Looking Back, Moving Forward: Stories From Covid Times

| Mel Parks

In autumn 2021, Dudley Council commissioned the Ideas Alliance to help them get a better understanding of how the pandemic had impacted on people’s lives, in order to inform priorities for the future. The brief included the use of storytelling and one requested outcome was a visual representation of the experiences of the people of Dudley. 

There were three parts to the project: 

A thematic analysis of stories

Stories were gathered from people on the streets of Dudley and in community groups about their experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns. These were then analysed thematically using a method for identifying, analysing and reporting patterns with data. 

A community patchwork quilt

In line with the value placed on crafting during the pandemic, we facilitated the creation of a Dudley Covid memory quilt. Each square is a symbolic representation of pandemic memories. This quilt was then exhibited in venues across Dudley. 

A photography exhibition

The participatory photography project with Queens Cross Network was to reach people who find verbal communication difficult. We worked with a local photographer who was already working with staff and members of the group to deliver a range of photography activities and practical and exploratory workshops. These were designed to increase confidence and skill as well as to share how photos can be used to tell a story or communicate an idea.

Following the project, Ideas Hub editor, Mel Parks had a conversation with Jody Pritchard and Aaron Lawrence from Dudley Council to discuss the wins and challenges of the project as well as the importance of storytelling and story gathering in developing local government policy. 

This discussion is represented below: 

Mel: Hi Jody and Aaron, thanks for agreeing to talk to me. I’d love to find out more about the storytelling project in Dudley. I’ve heard so many good things about it, including the brilliant community patchwork quilt and photography exhibition. Can you begin by giving me a little bit of background to the project and why you decided to commission the Ideas Alliance?

Jody: Hi Mel, I’m Jody Pritchard, the Public Health Manager for Healthy Communities in Dudley Council. We were keen to find out how the pandemic had affected people in Dudley and how that needed to shift health policy going forward. We wanted to understand what the things were that we should really focus on and prioritise to support people to be resilient through such difficult times, but also to find out the things that made it tough for people to get through those times. We’ve always seen the value of storytelling and the potential to use it to make sure that people’s priorities are informing priorities for the new health and wellbeing board strategy.

We wanted to focus on marginalised groups because we knew that they had been disproportionately impacted by Covid, so we targeted particular groups during this piece of work as well. 

We had worked with the Ideas Alliance on previous projects and knew they’d be a brilliant fit for what we needed to achieve. 

Mel: What did the Ideas Alliance help with?

Aaron: Hi Mel, I’m Aaron Lawrence and I work with Jody in the Healthy Communities team. I was involved with more of the practicalities such as gathering stories and organising the final exhibitions. 

We went to different areas and communities across Dudley. Associates from the Ideas Alliance teamed up with us to have conversations with local people. We went to the town centre and just stopped people in the street to talk to them. We’d stand up or take a seat on benches. We went to a food bank, the library and markets. We engaged residents and passers by – people we didn’t know. It was important not to just go to the groups and people we work with day to day. 

Mel: Tell me more about the patchwork quilt I’ve heard about. Sounds amazing!

Aaron: If I’m honest, I wasn’t sure how that would go. We didn’t know how many people would contribute, if any. And I wasn’t sure what people would do – how they would stitch a symbol or representation of colour to show their experience of the pandemic. And I was kind of unsure until I actually saw the quilt! 

So along with the story gathering, we invited people to take part in stitching a square that could be made into a patchwork quilt. Some groups offered this activity as part of their regular coffee morning, so it became a social activity. People were learning new skills from each other and the joint activity facilitated opening up about experiences, stories, thoughts and feelings of the pandemic. 

Mel: How many pieces were contributed in the end?

Aaron: There were 77, stitched together by Crafting for Communities and the quilt was then exhibited in community venues across Dudley. The exhibition was opened back in June 2022 at Dudley Central Library, by the Mayor of Dudley. Then moved onto Queens Cross Network whose members participated in the photography side of the project, after that it has since been to three more libraries across the borough and a local community centre. We have included a comment book at every exhibition venue to capture people’s thoughts and feelings about the exhibition and also about their experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns. 

We plan to host the exhibition permanently within the borough, so members of the community can continue to view the exhibition when they wish.  

Also, we wanted to make sure we were able to capture the stories from people with different backgrounds and from people with physical and sensory difficulties, so we connected with the existing photography group at Queen’s Cross. They used a medium they were already interested in to portray their lived experience of the pandemic as well. Like the quilt activity, the groups talked while they went through the process, while teaching and learning new things. All of that builds confidence, communities and networks. 

