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I Can Do It My Own Way

I can be one of those people I admire that makes things happen, but I can do it in my own way. I just felt the ability to be human with people and not be helping people in any kind of formal role or officially even as a volunteer, but just as a neighbour who gives a shit.

I knew of Oxford Hub before. I wasn’t volunteering with them before, but I signed up for all the different categories when Covid happened. I started leafleting my street and set that up, and also was asked if I could be a co-ordinator for the area that I live in, so I co-ordinate a group of 18 street champions. And then later I got a referral for practical support. With the street champions, I got an email with a briefing document, and then had a couple of induction meetings, and they were really good. Later when I agreed to help out co-ordinating for the area, I got added to the Slack Channel. All of that has just been such an interesting and great experience, the way in which the Hub have done this, where those of us who have offered to help out have felt like part of the team. They’ve just been really open. There are these regular peer support calls and you can just drop in and there’s people there having a chat and collectively problem solving. It’s all such a good model of how we could all be working differently.

Generally the responsibility of the co-ordinator is to try to be a support to street champions, help to make sure the area is all covered, and then be a central point for enquiries. The other thing for the co-ordinator role was this bit about publicity and making links in the area. I connected with the local community centre, and then we put stuff in their newsletters to find more people to cover streets that weren’t covered. And also to kind of make sure that everyone in our area knew through the street champions what was going on, so I could then post on the WhatsApp group that the community centre’s offering lunches, this is how you get hold of them. Then some nice stuff emerged from that too, like the community centre has organised postcards to residents in the local care home, and we could put that all out through the street champion network, so it became a way of spreading information as much as anything else.

It shifted a little bit over time and became more informal. My street already has a street party once a year so there’s quite good levels of neighbourliness, but because of the Hub stuff and the WhatsApp groups, that meant that then when people were in full-on lockdown and self-isolating, people could ask for things, and there was just some nice exchanges like people putting an order together for flour or giving away plants and crosswords. It was also a way, I think, of bringing in people that maybe aren’t as much a part of that scene, or a bit more on the edges. I think it just felt like quite an inclusive thing. We have a really diverse street, in terms of ages, ethnicities and cultures, people who own their houses, people in shared houses, people who’ve lived here years or not so long. Everything felt a bit more possible, like people were just being kind, and you could maybe stick your hand up to do something that you’d normally not feel confident doing.

What I love about Oxford Together is it’s a formal and informal eco-system of support, it’s enabled all of that stuff that already existed to keep flowing at a time when everyone was behind their front door. It just allows for this enmeshing of formal support structures, which kind of creates a little bit of checking on things, but also feeding down as well as responding to what emerges, and it just means that stuff reaches where there’s need. It provides a way of kind of linking all of that up, and keeping things going in a way that’s reliable. I’ve got an eye on the situation – if I know that this person needs to move on from a practical support role, then I can organise the next person, and all of that, but it still keeps it nice and informal and about just meeting neighbours and going beyond very basic needs as well. It doesn’t need to be only your very basic essential food things. It could be the things that you enjoy, and that make life worth living, like some nice hot food from the café.

The community centre, and local businesses and Oxford Hub, they’re building on years’ worth of good relationships in the city, and it feels like it’s coming together alongside the statutory sector too. The way that that works has created something that’s quite magical really. So there was a huge amount of goodwill, and building on long-standing relationships in the area, or the work of local volunteers who do lots to try to keep people connected. But because the Hub also has built up a really good relationship with the city, and the council, it means that it’s kind of flowed both ways. People generally don’t want to ask people for help anyway, it’s a tough thing to do. But it’s created a network that allows all those different options. It just felt like this really amazing moment of what can happen in professional roles when people are at their absolute best and systems help people to do good stuff, rather than make it hard for them.

I think realistically, that won’t really sustain in the same way, it will start to disband a bit. I’ve already had a couple of people leave the WhatsApp group. I guess it just depends what happens next. How you continue to make the most of what neighbourhoods are offering, and what the voluntary sector can do, in ways that don’t stifle it or that don’t take it for granted and assume that that stuff can just all run off goodwill. In a way that really makes the most of this moment, of this formal and informal ecosystem, bringing together the statutory with the voluntary and with the real, informal community, and how you can kind of keep building on that – I think it will be a tough time of transition.

For me, one of the big changes has been that I was really excited to move to an area with a lot of community spirit, but I can also be quite shy and nervous. So, I found all of that provided a way for me to get involved, but also, I felt really supported to do it, so I felt I could do more than I maybe otherwise would have. I haven’t felt a huge weight of overwhelming responsibility, it's just felt like I’m a very small cog in a huge machine. And that’s really helped. I can be one of those people I admire that makes things happen, but I can do it in my own way. I just felt the ability to be human with people and not be helping people in any kind of formal role or officially even as a volunteer, but just as a neighbour who gives a shit.

I met a neighbour of mine who lives round the corner who I now weekly bring some shopping to and we’ve started exchanging beers, which is nice. One day I bought him my favourite beer, and then the next time I went there he let me pick a beer from his selection. A couple of times I’ve been for a bike ride around Oxford and there’s breweries open with takeaway beer, so I’ve got him those and then he’s told me the history of a bunch of his favourite pubs in Oxford. He’s this really optimistic life-loving person who’s just really chilled, so I find going to see him every week actually really nice for me as well. There’s something reassuring about feeling that actually I do have some connection with my neighbourhood. But it doesn’t have to be in a really loud way.

Edited by Sofia Smith-Laing


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