Liz Barter, Ambassador for Isolation & Disadvantage
Fresh from maternity leave, my social media feeds are full of local cafes. In the run-up to half term, many were sharing their offer of free meals through the holiday for local children in need. The strength of feeling wasn’t so remarkable, but the impulse to act really was; not just by cutting and pasting a status to tell your friends that you would discreetly feed them if they were skint, but actually physically preparing, packaging and in some cases delivering meals to dozens of families, every day, free of charge.
I have worked for small charities for years, and this sudden surge of energy and effort to help the vulnerable reminded me of Christmas. Homelessness services experience a seasonal tsunami of goodwill every year. It is wonderful and sometimes it generates more work and expense than nothing at all. I remember busy managers having to project manage the barrage of phone calls and donations, treading a fine line between graciously accepting the generosity and desperately wishing it would spread just a little more evenly through the year.
Even the most trusting of us might wince at the various social media parables we all see, proffering a coffee to homeless man, taking a selfie, and discovering he is such a great guy (#bekind). Cynicism is easy – but actually, the pandemic has tapped into something else.
I remember busy managers having to project manage the barrage of phone calls and donations, treading a fine line between graciously accepting the generosity and desperately wishing it would spread just a little more evenly through the year.
Back in March, the Guardian published an article that described the virus as having triggered community action on a vast global scale: “The horror films got it wrong. Instead of turning us into flesh-eating zombies, the pandemic has turned millions of people into good neighbours”. Grass roots community groups sprang up, got organised and helped– quickly. It was really, really nice.
A few years ago, the language of “community assets” was all the rage in the charity sector – I was working in drug and alcohol treatment and we were designing “asset based” recovery systems like it was going out of fashion (and then, of course it did). The assets, however, remain – time, expertise, buildings, storage space, food, clothes, equipment… and Buckinghamshire is asset rich.
A big factor in big ‘spikes’ of interest and effort caused by a crisis, or a powerful sense of injustice, is that they are intense, short lived and unsustainable. One of the myriad challenges for charities working for vulnerable people is to flatten this curve, just a little bit, to facilitate lasting change. Isolation and disadvantage are sadly endemic in our communities all year round, although it is natural that we empathise that much more keenly at Christmas.
A big factor in big ‘spikes’ of interest and effort caused by a crisis, or a powerful sense of injustice, is that they are intense, short lived and unsustainable.
Acts of kindness and generosity that spring from a sudden awakening to just how bloody hard and unfair life is for some are beautiful and important; but a flatter curve of consistent and sustained work is what really changes the course.