When my colleagues and I sat down towards the end of last year to plan our first national conference, little did we know that our chosen theme would have such life and death significance just three months later.
We chose the title Caring Places – Building Healthy Communities not just to reflect the name of our inspiration, guide and partner Buurtzorg, the Dutch for ‘neighbourhood care’.
The idea was also to explore other dimensions of ‘community’, within and across boundaries of difference, from the local to the global, and from physical workplaces to online networks, and all sorts of organisational forms in between.
The more the coronavirus has spread around the world, the more the term ‘international community’ has looked frighteningly oxymoronic. Pulling in the other direction, however, neighbourhood care has grown.
In the ‘Ten Conversations and hundreds of natters’ we had arranged for 21 April, we planned in particular to explore how public service organisations and the people they serve can co-create caring places and healthy communities.
We were fortunate enough to attract many of the finest practitioners working for that goal in their own ways – take a look here — and were on track to bring them together to compare notes with more than 200 others.
For the time being, we cannot do that physically, but we are determined to maintain our focus virtually, and grateful that our planned speakers have responded enthusiastically to the idea of taking these conversations online.
Instead of our event on 21 April we are now planning to begin the online series on that date, but of course the situation is changing fast and we will go ahead only if it would be appropriate to do so at that time.
In any event, the context of the themes we have planned has changed utterly, and now we want to contribute to, promote and learn from how people everywhere are demonstrating the true meaning of ‘social care’ in their response to the health crisis in which we all find ourselves.
Does the emergence of the ‘mutual aid’ movement mean that community self-organisation alone will be enough, either now or in the future? Of course not – our health and social care workforces and the organisations in which they work are also more important than ever, and deserve and require our full support and admiration.
I do believe, however, that the coming months can and will show how civil society, businesses and public institutions can each contribute to our unprecedented common purpose in ways that will create new expectations of the future.
In the weeks before physical distancing became a necessity – my own household is in ‘self-isolation’ – I had spent inspiring times in the company of many professionals, practitioners and volunteers who were already showing the way forward.
I visited them in Cambridgeshire, Cornwall, Edinburgh, Dublin, London, Wigan and many more places, and in the Netherlands with our Dutch colleagues.
While these days I hesitate to use the word ‘viral’ metaphorically, what I saw and heard, and continue to see and hear online, is that the ideas and sentiments that inspire such people are contagious, because they express the best aspects of our shared humanity.
Moreover, the learning their courageous practice has produced is spreading not only around the health and care environments but also into business and the public sector, as our work with many NHS and local government organisations shows us each day.
In the last week it has become obvious to most of us that we are all in this together, but in fact that’s always been so and always will be. What’s new is that we are learning how to make it work, and once we are confident about doing that there’ll be no going back.
Happy St Patrick’s Day everyone!