In brief

In this, our last blog of 2021, we look back on another year of disruption and pain and remind ourselves of the patches of light and the power of relationships in helping us to heal. 

It has taken a long time to get here, but I do have more than one person I can depend on in my life now and that makes such a difference to me. I’m still here and I’m still fighting

Kate*, Spirit of Lockdown

I have been asking people what they have most missed these last two years. It’s not Christmas parties. Some talk painfully about the absence from school or the loss of a regular income but overwhelmingly people talk about relationships; about togetherness. Not seeing Mum, the special teacher, the grandchildren, close work colleagues, old friends.  

Perhaps this seems like an obvious point but I am not sure that we would have imagined it if we had known the circumstances in 2019. Sometimes, as Joni Mitchel first sang fifty Christmases ago “we don’t know what we’ve got til it’s gone”.  

Thank fully as Oli Barrett reminded us just a couple of weeks ago

“Like the seeds or the acorns which have fallen from the trees, (our relationships) can and will be reborn. But like those seeds, it will take time, and the right conditions”.

Young people 

During the second half of this year we have been gathering observations from children and teenagers in The Lookout – a young peoples version of The Relationships Observatory. We will be publishing the findings in January but it is hardly a plot spoiler to say that children have been experiencing the same stress, loss and unhappiness as everybody else, only more.

Vital relationships have been disrupted or cut short at a time when they are needed most. We have thought a lot this year about the deep tissue damage that maybe left behind when Covid at last recedes.

For some this period may be remembered as strange and unwelcome but essentially transitory. For others, perhaps young people most of all, there is a risk that the shadow will endure.

Some people would have a joyous mood in school but online I thought they seemed really low and down. I feel like they would have been better in school. I think the stress of work and not interacting with people made their mental health go down

Lookout participant

That’s why we have focused much of our work on “turning to the light”, using some of the positives from this period to address the  negatives,  not because the last two years haven’t revealed enormous challenges, and created many more, but because they have.

Sustaining the best of us, together

We have been listening to, and learning from, the many uplifting personal stories from around the UK, building on our Active Neighbours’ Field Guide  and working to sustain and support the local evolution of mutual aid. We are working together on a peer support programme with and for the connectors and the community weavers that have led on Mutual Aid 1.0. Mutual Aid 2.0 will look different everywhere but growing the best of it, in spirit and in substance, can realise a positive legacy from this grievous time.

I am so incredibly proud of communities right now – rallying to deal with Omi, getting each through the aftermath of Arwen and just generally keeping going. Our leaders don’t say it nearly enough but I think every single one of you battling on are bloody marvellous

Disaster expert Professor Lucy Easthope on Twitter

Attending to the bridges

In many of our conversations people of all ages have talked about the Blitz spirit. When the Relationships Observatory first reported in April 2020 and communities were clapping on the street, this felt appropriate. Now as Covid has lasted twice as long as the actual blitz, and claimed the lives of more than twice as many civilians, the comparison is increasingly strained. 

Repairing, restoring or making new relationships between communities as well as well as within them, is ever more important. Based on our Bridge Builders’ Handbook – developed with Professor Neil Denton and the After Disaster’s Network – we have been supporting local connectors to come together and stay together in this vital work.

The initial stages of a crisis brings people together, especially at a neighbourhood level, and with those whose identity and circumstances we relate to (bonding social capital). However, these connections and collaborations can fade as time goes by, and people begin to acknowledge that their own needs differ from others. As communities become aware of these differences, the energy generated by the disaster can change from being a force that brings people together, to one that drives people apart.

Disaster expert and Relationships Project Associate Professor Neil Denton

Learning to be ready

In her Dimbleby lecture last week Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert discussed the enormous challenges involved in developing a vaccine to combat the pandemic, whilst in the midst of a pandemic. She made a powerful case for future investment in “pandemic preparedness”. 

Our shared experience of the last two years provides compelling evidence for comparable investment in social resilience.

The communities and the people who have coped best were those who already had the strongest relationships.

This was not new news. From the work of Daniel Aldridge and others, we already knew that the presence or absence of social capital significantly influences the impact of disaster as well as the rate of recovery.    

Here we interpret “disaster” to mean not only national or global catastrophes but the inevitable set backs and losses that we all experience at some time in our lives. 

We do best when our relationships are strong. “Investing” in them isn’t just about money, it is also about how we organise our society, our communities and services, what we train for, prioritise and expect of one another.

Our resources, the Kit for Councils for instance and the Heatmap, are designed to help with this work, place by place, but much more is needed to build a whole society where strong relationships are not an afterthought but a central organising principle.

A world of good relationships

A big part of our vision for a world of good relationships is held within our work on the Relationships Collective.

Organisations and services that are built on strong relationships are not all the same, not least because every constituent relationship is different. The Relationships Collective is drawing together organisations and individuals from different perspectives, sectors, communities, identities and geographies and working together on convening, learning, plugging gaps and practical action.

In the collaborative spirit of this initiative we began with lots of conversations, reported on the findings in Thick and Thin, posted frequently on progress and published the application to the Lottery last Summer. A decision is expected in February 2022 but we are not waiting on the outcome, events and other activities have already begun.

In January we will be sharing a set of questions that have emerged from this work so far. Please spare a moment then to tell us what you think and help to shape the next steps.

Our relationships give us hope

Community activities over the last two years have been amongst the brightest of the bright spots but an active, practical sense of togetherness can’t be compelled by government or a big organisation. It is an aggregation of 9 million moral choices. 

As we move towards another uncertain year all our moral choices, our behaviour and attitudes towards one another will be more important than ever. Our relationships give us strength and give us hope.

In our first Observatory report The Moment We Noticed we shared Khaled A’s observation on hope. Khaled is originally from Iraq and had been in the asylum system for more than four years. In a month when the appalling tragedy in the dark and terrifying waters of the English Channel briefly and shockingly punctured the wall to wall coverage of the pandemic, it feels like an appropriate way to conclude our final blog of the year. Khaled’s full blog is here. This is an extract…

This (lockdown) is very much like what happened to me 4 years ago. Like many asylum seekers in a short amount of time my life was turned upside down… this mutual experience can perhaps help us to understand each other better… hope is the only thing that will get us through this. I want you to look at hope outside of airy fairy, happy ending way in which it is often used. I want you to look at it as a practical strategy and tool for survival. In difficult times, it is the only thing we have and it always work, especially when there is a possibility that the next battle facing us could be harder and we need even more strength to go through it.

My question to you, my dearest friend is: who do you want to be after this one passes?

Khaled A