Guest blog by Chris Smith, Communications Officer, and Digital Lead at The Social Change Agency
During the coronavirus crisis, we’ve seen neighbours and communities rally round to care for each other. To me, this poses the question: what if we could keep this level of civic action alive after the pandemic, and channel it to improve social care?
This question is one we at The Social Change Agency are helping Future Care Capital explore. When they approached us, they wanted to use community development to help everyday citizens shape their local social care system; to support leadership and local activism around social care.
So we’ve started by listening to care practitioners on the front line in places like Plymouth and Middlesbrough. They’ve outlined everything from COVID-related issues to long-standing funding and staff retention and morale issues, but they have expressed a desire to get together with others in their area to be heard, to participate, and to form connections and take action.
It doesn’t surprise me that these people have expressed their desire to join us, because the act of listening and being listened to is incredibly powerful. Organisers such as Saul Alinsky, Matthew Bolton and Hahrie Han have all agreed that listening and relationship building through one on one conversations are key to community organising and developing community leaders. Through these conversations, relationships and social networks begin to form. Then, as a community, we can begin to pinpoint the problems we have and facilitate action.
Community organising and development are forms of relational activism. They’re slower, more long term approaches to social change compared to lone-wolf, information-based advocacy campaigns, or even digital mobilisations like petitions. It’s an approach that we at The Social Change Agency advocate for through networks we’ve established, such as the Losing Control and the Art of Hosting networks.
We’ll also use Public Health England’s excellent guide to community-centred approaches to help us to use these organising approaches in a health and social care setting. And the good news is that social care is better than most sectors at the art of listening:
“Social work moved ahead more quickly than many other occupations in changing from “expert knows best” to working in partnership alongside disabled people and others,” says Ray Jones, reviewing the evolution of social work over the last 50 years in the UK.
But our approach to power, relationships and control while working with these communities is best summed up by activist and academic Lilla Watson: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
This Autumn, we’re helping Future Care Capital convene people with experience of the care system and who believe it ought to change. We’ve called this project ‘Care Labs’, due to the experimental ethos we want to imbue.
During these virtual gatherings, we’ll share and listen to each other’s experiences. We’ll map the assets and networks they have and are part of, and the problems we want to address. Then we’ll decide how to act.
The aim is to promote self-sustaining and self-directed community initiatives which can make a small, positive and meaningful impact on their local care system.
I’ve benefited from approaches like these first hand. Five years ago, I was lucky enough to be listened to and supported to take action in much the same way. This process was facilitated by Friends of the Earth (FoE) and an organisation called 350. They helped me and a group of my fellow residents in Manchester set up a campaign of our choosing.
So many leadership-building initiatives like those fail because the convenors fail to understand power. The third-party organisation too often wants control or has a pre-set agenda. But we were convened to help each other, and FoE and 350 were happy to step away. They let us campaign, ceded control, and were on tap for us whenever we needed their advice.
Community organising has been part of my professional life ever since. Here at The Social Change Agency, we’ve been providing money management support to over 100 Mutual Aid groups across the country during the pandemic. And we’ve been amazed at what they’ve achieved. These groups provided low level care which has supplemented and sometimes replaced services which councils or local charities have traditionally provided, like meals on wheels and befriending.
And we’ve witnessed the transformative potential of empowered communities even before the pandemic struck. In partnership with The Peel Institute, we’ve used community organising methods to tackle gentrification and social isolation in Clerkenwell. We convened and listened to broad ranges of residents and gave them the tools and leadership skills to start local projects that mattered to them, unleashing a cascade of positive social effects in that community.
These experiences have inspired me and have shown me how powerful community organising and grassroots leadership development can be. So it’s exciting to be exploring these ideas with others to improve social care in their local areas.
We believe social care is poised to have its own Beveridge moment. That is, a national awakening and positive transformation of social care as a result of this crisis, much like the one which led to the creation of the National Health Service after World War II.
Charlotte Morgan from the New Local Government Network believes such an awakening would benefit from a spirit of collaboration and community at its heart. She writes in the Guardian:
“The local public services that emerge intact – or even stronger – from this crisis will be ones where councils have had the imagination, resource and humility to work in partnership with residents, rather than struggle to meet every need alone.
It is also essential that the national government recognises the enormous role councils and communities are playing, and resource and empower them accordingly. After all, collaboration is for life, not just for crisis.”
This belief is something we subscribe to and we’re enjoying supporting Future Care Capital in their efforts to empower communities to meet their national government and local authorities half way.
And Future Care Capital’s Sue Wixley agrees: “Policy-makers and practitioners have tough choices ahead of them. But as we rebuild, we do get to choose. We hope that Care Labs provide a glimpse of a more human-centred approach to care that could be a part of our new normal.”
If you share our belief in the potential of empowered communities to transform social care and want to be part of these conversations, sign up to Care Labs here.