Blog > Cormac Russell

Together Apart: Community Life in Times of Crisis

Co-written by Al Smith, Jono Byrne, Mark Upton and Richard Martin

The reality of COVID-19 is sinking in. This pandemic is likely to be a long and drawn-out one. It also is reasonable to assume that it will not be the last of its kind. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see that critical public health messages are getting through regarding hand-washing, physical distance, limits on congregation and the need for self-isolation both as a preventive and recovery measure.

Challenges and Opportunities

It still feels, though, as if we are in pursuit of answers to questions we have not properly formulated yet. The guidance on what has been termed social distancing is a case in point. Humans are social creatures, and our connections with others give meaning to our lives. The evidence underpinning this advice is based on the protective effects of maintaining a physical distance of at least two metres from other people while avoiding large gatherings, rather than on complete social disconnection. However, we must also recognise that new evidence is emerging as we act.

Given the variation in advice in different nation states on what constitutes a safe group size and whether it's safer for people to get together outdoors, it would be extremely helpful if policy could evolve to provide some clarity here. In the meantime, it is essential that we maximise our capacity to remain present, social and civic. At the same time, though, we have to minimise the risk of contagion and to limit our exposure to the vulnerabilities that sit both within us and between us.

  As people self-organize, there is increasing evidence of mass local responses to this global crisis… There is much we can learn from their community stories, which are emerging at an accelerated pace in the face of this pandemic.

As social beings, we are being challenged as never before; emotionally, socially, civically. We have to step back from each other, while at the same stepping up to contribute to the wellbeing of our communities. The question before us is how to spin those two plates at the same time and in ways that will persist over time?

It's heartening to see so many organisations play their part in response to the crisis, whether that is brewers who've started to produce hand sanitiser, or education providers who are supporting the home-schooling of children in ways that will help them understand what's happening around them right now.

In our local neighbourhoods, right now, there also are signs of community mobilisation and of impactful responses being put into effect. As people self-organize, there is increasing evidence of mass local responses to this global crisis that are enabling people to stay together while being apart. There is much we can learn from their community stories, which are emerging at an accelerated pace in the face of this pandemic.

We've already seen many examples of people making creative use of the opportunity to get outdoors, staying both active and socially connected, while still following current public health advice. One inventive act of safe social gathering saw residents of a Spanish high-rise community organising a game of balcony bingo. This has already sparked positive contagion, with the game being adopted and adapted in Ireland and elsewhere.

There is no map to guide us through this crisis, nor will we find our way by being nudged from afar. Instead, we must depend on the common principles that surface when local insight and local action are effectively coupled to illuminate our path and keep us from the proverbial ditch. These will serve as our compass as we navigate the way ahead.

Guiding Lights

Neighbours. These are the first responders. We are all interdependent. We all have complementary knowledge, gifts and skills. Let’s create an inventory of neighbourhood assets. Stop seeing people as needy and start seeing them as needed.

Language. The words we use matter. There is a significant difference between social distancing and physical distancing. Use people-centric and inclusive language. Avoid language that dehumanises or focuses on deficits or labels. We are all vulnerable in this crisis, indeed we are only as healthy as our sickest neighbour.  

Stories. We are creatures of narrative. Every conversation is a story. We will learn most about how to adapt to pandemics by curating the stories of what we are doing right now during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Local resources. Our communities already contain the social fabric of associational life in local groups and clubs. They possess the recreational space needed to convene safely, enabling social connection while maintaining physical distance. Let's be creative as we explore what role these can play as we adapt to our new reality.

Strengths. We need to start with what’s strong in our communities, not with what's wrong. Then we need to seek to make those strengths stronger still.

Enduring Change

As the all-consuming influences of the marketplace recede for a time, and the world self-organises, community by community, we can work together to amplify a more hopeful and sustainable story for ourselves and our planet. A better story that emphasises caring, connected and creative communities, that are also learning to walk more lightly on the planet.

The question we need to address, then, relates not just to how we survive this pandemic but also to how we sustain the community that has arisen as a consequence of it. As we shelter and seek to protect those we love, we must also look outwards and onwards. Our actions today can serve as the catalyst to enduring change in our communities.

Our response to this current outbreak should not be viewed as a singular feat of endurance that will return us back to where we were, but as a new beginning.

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Cormac Russell is Managing Director of Nurture Development, Director of ABCD Europe and a faculty member of the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) Institute at Northwestern University, Chicago. He has trained communities, agencies, NGOs and governments in ABCD and other strengths-based approaches in Kenya, Rwanda, Southern Sudan, South Africa, the UK, Ireland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Canada and Australia.

Latest Blog

In my previous blog, I shared the first six of eleven shifts in mindset and approach required to move from a deficit-based to an Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) response to COVID-19. I affirmed the view that now isn’t the time to abandon ABCD principles and practices in favour of top-down deficit-based relief efforts. Now is the time to accelerate ABCD on every street. This week I will share the next five shifts (Table 1.2.).

Over the next few months, I will regularly share new parts/sections of an emerging ‘Guide for Professionals working in Citizen space, during and beyond COVID-19’. I hope you’ll tell me what’s useful and what’s not, and that you’ll also share some stories that support us all to see practical ways to be responsive and generative, in these challenging times.

The reflections of the last two blogs in mind, I’d like to share an ABCD practice I find really helpful in hatching possibilities from inside out. Or in coming to our senses. Please remember you don’t require all of your senses to engage. Helen Keller had three senses, yet led a more sensational life than most people with five sense ever do.

Jane Jacobs' (an American-Canadian journalist, author, and activist who significantly influenced urban studies) advice to communities is to stop being subservient to those with grand visions and “Do what’s right for now and the future will turn out as well as it can.”

Try describing something you see in the place where you live without using a metaphor. Right now, I see a tree outside my window, with brown, red and green flecks on its bark. It’s leaves are being moved by a gentle breeze and shadows are casting across it at different points, changing very rapidly. Now I see the reflection of sunlight on one of the leaves of the tree, which has a dew drop that is yellow in one spot because of its refraction of the sun. On the limb of the branch above the one with the yellow hued dew drop, I see a brown squirrel, moving swiftly downwards towards the base of the tree. Now it’s on the ground. The ground on which it’s moving is…..

Wow, it’s really hard not to fall into a metaphor…

The Welfare State is an important extension of our human community’s capacity to care; not a replacement for it. Communities produce care (full-stop) and the systems or service world should simply be the support to that care where required, a resource to carers and not the source of care.

I’ve had the privilege of seeing a lot of professional practitioners wrestle with the dilemmas that Asset-Based Community Development presents - serving while walking backwards being chief among them.