Caring Communities — Covid19, revolutions & re-visioning the future

I wrote this piece back in July and shared it only with a few friends. I’m now making it public — this was prompted by the disappearance of an old friend from Minsk —Sergei Stepanov — who has recently been released from prison in Belarus — his photography work is both poetic and idiosyncratic and part of what started me thinking about the revolutionary role of communities in bringing about change. I’ve included with his permission some of his photos from Belarus.

Through many years I’ve had an interest and commitment to the role of communities — using an increasingly wide definition to recognise that communities are not always geographical, and can be linked to race, or gender, or very specific sets of interests — often stemming from health and well-being. Communities don’t always form when we hope they will — think of those sheltered housing schemes for older people where no-one interacts despite their loneliness. Communities often have distinct characteristics that nurture us as individuals, as well being vehicles for collective enterprise to achieve a change.

How key are communities to democratic life? And what does democracy mean in an age of Covid19?

In the UK and elsewhere we’ve witnessed the tensions between national and local/regional governments in the control of regulations and management of the virus. At least in England — the national approach has often been deemed to fail. In Scotland — the centre has been closer to the localities — perhaps after over 10 years of community planning at least there was familiarity between partners of how to react locally (between health and local authorities, but also with the voluntary and community sector). None of our response has been perfect, and I’m sure there are many who continue to reflect on the effectiveness of the different approaches. There are also many who consider the Covid regulations to be unnecessarily strict and object to their impact on their individual liberties, having it appears little interest in the needs of the wider society to protect itself.

What hasn’t been at all discussed was the lack of effective involvement of local communities. On one level we’ve seen incredibly high levels of volunteering (schemes overwhelmed) with people offering to help out with a whole range of tasks — from supporting foodbanks to collecting prescriptions and visiting neighbours. Often these volunteers were underutilised and frustrated by being unable to find a valuable role.

At the same time, we’ve been encouraged to wear a mask and think of others — Joe Biden being the prominent in his statements ‘Wearing a mask isn’t a political statement — it’s a patriotic duty’. (Twitter, 20 November 2020). This reaching out and asking communities, as groups of individuals, to look out for each other by taking steps to prevent the spread of the virus has been a common theme across the world. It’s also been a necessary part of trying (however un/successfully) to minimise fear. At its extremes people have been coerced into compliance with regulations deemed to be for the ‘greater good’.

Belarus boat, November 2020

Although the mutual protection benefits of thinking communally are often referenced in the context of Covid19 — the role of communities in current political discourse, as a powerful tool of influence, has been much overlooked. Perhaps because it is difficult to measure or even to define communities, and harder still to work with them effectively — giving them the power. Working for a social housing provider with responsibility for community investment activity the primary aim of my role was to listen and allow people in communities to articulate the changes and actions that they wanted to see. This type of hyper local activity is undervalued and often unrecognised. It is expected to demonstrate an impact, but rarely are the values of improved community integration — better neighbourhoods, safer and happier communities recognised. Even less recognised is the power of communities to sustainability alter and build change. Much focus has been on community capacity building, but it’s too often in isolation, and limited to resources it is rarely well defined and it’s role often minimal and appreciated by those who are community development specialists.

Alongside communities comes care — integral to it and at the heart of many communities. Care is personal, social and economic. The costs of providing care by the many unpaid carers is rarely discussed. Most do not want to acknowledge how important it is that people care, nor how for many women who remain our primary carers, do people acknowledge how being a carer can have a very negative impact on lives — education, job, pensions. Care represents those social bonds and civic ties which are an essential part of communities. If these were recognised the role of communities, as care givers, as drivers of social democracies would be at the heart of our economies. Instead we have the economics of the individual, of greed and of social contracts which are driven by profit and so destructive of fundamental rights. If care and communities were central how would things change?

Communities at the heart of change — only in times of the extreme?

The strange thing for me, watching the enormously powerful community based political change that was being sought in Belarus was to recognise that many of the positive benefits of communities are only recognised at times of extreme change. We’ve seen images in Belarus of community members bravely preventing fellow demonstrators from being beaten and dragged away by security police. A strong illustration of caring for your neighbour and of protecting your democratic right of protest.

Early protests in Minsk — summer 2020

We’ve seen the use of social media — in so much political change from the Arab Spring, through to environmentalism take hold in Belarus, but this reflects and is a window only into the communities that have formed, that use the tools of our age to communicate and share ideas and aspirations. Yes some activism in Belarus is being driven by online communities when the internet permits (if is frequently ‘switched-off’) but most are geographical communities — local neighbourhoods — who come together to demonstrate, and ultimately to look after each other. With a shared goal and purpose that change needs to happen.

