New songs for a strange land – verse 1

ACE Christmas Party 2019

‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ – Psalm 137:4

We have been exiled from our beloved Dusty Forge and find ourselves in a new and strange ‘land’!  The roar of laughter from the weekly Retreat group is absent, the punchline undelivered.  The Dusty garden is ripe with veg but the harvest is indefinitely delayed, a feast unshared.  The Repair Café has ceased, everyday items lying unfixed and unusable.  The artists’ paintings sit unfinished, visions cut short before their potential is fulfilled.  Birthdays have passed with no cakes and no candles burning for another year lived, and no singing.

ACE Staff making up food bags and parcels
ACE Staff making up food bags and parcels

We were singing a song of sorts. A polyphony of diverse voices, sometimes a little out of tune, but with a unique beauty all of its own. We were finding ways of including new people in this quirky choir, many of whom had never been told they can sing and assumed they had no voice. There were busy days in the Dusty Forge when the cacophony was glorious and it felt like we’d welcomed a little bit of heaven on earth. We hadn’t finished our ‘song’, and I still find myself humming the chorus in the quiet of my own home… It’s not the same. It’s too quiet now, and these kind of songs are meant to be sung together.

Meanwhile our community faces a whole new set of challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic which are nevertheless familiar because they feed parasitically on inequalities and injustices which we already know. Incomes are dropping. Work is even more insecure and pay is too low. Folk can’t afford food. Isolated people are struggling to meet their own basic needs. Individuals’ already fragile mental health is crumbling further. Families already struggling with multiple pressures now find themselves together 24/7 without the support of extended family and friends, juggling work and home-schooling.

The ACE ‘family’ has responded quickly. We have repurposed our ‘Your Local Pantry’ project, allowing us to deliver food to those who need it whilst keeping local ownership through membership alive. Our debt and benefit advice and support is offered via a phone service, and is being well used. We continue to offer 1-2-1 mental health support. We have moved quickly to prepare safe procedures that can support volunteering and have tapped into renewed enthusiasm for mutual aid by recruiting new volunteers. They are now busy with staff picking up and delivering prescriptions, preparing wellbeing packs for local carers, and offering ‘phone a friend’ services. Creative resources are being provided for home use with bored children. We’re even planning a community-wide back garden archaeology dig through our brilliant CAER Heritage Project. And like lots of other folk, we have stuck a rocket under our social media use!

ACE Coronavirus response
ACE Coronavirus response

If you spend a lot of time singing with others then you can learn to improvise together.  Our improvisational skills have enabled flexibility in responding to the crisis in multiple ways.  ACE is committed to a set of values and ways of working that provide a context for creativity.  We believe everyone has something to contribute and that everyone’s contribution should be valued equally.  We see and talk about our community not as a problem that needs solving by others, but as a network of people, places, buildings, knowledge, skills and creativity that too often go unnoticed, unacknowledged and untapped.  We seek to identify and to nurture these ‘assets’ through communal relationships, by listening to each other and those around us in our community, and by seeking collective ownership of, and responsibility for, the spaces and resources around us.  All this is energised by a large dose of experimentation.  We have hoped to create a culture that grows these skills and attitudes in us all so that when change happens, or crisis emerges, we are fit to the task of responding creatively, flexibly and with hope.  If the notion of ‘community resilience’ means anything to us then it looks something like this.  The coming months are as good a time as any to find out whether we have begun to be successful in achieving it.

Back when I studied Youth and Community Work we had a course tutor who, whenever we were struggling to make sense of an aspect of our practice, would tell us that we had to learn to ‘sit in the shit’.  It was very annoying at the time but the phrase has come back to me so many times since, and it seems particularly relevant now.  Its wisdom is in challenging us to fight the urge to leave the shit and walk away as quickly as possible.  The danger is to rush to old solutions in the context of new problems.  When all has changed, and the odour of a new strange world is overwhelming, there is necessary work in sitting in it long enough to understand it.  To get a feel for it.  To engage it with all our senses so we can start to improvise a way through.

‘French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil wrote about the claim of what is on our attention.  She writes, we do not have to love what happens to us, but we ought to pay attention to it, to come to know it and grasp what might be done for the good in response.  And we cannot really know what to do for the good if we do not grant events and people our deepest attention.  There is love to be had in creative human wrestling with what is, in that response, if not in the events themselves.’ – Anna Rowlands.

So some of our immediate tasks might be to wait, to listen, to watch and to reflect.  To remind ourselves that much of the value of community development is in the process itself, not in reaching some predetermined destination.  Our commitment to Asset Based Community Development, Coproduction and Community Organising, the interplay between the three, and the set of skills and techniques they provide, offer a useful toolbox for this work.  This can all go on alongside the absolutely vital work of meeting immediate need in our community.  But as we sit in this unique and very unpleasant Covid-19 shit, we may slowly start to spot new and different opportunities for song.

We will notice melodies being hummed by people who until now were strangers.  We will take up their tunes and bring them into harmony with some of our older ones (memory, and all that we’ve learned so far, will be important), we will discover new time signatures (maybe they’ll be slower and more reflective) and new key signatures (maybe they’ll be in a minor key for a good while yet, but that’s OK, a more celebratory day will come).  We may even find new and safe ways of combining our voices together in each other’s presence (without using Zoom!).  Eventually we will find ourselves singing a different but equally beautiful song in the new and strange land that we are entering.  The land will form the song, if we take notice of it well enough.  But the song will also help us make sense of, and live in, the new land.  Our vision, as ever, is not to be passive but to act together, and in acting together to find shared meaning, life and joy.

In our next blog, we will explore three related questions ACE is grappling with during the Coronavirus crisis:

How can we use the opportunity to redesign spaces, roles, and leadership?

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