Published on 9th Sep, 2020
“Communities and COVID” captures uplifting accounts of how grassroots groups in Northern Ireland have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. It also offers valuable pointers to government and funders on how to better support and partner with communities to build back better.
How has Covid impacted on the work of community organisations? How did they respond to the crisis, what did it tell them about those most disadvantaged and vulnerable in our communities, and what does all of this mean for the future?
These were just some of the questions discussed by community leaders, funders and the Minister for Communities, Carál Ní Chuilín, who came together at a recent SCI webinar to reflect on how communities across Northern Ireland responded to COVID.
Facilitated by the BBC's Tara Mills, the webinar (available at the end of this article) provided insights into the incredible efforts made by communities to provide timely and practical support and connection, ‘door by door, street by street’, to those most in need.
Over a number of months, local storytellers (Judith Hill, Amanda Ferguson and Seán Murray) captured the diverse and contemporary experiences of community leaders including people working at interfaces, within rural communities, those addressing the needs of LGBT communities, former prisoners, women’s groups, migrant voices, and many more.
The groups' experiences provided valuable lessons that can be read here: Reflections and Recommendations for Government and Funders.pdf
The real-life accounts of pandemic responses reflect the shared experiences of loss, isolation and fear. The stories provide a compelling picture of the huge contribution made by community organisers and volunteers who “gave their all” to support people in need. They recount the ways in which divided communities came together with shared purpose to provide basic day-to-day essentials and support services, human connection, care and solidarity.
The stories surfaced depths of poverty and need that shocked even the most seasoned of grassroot workers. The 25 “Communities and Covid” stories capture important learning on how to deal with issues like mental health, social isolation, financial hardship and unemployment.
COURAGE TO 'STEP-UP'
Commenting on the stories, the National Lottery Community Fund's Director for Northern Ireland, Kate Beggs said: ‘Looking at the stories and hearing what everybody said, you see the power of local community organising, as well as the courage of people who are willing to step-up, to lead, take risks and organise, and build connections that make a real difference to communities.”
She spoke of the lessons that funders can take from these stories and the benefits from adopting a responsive and flexible approach with the community sector, given its knowledge of what is needed on the ground.
“Funding should be in service of that. It should be responsive to local situations and put those people in the lead. We shouldn’t be telling them what to do with this money, but actually asking them for ideas.”
Looking to the future she added: “We are not out of this crisis yet, but we need to move from emergency intervention into something that supports in the longer-term, re-emergence and recovery and adaptation, and how we are going to harness this positivity and the connections that have been made and support that properly with funding in order to build on it for the future.”
This message was echoed by Communities Minister Carál Ní Chuilín. She spoke of her intention to build on the experience and learning her department had gained from working with the community sector during the pandemic’s initial phase.
The minister said this must include government action to tackle inequality. She stressed the need to set real targets and put initiatives on the ground to address deep-seated issues such as the digital divide, education, poverty, mental health. You can watch the minister responding to the publication of the stories here:
The “Communities and COVID” storytelling project reminds us that a vibrant, properly resourced and engaged community sector is one of the key building blocks required to deliver effective public services shaped by local community knowledge, need and connections.
Happily, it highlights the opportunity for government and funding to come together to coordinate and synergise their funding priorities and approaches to tackle inequality and to ensure in the words of the Minster that we don’t ‘ditch and ignore’ what we have learned from communities and ‘move on’. In her words, "We just can’t and frankly, we just won’t."
- Watch the webinar in full here: