourishing of community spirit is only part of the picture. On the other side of the coin we find tension between the generations, conflicts over public health rules and disagreements over the pace and priorities for how lockdown is eased. And a backdrop to all this is Brexit. The divisions this has caused are not likely to go away any time soon. Neither are concerns about the state of democracy in the UK that arise from populism, increasing government centralisation and procurement practice in relation to COVID-19. There is little sign meanwhile that the public’s celebration of low-paid key workers will lead to any lasting change in their status.
Over recent years, the community infrastructure has been eroded by cutbacks, but community development in its various forms has still played a role in many of the most at-risk areas, giving residents the skills and confidence to step up when needed. Our task in revising the third edition of The Short Guide to Community Development will be to reflect carefully on the cataclysmic events of the past few months and reimagine the contribution that community development can make to a ‘new normal’ that is both socially just and ‘well connected’.
Alison Gilchrist is an independent practitioner-researcher and author of The Well-Connected Community, recently published by Policy Press in its third edition.
Marilyn Taylor is Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute for Voluntary Action Research. She recently co-authored a report on community organising and the response to COVID-19 for Community Organisers. Read the report here.
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