By Heidi Shewell-Cooper
Change comes in many forms, through big monumental moments in history not unlike the one we are currently experiencing, through charismatic leaders, through planned campaigns and Citizens actions…… and also through ordinary people taking small intentional decisions to make something better. One of the core aims of Citizens UK is to ‘reweave the fabric of society’ and the development of our street ‘What’s App’ group is an easy-to-replicate example of how each of us can strengthen civil society from the bottom up of our avenues, roads, streets and housing estates across Nottingham. Just as Covid 19 was beginning to take shape my neighbour and I decided to call at each of the houses on our street with the offer to householders to join a street What’s App group.
We knew faces of some folks up and down the road that we had caught sight of day to day, but many names were vague. A house on the corner had just changed hands, we knew there was a mix of families, couples, singles and long-time residents – but we didn’t know of recent in-comers, small children and expected babies.
Two of us making the approach seemed a more reassuring option than one, both for us and everyone else opening the door. We were nervous of how we might be received, so developed a short introduction and smiled a lot. For those not in we left cheery notes with our contact details. It was a bit grey, cold and rainy, classic British weather for us to be given short shrift on the doorstep……
…… however, the response was overwhelmingly positive. People welcomed the opportunity to connect and numbers were shared, some were hesitant but joined in, one or two declined with thanks. The majority were enthusiastic, encouraging and wanted to help others. We took phone numbers for older folks not on What’s App and checked out what support and family they had locally. As word has spread others have joined later. We didn’t realise but we were mapping out the vulnerable as well as the passionate and community minded. We could see who was already looking out for who. We talked about the wider local support group and were clear not to cut across other community or city support plans. We later realised we would take some pressure off these by supporting our very nearest neighbours.
Over the last few weeks, we have shared milk, done shopping, children have baked and left biscuits on doorsteps, collected prescriptions, supported an elderly person discharged from hospital, swapped jigsaws, shared worries for families on the front line, added items to home deliveries, clapped our Key Workers together and stood together on doorsteps for a Sunday cuppa and a chat. We’ve celebrated the birth of a new baby and the birthday of an 88-year old. Positive and supportive messages travel back and forth, some days it’s quiet, others its chattier. This is all done in line with the guidelines to keep us safe, of course.
What have group members thought about it?
‘I think at the end of this we will be a closer loving community, thank you everyone’
‘With this amazing What’s App group we have been able to get to know each other and appreciate what is happening in our lives…I hope it continues in its present form in happier Covid-free times….it has given me comfort strength and a purpose during this crisis. Fun, jokes and care to share when times are tough. Bring on the party when this is all over!’
‘It breaks the ice having a What’s App group if you get to know each other a little bit….I worked out that I now know who lives in each house on the Avenue except about 6 houses. You may be more willing to ask for help or support people once you know who people are and that (they) are approachable’
It seems to be building a sense of community that will continue and the technology has helped launch our face to face relationships. We would encourage Nottingham Citizens members to consider it down their street. Some advice: a) agree the geography that works for you (we decided not to go around the corner); b) if needed promote the main City advice and helplines and signpost to ‘main’ local groups……but in all this you will be creating new relationships together.
We might be necessarily physically distancing as a country, but we can all socially edge closer together in our small part of it. Who knows where it might lead in building relationships for change?