‘Community energy has come through in these testing times’

CROYDON COMMENTARY: Once all this is over, we can rebuild using the power of communities that has been uncovered through volunteer mutual aid groups, says LAURA WHITTALL

The South Norwood Community Kitchen has been busy delivering hundreds of meals twice each week during the covid lockdown

Covid-19 has laid bare the bones of our communities, who has and who hasn’t, how we are all connected to each other in some way or another.

As many of us are stuck in one place we have become more aware of who is within our immediate vicinity, who the faces really are that we may have passed on the street or seen coming in and out of their front door.

Their lives are laid bare and the reality of who has the resources to support themselves and who doesn’t. The ones that are really vulnerable, the ones that we never knew needed help. It lays on the table all of our preconceptions about people and shows quite clearly how our differences can affect our lives.

Even in times of physical distancing, the social closening has never been stronger, outside of state and official provision, there lives and breathes a rich web of informal and locally organised mutual aid that communities are making for themselves in these troubled times.

Small acts everywhere such as people doing shopping for their neighbours, providing solidarity in some way, and grassroots groups and organisations working their backsides off to get people fed, supported and feeling more in control of their lives. Not to say some of the bigger organisations aren’t doing this too (shout out to Age UK who have really stepped up to the plate), but the smaller groups that have banded together who know and love their communities are the ones that we have seen make the real difference.

At the South Norwood Community Kitchen, we have stepped up our game big-time after having to quadruple our supplies, doing deliveries and providing all other kinds of support.

But the fuel and energy driving this is our community, the relationships and bonds we have created over the last few years have really come through for us in these testing times.

Volunteers at South Norwood Community Kitchen putting the finishing touches to meals

Even people who have only just come to know us are providing us with supplies, people power and all-round cheerleading.

It has all happened in a matter of weeks and what this has shown us more than ever is that a better world, one in which we feel more in control and able to take action, where we are more connected and supportive of each other, can really be made after all of this.

So some things we would love to see in the world as we rebuild once this crisis is over:

  • People talking to each other more; extending offers of help even outside of the crisis and a fuller awareness of our streets and neighbours.
  • Communities to come together across ethnic, social class, generational differences and a consciousness around how these differences work and can cause harm and inequality. To see our shared humanity, however clichéd that may seem. It’s true; we all can be vulnerable and we all need each other. Seeing the places that we live in as not owned by any particular group but by all of us. Gentrification can also do one.
  • A new understanding of the working classes: our posties, our nurses, our shop assistants, delivery drivers, bin people… Our world does not operate without them and we cannot revere the rich who only will ever accumulate for themselves. Even people on benefits and out of work, not to see them as “scroungers” but as people with lives who want wings too.
  • Today, Laura Whittall, right, and volunteers were delivering to 128 people

    Communities seeing their inherent creativity and resourcefulness, even in “deprived areas” where they are repeatedly positioned in official worlds as in some way “deficient” have a rich set of ambitions, and people all wanting to get on and make do by using creative means and pulling together.

  • Our homeless having housing now, or supported to be safe at least. It can be done. No excuses can be given any more.
  • To make do with what we have. You can use the stuff up in your cupboards, mend, repair and recycle. Old is the new new!
  • Grassroots organisations are some of the people in the trenches (yes we may be blowing our own trumpet!) but they need more support and this support should be flexible and without the administrative burden that small organisations do not always have the resource to manage. Give them wings and they can fly.
  • Collaboration! The current funding model creates competition between local organisations, all competing for their piece of the pie. More collaboration is needed between groups, charities and other organiastions to work together, get to know each other and show some solidarity.

Community power is the best kind of power.

It’s not a power that is in the hands of one person or a small group of people, but it is a power that is shared and benefits all of us. Because we all understand now that when one of us suffers, we all suffer.

  • Laura Whittall is a founder of the South Norwood Community Kitchen, which was set up in April 2017. Originally, they sourced food from supermarkets that might otherwise have not been sold and gone to waste and from local allotments, all to provide outstanding meals – for anyone – every Saturday. Since the covid-19 lockdown began, they have pivoted their operation into a local meals-on-wheels style service, delivering to more than 120 people twice each week.
  • This is an edited version of an article that was first published on the SNCK website, and which is published here with permission.
  • Find out more about the South Norwood Community Kitchen, or to make a donation of funds or food, visit their website here.

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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