It’s time to let communities take the lead as we face our post-Covid-19 future writes our director David Hanna.
Just before the Covid-19 lockdown began many people worried how ‘vulnerable’ families in ‘low decile’ communities would fare. During the lockdown their lives – in need of food and dealing with issues such as overcrowding and isolation – were often contrasted with the lives of those who were happily swapping sour-dough starters while working from their sunny home-offices.
But what the last two and a half months have shown is that all communities, including those facing the greatest inequities, are strong and adaptable, and capable of leading out their own solutions.
From individuals and iwi / hapū to community organisations and businesses, people showed just how resilient they can be in the face of extraordinary circumstances. Once they were provided with clear leadership and good information, local networks kicked into gear.
I saw many examples of this local leadership in communities usually described as disadvantaged. They included a group of isolated older people, still getting used to cell phones, who used a telephone tree to call and support each other regularly during the lockdown; young mothers who formed a closed Facebook group to share support and practical ideas; and a local timebank that linked its members with older people who were unable to leave their homes to buy food.
As we enter the post-lockdown world we need to learn from the experiences of the last few months and lift our game in how we grow well-being. The government is facing huge financial constraints and there’s a danger that the public sector will revert to a risk-averse and highly prescriptive approach to providing social services. This would be a double tragedy.
People are the experts in their own lives
We believe that now is the time to let local communities take the lead. Over the last few years, Wesley Community Action has worked with others to foster local responses to local problems. These initiatives are less about professional ‘experts’ delivering a social service and more about supporting people to work out their own solutions and put them into action. The starting point of this approach is the belief that the real experts are the people who want the change.
As a result of this new approach we have seen many new and innovative ideas grow up in the communities we work with. These include a fruit and vegetable co-operative that provides affordable, healthy produce to 12 Wellington communities, a multi-stranded programme that helps people get back in control of their finances, and an ageing well network that provides new ways for older people to maintain their wellbeing while living independently.
These initiatives are not government contracts. They don’t fit conventional models and they exist on resources cobbled together by community partners.
But their impacts have been significant. People engaged because they wanted to, and as a result they gained tangible benefits – from cheap vegetables to interest-free loans. They also strengthened their social networks and social confidence. When we went into lockdown, we noticed that people connected to community-led initiatives were more resilient and more confident about offering to help. That’s an important wake up call.
New ways of thinking
Now is the time for government and social service organisations to change the way we work to support this approach. It’s not easy. At Wesley Community Action we’ve had to consciously move away from old ways of thinking about social services that date from the welfare state era, and adopt new ways of thinking.
The Covid-19 crisis and its economic fallout has made us even more determined to pursue a community- and people-led approach to issues ranging from the health and welfare of babies and young mothers to food security and financial stability.
This approach does not replace the need for social services. But if we are smart and learn from the recent experience and have the courage to risk new approaches, then operating from a community- and person- led approach has the potential to both modify how we deliver many social services and release new initiatives that reduce the pressure on more intensive social service programmes.
There will always be a crucial role for government leadership to address structural inequities. But to act for communities without understanding their ability and desire to develop their own solutions, creates a raft of unintended consequences.
Communities have once again proven their trustworthiness and ability in a crisis. Government agencies, community organisations, iwi / hāpu, and businesses have proven their adaptability. It’s a perfect combination that will let us shift from trying to ‘fix people’ to instead supporting the innovation and abilities they already have to build new equitable economic and social infrastructure. This approach will make our limited dollars go further and it will enhance well-being in all our communities.