Socially Connected Leeds: Physically distant but socially connected

This post is part of a series of regular blogs to support communities and neighbourliness. Here we will share good news stories, positive practice and innovative ways communities in Leeds are connecting.

There has been a lot of attention on the huge number of people who have put themselves forward to volunteer during the current crisis. Be it the national call to ‘help the NHS’ or the magnificent response coordinated locally through Voluntary Action Leeds, Leeds City Council and dozens of Leeds third sector organisations. This response, and the work to recruit, support and match volunteers with those in need, is to be applauded. Those who were already volunteering in Leeds’s fantastic voluntary and community sector, who are now going the extra mile and expanding their role and their hours should also be recognised.

Alongside this, we also want to promote, nurture and celebrate what is already going on informally in communities, neighbourhoods and groups across Leeds.  They are able to support each other without the need for formal processes,  indeed, this should really be the first step, as someone tweeted to me last week: ‘we don’t want Jane at number 24 registering to volunteer to then go through a process to then be matched to help out Mary at number 32’. 

We are seeing people coming together in many different ways across the city, from through the Covid 19 Response groups, to newly formed online friendships, faith groups and changes in way the third sector is working. There is an increasing role of ‘civil society’ – from scout groups, to community cafes (we will be doing future blogs on these areas in the coming weeks). 

Fortunately in Leeds, we have long recognised the potential of neighbourhoods and communities to be at the heart of bringing about positive change. Nowhere more so than in the work of ‘Asset Based Community Development’ (ABCD).See short film here:

ABCD starts with a simple premise, that if given the tools and the opportunity, small groups of local residents can change the things that they believe need changing in their community, better than anyone else.  It begins by finding out what the people living in a community care enough about to work on together to change, develop and/or sustain.  Of course now we are in a situation where we all largely agree on what that focus needs to be for now – the response to Covid19.  But ABCD also recognises and celebrates the uniqueness of neighbourhoods and the interdependencies of communities and we are all seeing many different ways of how people are not only maintaining connections at a time of ‘social distancing’, but making new ones – being socially connected, whilst physically distant.

I was lucky enough to be on a Zoom Call (which like many I had never heard of two weeks ago!) last week with ABCD practitioners around the world. It was incredible to hear from people in different stages of lock down/self-isolation: from Italy, to Northern Europe, from the USA, to Singapore.  What emerged was a range of different actions, but common themes around how these connections are happening, including:

  • A focus on ‘small acts’, practical, social, emotional, all under the banner of ‘Acts of Kindness’
  • Establishing friendship groups ‘before you need them’
  • Importance of support at a street level
  • Telephone trees to digital platforms
  • Virtual connections – from Karaoke to Bingo, to digital platforms for sharing stories
  • Sharing of skills e.g. Basic Plumbing and DIY
  • Sharing art via windows in houses and flats
  • Street singing and performance
  • ‘Over the garden wall’ – simply chatting to near neighbours, or kids playing games – backed with offers of support
  • Maintaining emotional contact (e.g. through a glass door/window)
  • Small groups, such as Knit and Natter or Boules groups, becoming the deliverers of support to each other
  • Health and Care services directly linking with these small groups and other community services to be able to pass on ‘patients/clients’ more safely

It is positive that much of this reflects the approach in Leeds, such as:  

Opal has been offered food from local food businesses to support the local community as a direct result of the knowledge that Opal are an asset based community development organisation.

Image caption: A community led project encouraging people to write to each other and encourage those who are not digitally connected.  Fall in to Place theatre helped local people put this together, from LS14.

Local residents have created a phone buddying system to talk to each other. An ABCD Jigsaw and book club has been created where self-isolating residents can request a jigsaw to be delivered.

Local Community Connectors, Nurture Group in Seacroft, who work with LS14 Trust want to continue the play boxes for the community, they are looking at how they can create mini play boxes for families with creative resources and ideas.

LS14 Trust with Community Connectors are planning to create a TV Channel looking at asset based approaches in the local area and how local residents can share skills.

What is also clear is that these ‘community led interventions’ are expanding exponentially. We would hope we can stimulate, nurture and support this even further in Leeds. Many will be occurring naturally in new groups, others through existing groups and of course the ABCD work. But what they all have in common is making/maintaining those vital connections between people. It is these connections that will help keep people safe and well, hopefully, without unnecessary service interventions. What we want to do through these regular updates is to celebrate and promote these ways of connecting and supporting each other.

So my plea is to continue to volunteer, but also check in with your neighbours and people living in your community. Maintain your social groups, whilst keeping that physical distance (especially as meeting in person is not possible), be it Train Spotting, Ten Pin Bowling, Mums and Toddlers or the Working Men’s Club and many more. Use those connections to offer support and be supported, seldom has our reliance on each other been so apparent. And finally, let’s do this in a way that is sustainable and acts as a platform for nurturing this magnificent community response to support each other way beyond Covid 19.

By Mick Ward
Chief Officer of Transformation and Innovation
Adults and Health, Leeds City Council

#TogetherApart  #TogetherLeeds

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