By Justin Sargent OBE, Chief Executive
During the pandemic we saw how communities took a strong lead in developing local responses. They took what they had and used it with an energy and vigour that was nothing short of inspiring, and it certainly helped me and my team to keep pace as we fed off that energy in those crucial first weeks of the outbreak.
What communities did not do, however, was wait for the state to intervene. It was a swift and nimble response to an unprecedented situation, and it was instinctive: the same instinct that saw communities rise up urgently to help the people impacted by the 2012/13 and 2014/15 Somerset floods.
As lockdowns and social distancing come to an end (for now at least), it is tempting to sit back and wistfully reflect on that glorious uprising of community spirit, as we contemplate going back to life as it was.
In our day-to-day work at SCF we continually witness how communities make the most of what is available to them to change the world on their doorstep. Rarely is this a strategically planned intervention to have ‘X’ in place to fill a need. No, the bedrock of local charities, community groups and social enterprises is invariably a group of connected individuals who take the opportunity to do something good, starting with what they have.
They use their interests, concerns, and skills. They may have the use a local building or some land, and they can draw in favours, goodwill and, of course, money when they need it. Let’s face it, people are more likely to be generous if offering assistance to something that is organised by their neighbours. This happens day in, day out and I think it is one the greatest causes for hope we have today: People coming together to do something good with what they have within their reach and changing the world on their doorstep.
One of the greatest assets that our communities can almost universally access is land, or more specifically here in rural Somerset, soil. Alongside this, another of our greatest assets are the people who want and can do something with that soil.
In 2017 we started to notice an increase in enquiries and applications from groups using gardening and horticulture to effect positive change in people’s lives. We saw a whole spectrum running from those that are focused on health and wellbeing, using gardening and food production as a catalyst for change, to those that are about sustainable food production, through which people might develop skills or simply find meaning in their lives.
In March 2019 we worked with Spark Somerset to organise a networking session called Grow for Good, bringing together over 20 local gardening and horticultural projects, just to get to know one another, learn from each other and maybe work together. We played to our respective strengths; we provided some funding, and Spark did the organising – but it was the participants who made it. As a result, a Facebook group started up and is still active today, and currently has over 80 members.
That energy and interest has, in turn, fed into our discussions with Somerset County Council about sustainable food systems and food poverty, and directly influenced the creation of a £50,000 fund. Grants from this fund have now been awarded to 22 local organisations, including Westfield Community Association in Yeovil, who are creating new allotments in one of Somerset’s statistically most deprived communities, and the Plotgate Community Farm on the fringes of the Somerset levels, a community supported agricultural scheme providing volunteering and traineeships.
Against a backdrop of sustained interest in environmental issues, and a raised consciousness of what the environment can do for our wellbeing, I have a feeling this is an area that (and, please, excuse the pun) is going to grow and grow.
So, what to draw from this? I think that part of our job is to follow community leadership, adding our support - usually funding - where it will help fill a gap or unlock community potential. Sometimes we are in a position where we can see patterns and encourage people to learn from each other and work together. Sometimes we’re able to use the insights that come from the groups we support to influence the direction of future funding. Above all, though, our job is to work with the grain of our communities and then stay firmly on the sidelines, only emerging if we have something additional or helpful to contribute: and only then if it’s helpful on their terms.