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The power of communities

22 Jun 2020 | Jennifer McLean

Since the World Health Organization officially declared the
COVID-19 pandemic on 11 March, life has changed beyond all recognition. We are all, in every aspect of our lives, living in a time of significant uncertainty as we face the unprecedented impact of the pandemic on individuals, families, the communities we live in and society as whole.

However, throughout it all, the existing inequalities within society are being exacerbated. Those who had least to start with, those already experiencing poverty and disadvantage, are being hardest hit. Those with greater social, physical and financial resources are in a better place to endure the challenges the pandemic presents. 

In communities across Scotland many organisations were already responding to community need, providing support to try and redress the balance that inequalities bring. As the coronavirus situation has developed, these community organisations have quickly adapted and changed how they deliver their services and support their communities, especially their most vulnerable citizens.

We are seeing communities responding to the crisis in their own unique ways by using their insights of what is needed locally, and organising around the knowledge and skills they have to meet those needs and concerns. A number of examples of the important and inspiring activity being carried out by community groups across Scotland supporting people impacted by the coronavirus pandemic can be found on Communities Channel Scotland.

Many new community groups are also forming in response. Individuals never before involved in community-based activity are finding themselves able to support their neighbours, some of whom they may have never even spoken to before, to build new friendships and connections, to draw on the talents, skills and experiences of others and to share kindness, compassion and community spirit. However, we must also be careful to not romanticise a situation that presents a difficult daily reality for many people.

Asset-based approaches in action

This visible community-focused action demonstrates in action the principles of asset-based approaches, a way of working which values the skills, strengths and successes of individuals and communities, recognising the importance of achieving a balance between meeting people’s needs and nurturing their strengths and resources. Importantly in the current situation, asset-based approaches are context specific and are about people and relationships in a place and time.

In practice, the values and principles of asset-based approaches respect and elevate the insights and experiences of people – those who have the sharpest focus on what matters most in their lives and in their communities. By understanding a person and the context of their life, it is possible to see how they can contribute to and benefit from the assets and resources of their local community. People have the knowledge and insights to know what will help them and their communities.

In our current lockdown situation people are faced with many challenges but are drawing on friendships and networks for support in creative and innovative ways, identifying what is working well for them and their families, and accessing a different range of resources to help them manage these unusual circumstances. It is said to adopt an asset-based approach is to build on strengths and hope.

Our early research in this area explored the lived realities of asset-based working in community-based projects and offered valuable insights into the practical experiences of those working most closely with communities. These projects were seen to inspire and empower local people to take ownership of the issues they experienced and supported them to develop action in response. This participation and involvement helped to increase individual confidence, develop skills, and build community connections to enable a stronger role, voice and influence in local decision-making.

Public services in communities

Further research focused on sharing the practice of public services aspiring to address complex social issues in a more holistic manner than is traditionally taken.

Through this research we gained an insight into several services which were responsive to the needs and concerns of local communities, alongside the delivery of their day job. In these services, and often in partnership with the community sector, they played a wider role in local capacity building, focused on mobilising the expertise of the community and the development of more cohesive communities through a range of opportunities and events. The responses to Covid-19 to keep us safe and to produce essential goods and services, are being led by front-line staff, quickly identifying needs and reaching out across organisations and local partnerships to solve problems in ways which we have seen before. 

However, we must also recognise that health services and local councils have multiple priorities and demands upon their limited resources and capacity, never more so than at this time of unprecedented need and rapid change.

They too are going above and beyond. Many are diverting their activities to respond to the immediate social and economic impacts of the pandemic. The Scottish Government immediately stepped up with a £350 million fund for communities, demonstrating their recognition and commitment to communities at this time in knowing what works best locally to support welfare and wellbeing.

As the COVID-19 crisis continues we must continue to acknowledge the countless acts of kindness, neighbourliness and collective effort which support and keep safe the most vulnerable within our communities. Never before has the power of people and communities been clearer. When we emerge into the ‘new normal’ and whatever that looks like, it is clear that community responses will play a vital role in rebuilding and responding to the new challenges ahead.

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Policies to reduce health inequalities: where were we in Scotland pre-pandemic?

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