Covid Considerations: Hungry Hippos

| Angela Fell

This blog is part of our #covidconsiderations series and was written by Angela Fell who runs RIPEN, a training and development company that was formed by Angela after 25 years of working alongside children, young people, adults and elders within communities. Angela has 30 years experience of working alongside and within communities. She has always been passionate about community driven change.

Have you ever played Hungry Hippos?

I’ve been reminded of this game recently having seen a care home in Wales set a large scale game up for the people who live there. I remember playing it with my two boys. It was one of those games that could either go really well, or end in fights and fall outs. It really got the adrenaline going as many games do that are based on competing to be victorious.

If you want to play you need to: “Be ready to join in the feeding frenzy when you release all the marbles onto the game base, because all the hippos will be chomping and your hippo will need to move fast. If he chomps the golden marble, you win.”

From my seat as a neighbour in a street in Wigan, and a member of a local Mutual Aid Group I feel like I’m in a game of Hungry Hippos. There’s a feeding frenzy and lots of chomping in search of the golden marble.

The Feeding Frenzy

Whilst we are building at the speed of trust in our streets and exploring how we can do things together, food parcels are being delivered at scale, often from a response hub and often by a stranger rather than a near neighbour. Whilst of course we need a safety net, and an offer to those whom neighbours can’t reach or support, it feels like we haven’t left the space or time to enable the street level response to build.

I for one have hit the sugar and colleagues in Italy tell us that at first we turn to food. I wonder too if the food parcel referrals are from helping professionals who, feeling helpless at home, are seeking to help by writing referrals? It is clear to see though that in acting so quickly we can do harm to what is naturally developing with neighbours. Neighbours are connecting and looking after and feeding each other. That’s what I’m seeing in Wigan and Netherton. Those with little are sharing what they have. Are we parachuting food into streets that could feed each other? Are we providing food for free when people have the money to pay? Have we moved too quickly on the need to feed?

As we explore ways to keep each other fed it feels as if the patriarchal institutions feel we cannot be trusted to safeguard ourselves and others when it comes to sharing food and exchanging money if required. That they need to keep us safe and do it for us. Be the broker almost. ‘Be independent, they say, as long as it’s in the way we prescribe’.

Our local Council Officer was most definitely worried about how a mutual aid group could take payment. ‘We’re trying to work something out in our Finance Dept. Maybe we can deploy staff to do the shopping for you.’ The institutional response always starts with what could go wrong (often with that knowing look or voice tone that denotes ‘safeguarding risk’).

The resident led response creates the map as we travel together. Working out responses on a neighbour to neighbour basis. It’s really easy to do at street level. On the whole neighbours know who we can and can’t trust. Who we would offer credit to and who we would ask for outside help for. Having worked alongside communities for many years there’s always been well established ‘pay day’ loans in communities. The loan of £10 for bread and milk until my pay day tomorrow. A local banking system based on trust. Maybe if all those currently working from home, or furloughed, or just wanting to help, were encouraged to connect with a couple of neighbours or become involved in a street response, then maybe we’d all see from the possibility lens.

Chomping up the Marbles

In one week, our local Mutual Aid Group, Springfield Supporters, went from connecting one street to connecting 76 streets and creating a support group for ‘Street Champs’ or connectors.

One week later, after the grand heroic war time cry for volunteers, neighbours in our neighbourhood were wondering what to do. Are we even allowed to do this by ourselves was one of the questions from a Street Champ. Do we need to ask permission? What about DBS?

Funded voluntary services, who had been selected by our Council to act as a local hub, were appearing on our Mutual Aid Facebook page inviting ‘lonely and isolated’ people to ring up their telephone service for a friendly chat, just as we were building the relationships to develop our own involving our local sheltering neighbours. We certainly felt ‘chomped’ and by the voluntary sector too!

It feels like there is little space for resident led action and mutual aid. That we are an unwelcome addition in a plan that has already been signed off. All the place mats have been set.

In a matter of two weeks we’d been completely relegated. Early conversations with a local Council Officer contained phrases like, “We could deploy some staff to you. What you are suggesting will last much longer than the crisis. It’s sustainable. Let me get back to you in a couple of days with ideas of how we can support you.’’ To “Sorry it’s taken longer than I expected to get back to you. The Old Courts is your hub”. It’s no wonder that people give up, don’t get involved and let others do things for them. It’s much easier.

At this point, it must be said that our Council, Wigan, does lots of things tremendously well as I’m sure many people know. Their successes and approaches, particularly within adult social care, are very well documented. They have a fantastic PR department and are very good at sharing their story. Their response to Covid_19 has been speedy, co-ordinated and robust. Others could learn from them. Speaking as a trustee of a charity in Sefton, and a mentor of the CEO, I would say that Sefton could learn a thing or two from them.

Wigan has acted at speed and whilst Michael Ryan was spot on with his wise words three weeks ago when he said, ‘speed trumps perfection’ in order to build the infrastructure – the testing, the PPE equipment etc; it is the speed of trust that should guide our way with neighbours.

I feel our local response has forgotten the neighbour and the neighbourhood. It frames people as ‘kind’ individuals who help out as local heroes within a co-ordinated Council led response. In fact, when we sought to explore developing an eighth hub in our local neighbourhood, one framed from the perspective of reciprocity we have been ignored by our local Councillors and gently encouraged to consider other options by our Council Officers. Whilst we are developing friendly relationships, exploring ways in which we can work together and being praised for the positive work we are doing its very much couched within: “We already have 7 and it would be difficult to co-ordinate another”.

It’s difficult for the system to see that we wanted to operate outside of it, we wanted to grow it locally with their support. We aren’t seeking to be co-ordinated and we don’t want to be systemised. Given the level of community building that has taken place with neighbours and associations over the last couple of weeks I imagine that we will probably do something together anyway.

The local and national response frames people as the helper or the helped. The images used, reinforce the narrative of helplessness and vulnerability. It’s not asset based or kind to those who need to shelter. It forgets that we all need purpose, to feel useful and have a sense of belonging. Our role as residents, is to BeKind and to volunteer to help those in need on behalf of the Council. Volunteering certainly has a place. It’s a subset of community building. However, this appears to be the entirety of the local strategy. The promotion of neighbourliness and reciprocity has been missed. If ever there was a time to reframe the narrative it is now. In Springfield our Mutual Aid Group, Springfield Supporters, wants to involve all, especially those who are sheltering. We are in this together as neighbours, and we all have a part to play.

Whilst every large institution has a policy or a statement in place that goes something like this. ‘We want people to do more for themselves and for each other’. The Covid-19 response has felt like it’s been created in a separate world. It doesn’t fit with any of the local plans. It encourages dependency rather than inderdependency.

The Golden Marble

And maybe that’s because these days institutions appear to be chasing the golden marble. PR teams are often better resourced than youth work. There appears to be a competition for top of the league in responding. Where I live everything feels GM modified. At neighbourhood level in Netherton, Sefton, the reality with CommUnity seems far removed and distanced to the heroic institutional response.

The space for resident led response feels limited, almost unwelcome. #WeveGotThis says our Council. Actually we already had it, in streets everywhere. We’re oiling our wheels ready for our resurgence. Like hippos in bloats, we are ready to come out of the water.

Angela has been developing and facilitating workshops for a quarter of a century and is passionate about hosting with presence, learning conversations and serving whilst working backwards. She is also an associate of Nuture Development . Follow Angela on Twitter @angelafell and visit her website ripens.co.uk

This blog was originally published on the Springfield Supporters website on 13th April 2020.

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