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  • Writer's pictureClaire Aston

The New Normal - rediscovering local community

How the current climate has highlighted the need for strong local connections

It's been ten days since our boys went back to school (whoop!), and since then, I've been reflecting on just how important local community has become over the past few months.

Where once, in a pre-Covid world, my parents would have scooped the boys up for school, whilst my husband and I rushed for the commuter train, now we don't go anywhere. We take turns to join the (socially distanced) drop off queue, and are then free to work, right there and then. To return to the kitchen table, now cleared of toast and cereal, and set up the laptops.

Except that I find that slightly soul-destroying, and miss the 'transition time' that an hour-long commute provided to switch from 'eat your breakfast, brush your teeth, find your shoes, get your water bottle,' to a day ahead full of communications planning and delivery.

So I'm creating a new way of doing that transition - waving goodbye to the boys, and then walking or running with a wonderful range of fellow school Mums, some freelance, some in between jobs, some doing traditional 'office jobs' from their kitchens thanks to Covid-19.

So far, we've covered a myriad of topics, from celebrating the freedom of the schools being open, to the joys and challenges of having our husbands at home all day every day, either on back to back conference calls or on a so far fruitless search for new contracts / day jobs.

The Dads have also been brilliant at forming their own support networks, with bike rides, golf games and fishing trips providing a much needed outlet for the frustrations of job searching / home working. There's no denying that the pandemic is causing a mental health emergency, as the charity Mind reminds us, and there is nothing like face to face chat to lift our spirits.

We all need community. And it seems the past few months have reminded us to look closer to home to find it. When you're 'stranded' in your own locale, not zipping off here and there like 'usual', it is good to ask for help from those you can see each day.

It was those school Mums that I turned to with requests for dog walking and extra bits of shopping when we quarantined after our trip to France last month. Sitting by the pool sipping rosé, it seemed an easy decision to stay put and return at the end of our planned fortnight, instead of joining the rush back to beat quarantine. We'd seen it coming, so had the Eurotunnel booked, and having driven out to a very sparsely populated rural area, we were having less interaction with other people than we would on a usual day at home.

Our school wasn't due back for two full weeks, we both work from home and were very aware that we're in the fortunate position of living in a house with a good sized garden. Added to which we do internet shopping anyway, so what would change?

My mindset, it turned out. When the whole world is in lockdown, you don't feel like you're missing out. When everyone else is meeting up for bike rides, dog walks, BBQs, and you're not allowed to join in, you definitely feel the loss. Even if, like me, you're usually quite happy at home! Luckily my thoughtful husband spotted my grumpiness (okay, I may not have hidden it well either...), and over the next few days a whole range of old friends began to ring, tipped off by a kind SOS text message. Several chats later I bounced back, feeling able then to accept local friends' offers of dog walks, and last minute dashes to the local shop.

It's not easy to ask for help, but it turns out that people are more than willing to do so when asked. And as the range of people we physically interact with daily shrinks, we can find that help closer to home. I've heard of at least two friends who've found new jobs and colleagues through conversations they've had in local parks this summer, and am sure there are more.

It's not just about dog walking and food shopping though; connections save lives. In my recent work supporting Refugee Action on their Covid-19 response (incidentally short-listed for the Third Sector Excellence awards) I've heard myriad stories of local networks coming together, helping those who are fleeing persecution, as the pandemic greatly exacerbated their poverty, isolation, homelessness and sense of institutional hostility.

Refugee Action substantially increased the collective impact of refugee and asylum charities across the UK by helping organisations to adapt, securing funding, and improving connections between them.

Connections save lives, and we need to celebrate that.

Next month, nominations will open for the Community Integration Awards; aiming to shine a light on projects and initiatives that advance social integration by bringing together migrant, refugee and more 'settled' communities, and have adapted their work in the light of Covid-19.

I've been helping in the Awards planning, hearing how community organisations found creative ways to connect people despite social distancing, such as the Olympius Music Foundation and how refugees drew on their skills to support their wider community.

These are projects and initiatives that advance social integration, often with little resource and with even less expectation of an award, and in the light of Covid-19, they've been a lifeline to those who have found themselves at the very margins of their community because of the pandemic.

So, wherever you're finding your connections currently, I leave you with the thought that you might find support and inspiration closer to home than you think.

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