Guest blog post by The Faith and Belief Forum
Technology, telephones, volunteers and mental health were key words in a conversation between Walsall Community Recognition Award winners as part of Walsall for All’s Community Dialogue Project. The Awards aim to celebrate the vital work of local communities in making Walsall a welcoming place for people of all faiths, beliefs and cultures by shining a spotlight on Walsall’s inspirational, unsung heroes. The lockdown cancellation of the Awards Ceremony at Walsall Town Hall didn’t stop winners coming together online in a series of community dialogues with a specific lens on how their organisations/sectors/communities had been affected by the recent social upheaval.
On 16th September 2020, awards winners from the Promoting Inclusion category came together online. Projects within this category work at the intersection between cultural/faith/belief and other aspects of identity-creating inclusive spaces. Organisations such as Living Water, a volunteer-run café in Willenhall, talked about how they rose to the challenges of lockdown by offering the Lifeline telephone service as well as delivering food and medical parcels. Aldridge Shed, a crafting charity, took to Zoom as well as maintaining telephone contact with members, whilst Signs For Worship, a deaf and hearing singing/worship group, took to providing sign language translation for online services at St Matthew’s Church.
Many organisations talked about how they were able to reach new audiences moving online, something that was welcomed by Emma Holton who’d been wanting to see more churches provide online content for some time. Some participants also discussed some of the opportunities provided by lockdown such as reaching new audiences who wouldn’t usually have engaged face to face. Goscote Greenacres Community Gardens connected with new communities through their vegetable boxes delivery scheme freshly picked and dropped off for people living across the borough.
The organisations did, of course, come up against numerous challenges such as financial worries, further isolation of already isolated service users, challenges to mental health, the practicalities of making premises COVID-secure, the challenges of bringing people together and the knock-on effect on people’s mental health. Unfortunately, alongside a shared feeling that people were coming together to support their communities and neighbours, there was recognition that work was still needed to challenge tensions and hate crime in the borough. Despite the setback of COVID, Black Country Innovate continue to raise awareness, educate and support local communities in this area, finding new creative ways to combat hate crime in lockdown.
Another concern shared by many of the organisations was the impact that COVID has had on volunteering numbers, in particular, many-valued volunteers over the age of 75 who were shielding. Su Parker from Places of Welcome suggested that one way of addressing the volunteer deficit could be to approach the thousands of volunteers who signed-up with Walsall Council to support with the lockdown response. Another idea that came up about helping organisations move forward over the next 12 months included supporting people to get online and develop their IT skills to enable them to connect with others. Many organisations agreed that they needed support with publicity to raise awareness of their services and to let people know that they are up and running. So please do look-up the groups mentioned in this article, get in touch and get involved.