Jody: Part of the idea with the storytelling was to give people the opportunity to sit back and reflect on what Covid had been like for them and to share that with others. During the pandemic, I took part in a storytelling project for local authority workers led by Dawn Reeves on behalf of the Local Government Association, called One Story. If I’m honest, I thought I didn’t have time to contribute when I was asked to take part, but I was surprised by how good it felt once I got down to it. Giving myself the space to reflect in that way. 

Aaron: Taking the time to reflect more deeply is important too. Though it can be quite upsetting for some people, depending on their experiences, it is also liberating and a powerful thing to do, especially when those experiences are shared with other people. 

And there are stories you might not have heard otherwise. For example, we all understand that unemployment was an issue and not seeing family and friends, but I remember having a conversation with someone whose gender transition was put on hold. A two-year period of not being able to do what you set out to do. This took me back a bit. The idea of feeling stuck like that. 

Mel: This highlights the complexity of it all and the importance of giving space to stories from people which aren’t usually heard. We’ve talked about some of the work that happened, but why did you ask the Ideas Alliance to help?

Jody: Partly, it was about capacity. We were in the middle of the pandemic and nobody had much time. But it was also about having somebody come in and lead the project with the expertise, insight and experience that the Ideas Alliance has. They didn’t just come in and facilitate a piece of storytelling work, they understood that it was part of an approach that we are trying to develop and embed strategically across our system. It helped having that back up when working in this way was being questioned. 

It’s about more than getting someone in to support with a piece of work. It’s about the extra skill, expertise and knowledge that they bring that you can then utilise to make sure that the piece of work has legs. And that’s the point of doing it at the end of the day, isn’t it?

Mel: What I’m hearing is that it’s the creativity as well as working in a team, so you’re not on your own. You’ve got some outside voices who can use what’s been done in other areas to say – how about we try this?

Jody: Yes. It was a real team effort. We always work alongside the Ideas Alliance to deliver the project. We don’t just give them the brief and say off you go. If we use the skills of our community development workers as well, then you get the best out of everyone and it gives them a chance to develop their skills and knowledge as well. 

Mel: What surprised you about the project?

Jody: The quilt, probably. I was expecting it to be a bit of a sideline but it has taken centre stage. 

Mel: It’s amazing how a visual representation can add to the words and have a completely different impact. 

Aaron: Stitching the squares together means that togetherness is symbolically integrated. 

Mel: And it has such a long history. Quilting in communities. 

Jody: Yes. So that surprised me. And then personally, I think the simplicity of the photos surprised me. It showed that they don’t need to be anything fancy. Some of them weren’t in focus, for example. But they say so much. It was about what they represented. 

Mel: So important. Just looking at an image can spark off other memories and conversations as well. 

Jody: It doesn’t need to be complicated. As a team, we try to keep things simple. 

Aaron: But it still took a lot of organising!

Mel: What were the challenges along the way?

Aaron: There were some challenges in engaging with the communities we wanted to connect with, mainly timing. For example, it was Ramadan. But we just extended the timescale of the project. And there were some logistical challenges with the practicalities of the exhibition tour. And Covid fatigue. Whether that’s because people were tired from two years of working on it, or they had lost their job, or been ill or lost someone close to them. For most people, it hasn’t gone away. 

Mel: I can see it would be hard to ask people to talk about it in those cases, but I imagine many people find sharing their stories beneficial. 

Jody: There is lots of evidence for the benefits of storytelling. Once people have experienced it, they understand. But initially, people think it’s all a bit fluffy, especially some people who spend lots of time focusing purely on data. 

But I think it’s important to share information in a way that creates an emotional connection. Stories help us understand each other while making information memorable. We relate to stories and they compel us to action. Sharing our stories can help improve our mental health and wellbeing and listening to someone tell a story increases oxytocin, the hormone related to bonding and empathy, and lowers the stress hormone, cortisol. Because stories create an emotional connection, we can gain a deeper understanding of other people’s experiences. Stories can be used to inspire and act as a catalyst for change. 

We will share the stories with people who make decisions that matter most in our borough, so that they can make empathic decisions from a place of greater understanding. If you want to work in a co-produced way, you can’t do that without hearing people’s stories. That has to be the starting point. 

Mel: What would you say to people in other local authorities and organisations who want to use storytelling in their work?

Aaron: My advice would be to keep it simple and remember you are having a conversation, more than collecting the information that you want. It’s important that the people hearing the stories are approachable and have communication and active listening skills. Then show what the information you have gathered has been used for. For example, our exhibitions not only showcase the work, but demonstrate to residents of Dudley that we are committed to listening to their voices when developing future strategy for health and wellbeing. 

You can view the digital exhibition here and get in touch with the Healthy Communities team in Dudley here.

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