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New songs for a strange land verse 2 – reflecting on ACE’s work during the Covid-19 pandemic

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ACE’s response to the Covid-19 crisis has been characterised by creativity, flexibility and hope, energised by a large dose of experimentation.  We have adapted rapidly to respond to the immediate needs in our community (you can read more about this in New songs for a strange land verse 1). After the initial whirlwind of shock and activity, we have also paused to take stock of the changing landscape and reflect on how we might respond to new challenges and opportunities in the months and years ahead.

For now, here are some specific things we’re starting to notice and to think about in the ACE ‘family’:

Rethinking spaces and technology

‘I am moreover a Luddite, in what I take to be the true and appropriate sense. I am not “against technology” so much as I am for community. When the choice is between the health of a community and technological innovation, I choose the health of the community. I would unhesitatingly destroy a machine before I would allow the machine to destroy my community. I believe that the community-in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures – is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.’ – Wendell Berry

Communications technology has been a life-saver for us in these circumstances, as it has been for many people.  Social media is being used to provide resources and emotional support, and to keep in touch.  Zoom has proved essential in enabling us to continue a form of meeting.  However, we are noticing the limitations too.  Has anyone else found Zoom meetings exhausting in a way that face-to-face meetings aren’t?  We are finding that social media tends to support relatively one-way, passive communication.  You don’t ‘get much back’ which is a problem if your whole ethos is one of collaboration, cooperation and coproduction.  The humble old telephone has been brought back into more regular use, allowing us to make the most of the new time available for one-to-one conversations.  We can finally spend some time finding out what makes that volunteer tick, the one we’ve only ever chatted with in a group context until now.

However, face-to-face contact of one kind or another feels essential for what we do and what we’re about.  So we’ve started thinking about how we might redesign our spaces (indoor and outdoor) so they can support socially distanced face-to-face contact.  We’ll be asking questions such as: How do we use our outdoor spaces effectively (where it’s safer to be with others)?  How can we be really creative in making spaces that feel relaxed, informal, convivial, etc. but that meet changing guidance around social distancing?  What role can our arts play in this design process?  How do our different spaces (including our newly developed rooms at Dusty Forge) lend themselves safely to different types of activities (training, 1-2-1s, group sessions, art workshops, food shopping, physical/fitness activities etc?)

If shops, pubs, restaurants and workplaces are being invited to redesign their spaces to facilitate visitors, why shouldn’t we as a community be trusted to design our own spaces for community use and action?  Unless we believe that commerce and the economy is more important than our communities and the relationships within them? So you’ll be starting to see the Dusty Forge tentatively opening up again, seeking once again to become a place where people can gather together, dream dreams and act.

 

Rethinking roles

ACE’s approach has always sought to challenge and stretch the narrow specialisation of roles because we take great joy in watching someone explore and discover their unique and diverse skills and vocation in the context of building their local community.  Rigidly compartmentalising individuals into some kind of production line arrangement doesn’t work for us.  This is fundamental to our understanding of how individuals thrive (through autonomy, cooperation and creativity) and communities are transformed.  More than ever during the crisis we are seeing people step into new roles and demonstrate new skills.  This is an area where we can find real hope and cause for celebration in dark times.  If nothing else, all kinds of new skills and passions, experience, enthusiasm and creativity are emerging. It is an exciting time to be working with approaches of asset-based community development.

We are starting to ask questions about how we can preserve and design this flexibility into the future ACE.  For example, what might a radically different working week look like, one that facilitates the enjoyable use of a full range of activities and skills?  Could it involve a diverse mix of ‘project’ time spent at Dusty Forge, work in the context of home/neighbourhood, reading and reflection, outdoor/practical/hands on work planting and growing food or making and fixing resources?  Maybe a more balanced and sustainable working life involves all these things?  Maybe we could give each person time to dream dreams, gather people around them and experiment with new ideas?  And maybe this is the time when funders will be open to these kinds of radical proposals for a new type of organisation and way of working? After all, most have shown genuine flexibility in how funding is used to support redesigned posts and roles during the crisis.

Rethinking leadership

Finally, we have a chance to rethink leadership.  Individuals stepping into new roles to support community based responses to the crisis has provided new opportunities for people to demonstrate leadership.  Thus a potential new model of leadership is emerging in which an individual rises to the moment which is ‘given’ to them to lead.  Their unique skills, experience and energy suit them to lead the particular task at hand in the particular time they are in, and their colleagues recognise this and therefore consent to be led.  Further thought and development in this area is likely to make a strong contribution to solving a challenge for ACE – how do we move away from reliance on a small handful of managers who have taken a key role in the early stage formation and development of the organisation, ensuring a greater chance for sustainability through dispersed and more diverse leadership skills? Questions include: What would a more shared model of leadership look like?  What kind of management structure will best support this? How do we continue to organise ACE in a way that promotes this?  What are the risks and how can they be mitigated?

Hopefully it goes without saying that all these questions do not just relate to ACE staff but to the whole ACE family, including volunteers, members, trustees, participants and staff.  Everyone has a role to play and a contribution to make and everyone will find a particular scenario, time or place in which their combination of experience, character, skills and knowledge will nudge them into a leadership role, even if it’s just for a time.  We should be excited to embrace this and see where it takes us.

Despite the huge challenges of the last six months, and an ongoing and unsettling sense of uncertainty, there are nevertheless exciting opportunities to continue thinking carefully about what we are doing, and why and how we are doing it. We look forward to continuing to explore these opportunities with you all!

 

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