This type of community-based activism at times of societal transformation can be seen clearly in the major changes of the 20th and now 21st centuries, the role of factories and local neighbourhoods in the Russian revolution for instance is well-documented. As is the collective and very localised change that happened in Spain during the civil war where much was done to build an alternative society. Periods of war have also seen the role of communities being heralded as being at the heart of democracies ‘your country needs you’– but as with Covid-19 responses these are all recognising the very specific, apparently circumstantial primacy of communities — when community support becomes more essential to achieving a vital collective end (the end of a war, a major political transformation).

How can we put communities at the heart of our democracies in ‘normal’ times?

My feeling is that we must empower communities firstly to demand change and find a way to make them key to sustaining that change. In the UK and many other western economies, the change that is needed is a fundamental re-building of our economies to share wealth more equally and to build a green revolution. To build a community that cares.

During the last couple of years, I was lucky to facilitate a community of practice which was envisaged by five core partners to support good practice around helping those who are excluded to get online. The role of a community of practice is interesting in the context of change and how to maintain change. There is an acceptance within the literature (Etienne Wenger) that communities of practice have a definite life cycle as illustrated in the diagram below.

Here it is accepted that there is a cycle of change, where the community becomes very relevant, and as it creates new knowledge it delivers new thinking and then gradually becomes less central, with it’s imparted knowledge being retained within the community. There are parallels here with our ‘communities in the extreme’ — at times of revolution — once the need for a community of change has reduced, they disappear whilst some collective memory and experience of what was achieved (and how) is retained.

Maybe as a consequence we need to accept that the role of communities is to facilitate a very specific change and that sustainability — except for those who are most committed — is in the collective change achieved and the actual outcome of the change. So once a major political change has occurred the need for high levels of community activism diminishes and a more normal life continues. Sounds obvious, but may not be what we need now in our 21st century world where a major set of global changes is needed.

Those who seek to make a substantial change to how we distribute wealth, how we look after our planet — feel that there is a need for a faster and more dynamic set of changes. How they achieve that is not dissimilar to the current situation in Belarus where power and repressive actions have, as yet prevented a major change taking place.

In the meantime, both sets of activists seek to use digital communication to change hearts and minds — as well as direct action on the streets to demonstrate their commitment and raise the profile and understanding of the change they wish to bring. Building community capacity to effect change will be key to their success and needs support in Belarus from partners who understand something of the politics and culture of a community which has lived under a severe dictatorship for many years. Young people particularly who have been so active in looking to achieve the end of the repression would benefit from support and direct interventions to encourage understanding of the role of communities in bringing about change. This will not be in their current collective experience and so some external input may be beneficial (external partners inputting into a change need to be mindful of the culture and respect the directly articulated needs of these local communities in Belarus for instance).

To conclude:

· Covid19 has brought communities once again into the heart of our lives. There appears to be a clear understanding that we live together and must protect each other. The response from local community groups across the world has been phenomenal.

· Communities have not always been empowered to make local decisions about how they can respond to the Covid virus — this may have had an impact of the effectiveness of our responses.

· Care is a very important element of communities — it is at the base of much community activity. The link between care and the health and well-being of communities is primary.

· Communities are a very powerful tool in democracies — and especially in democracies that are experiencing major change — communities are complex and their capacity to support change needs to be better understood.

· How we can keep community activity high to achieve a major sustainable change in global inequalities, social exclusion and the environment is worthy of international focus.

· Belarus communities are using daily direct action to seek a major change. We all need to highlight what they want to achieve, the end of dictatorship, but we also need to stand ready to offer support as they build their own new democracies in which I hope local communities will form a strong part.

· For those who are interested — some months after I wrote this piece Carnegie UK have produced a really interesting report on communities and Covid which includes much to think about in terms of our future.

Kate Gallant, July 2020, revised November 2020

References

Carnegie UK, Covid 19 and communities, November 2020

Scottish Community Development Centre, Community capacity building

Some recent reports and background on news from Belarus

New East European, podcast services on the Story of Belarus, November 2020

Civic Solidarity, OSCE report in respect of Belarus, November 2020

Human Rights Watch, Crackdown on peaceful protestors escalates in Belarus, November 2020

Community investment & service improvement professional working in the voluntary sector and social housing

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