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Power To The Locals


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n my mind, it feels like it's still April, but that also feels like a separate decade. Prior to lockdown, I started working at the Oxford Hub in October. So I was still fairly new in March. My role at the Oxford Hub is doing social enterprise support. And we'd just recruited the newest cohort of young trustees, which is another programme we run, enabling young people to become trustees in local charities. It had been a very busy term and I think myself and everyone else in the staff team was looking forward to a break at the Easter holiday, which is the moment in a novel where you know how the story ends, you know that break did not happen. Sara, CEO at Oxford Hub, had an idea to put out a call for volunteers in case we went into lockdown in early March, when we were all kind of asking, is this going to happen? And then within the space of five days, it did. We started getting enormous numbers of people signing up to volunteer with us. Normally we place eight hundred and fifty or so volunteers in a year and we had two thousand sign up in the first few weeks.  

The early days were a lot of trying to mobilise and set up systems. We had initially said there are three things you can sign up to do if you want to volunteer: phone support, street championing, and practical support. I started working with the street champion stuff, the community. I guess the idea behind it was that we didn't know what kind of lockdown was going to happen. We were kind of anticipating something that could have been much more strict. At the same time, the quickest thing to do when it all started, the first thing to mobilise, was getting people in touch with all their neighbours, getting people into WhatsApp groups and making sure that people who didn't have access to WhatsApp could also be involved, to just start building that local sense of community. I knew that if they were going to be volunteers in a more formal sense, we would have to keep a much closer eye on them and be much more restrictive. We would have to have them report to us in some way, and I was like, why bother with the forms and stuff? I guess that was the approach here, the only people we're accountable to are the people who need support and who are working with us. I like the phrase voluntary action because I think that's a lot nicer than volunteering. ‘Volunteering’ implies a power dynamic to me. Voluntary action is just something you've chosen to do, and I think that much better encapsulates what happened here. 

So we split the city into forty neighbourhoods. We worked with some of the local political campaigners, because they are very used to leafletting areas by foot and they know what area is feasible to manage. Eventually, we realised two things. We realised that the zones in the city that function best were the ones where somebody had naturally stepped up to start coordinating the street champions. And at the same time we had so many, it was something over two thousand, my feeling was we couldn't possibly manage that number of people reasonably as volunteers. So I made the decision to move to us managing people who would be neighbourhood coordinators. They would be the volunteers with us and their role as volunteers would be to take everyone who signed up to organise their street and start to organise them and get them all to talk to each other and try and find people to cover streets that weren't being covered. Kind of make a network across the whole city of people in each street who are in touch with all the neighbours, and a bit of a communication triangle so that information could flow really easily in a hyperlocal way. 

The next thing that happened, alongside trying to find neighbourhood coordinators for every area, was that safeguarding came up as a concern. I guess it's one of those things that happens when things need to become more formal. At the start, when it was an emergency, we kind of could just do stuff and the important thing was to have done something, but you can only take that approach for so long before you start thinking, actually we need to make this a bit better. So we decided that the safeguarded route was to the practical support volunteering, because we could track who was in touch with who. If someone who's kind of vulnerable or somebody just wanted the reassurance of knowing exactly who their volunteer was, they could go through that system, and you have a kind of chain of accountability. We also had mostly DBS checked volunteers signing up there. And then with the street champions, the focus was on building kind of adhoc neighbourly support, with the emphasis that if they were coming across somebody who needed more checked and tracked support, that that would go through practical support. At the same time practical support kind of moved to combine with the local council and that central help number. We work in a very relationships-focused way with other organisations across the city, which has really borne fruit in this crisis. 

I think the funny thing about this stuff is when you're making up so much on the fly, a lot of the personality of the people organising it comes into effect, in terms of how it's delivered. It was much more open-ended, much looser. I think partly the number of people who engaged with us in that way were able to do so because it was so light touch. And we basically said, here's a list of ways that you can get in touch with your neighbours: we recommend printing out some flyers, having a phone number so people can call you, those kinds of things, just go and do it. And I think the trick behind it was giving people permission to be that neighbour, I think. Especially in this country, people don't want to just be the person to give themselves that authority. We could have given more direction. But I guess I take quite a hard line on this refusing to give more direction, because that would put me in a position of having to pretend that I knew what was best in all circumstances for all the people in all the communities and I think that that’s silly. I’ve got an archaeology degree!  

We were having conversations before this happened as a staff team, about our values and mission and so on. Talking about the idea of enabling people, and kind of moving away from the slightly Victorian charity model, having volunteers and beneficiaries who are helpless and can do nothing, and instead thinking actually, anyone who's involved in doing community stuff is benefiting from it. How do we help people connect with other people in their community and build a sense of identity and belonging and build relationships that last and help them to thrive as people? Probably without realising it, a lot of that thinking fed into the ways we approached working with people when we were suddenly coordinating everyone. I think it’s fundamentally changed what we're doing in the city, because we have these new working relationships. We've always had that focus on relationships and community, and being inclusive. But I think it's given us a much sharper focus on asking what is it that we're doing that shifts power in the city? We've always known that Oxford is such an unequal place in so many ways.  

Even prior to this I felt very strongly about the local level being the right level to organise and build communities and to intervene to create social good. In some ways I feel justified. It's just generally reassuring, doing something like this, how much community-mindedness there is. How much people, beyond just wanting to help the people around them, also think about the community, and believe in the importance of it. On another level, the partnership between the voluntary sector and the local council would have been a twenty-four month project before, and it's been super effective. It's clear that the effective response in this whole thing has been the local one rather than the national one. I'm trying quite hard not to be too political in this but in the back of my head is a little version of me holding a placard, a one-woman protest to develop decentralised! Power back to the locals. I have a large sense of curiosity and optimism about where we could be going with local-level community. 


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