- Oxford Together Stories
I Never Felt Helpless
Personally, I just felt really excited to be able to make a difference. It feels really rare that we've been able to move so quickly and get in so fast and help.
I studied psychology at Wadham, and then came back for a Masters. I seem to ping between academia and the real world – I love the rigour of academia, and then get fed up with not doing anything practical, and get a job, and then get annoyed that it's not rigorous enough and end up back in academia. Recently, I’ve been doing projects around putting human connection into systems into services - thinking about all at those tiny connections that make a big difference. For example, for someone having counselling, it’s not just the counselling that’s helpful, it's the chats in the waiting room and the friendly receptionist, and actually having to go out the house and all those kinds of things. And now everything’s moving online, how we can factor these things in to make it better for wellbeing.
I met Sara, the Chief Executive at Oxford Hub, at Emerge, which is a social entrepreneurship conference, in 2016. She looked friendly and I sat down at the table with her for lunch and we had a good chat. I ended up doing a bit of work for her, helping set up the Young Trustees Programme for her a couple of years ago. And then at the beginning of Covid, before lockdown, I just texted her one morning in my pyjamas asking, ‘Sara, can I help??’ And she said, ‘Meet me at the food bank at 10am.’ And I did, and it went from there. She sent me off to the CEF, the Community Emergency Foodbank, and then I was sort of in the midst of it.
Sara’s thinking was that there was going to be lots of food surplus in some places, yet we were anticipating need in others. We could imagine that there was going to be increased demand for low cost or free food. Yet we could already see that the Oxford Food Bank just had masses of food that they couldn't shift. My remit was just to keep food moving within the city, make sure things weren't going to waste. And we saw that one really good way of doing that was through Community Larders. So initially I was signposting food from the Oxford Food Bank to alternative places. And some of that was then going back to SOFEA, who are part of Fair Share, to better supply the Community Larders.
This is when all the Council Hubs were being initiated. So the Council was saying, can we do emergency food boxes? We said, ‘Well, why not just go through SOFEA? Because they've made the Community Larder free, for Covid.’ So that's what we did – we expanded from about 200 boxes a week in the city, to now supplying over 1000 a week. The first week the phone was off the hook, people calling with surplus food, or offering help, or having teething troubles. Setting up community larders, we just did it - troubleshooting as we went. So I've been the logistics, the planning and strategy. Then the other bit I'm involved in is the Oxford Together referral system. So people can be referred, or can refer themselves for food support. I've helped think through and implement the systems there for, like, how a request comes in, and then making sure it's delivered. So really, it's end to end, I guess.
My goal has just been, with everything we've set up, to make it independent of me. Now, I'm there for support, but day to day stuff, things are sort of running themselves, touch wood. Which feels really sustainable and good. That’s our goal. It's felt really easy, but I think the internal team at Oxford Hub are incredible. And then there's just been loads and loads of offers of support, volunteer support and support on the ground for when we've done a call out for setting up hot food deliveries, for example. We had 100 volunteers within 12 hours. You just don't really want for anything. Anything you need, you realise, ‘Oh, someone offered us that a couple of weeks ago.’
Now it feels quite tiring, you can definitely tell that we were sprinting for the first six weeks, asking are people getting food? Are we getting food out there? That’s success, you know, there's no targets or end game. Just, are we meeting need? Now the pace has probably dropped off, like everyone has learnt that we all need to rest, and that’s really important. Oxford Together was really central for maybe four weeks. And now we’re looking more at long term systemic planning – how do we get the identity and sense that community doesn't go away, just because lockdown ends. People are sort of understanding how it all fits, knowing who is around, that you can ask for help on your street. I think the fact that that is so decentralised, and so initiated on a street level, is such a good thing. Really trusting each street and neighbourhood to know what they need and know how they want to operate.
I don't want to go back to food banks, or just handing food out, but I would like to see access to food and food poverty stay really high on the Council’s list. In the future, you know, if this is a systemic problem, these people are in poverty and can't access food, once Covid goes away that’s still important to address. I guess my hope would be that the Council sees that the way forward is at a community level. It's not a simple problem but I think it’s key, listening and capitalising on the enthusiasm from the community, to help and support, and nourishing the relationships of food support that have already been established. Not creating dependency, but creating dignified access to food and understanding need more. It feels like at Oxford Hub and Oxford Together, that's what we're trying to do, trying to support the Council with exiting from delivering what, 600 food boxes a week? But if we can help them do it in a way that's really sustainable, and signpost people to extra support when they need it, and have that support be funded… I think that would be great. But yeah, it's hard to say systemically. I think it's more like a mind shift.
Personally, I just felt really excited to be able to make a difference. It feels really rare that we've been able to move so quickly and get in so fast and help. Like all those layers of red tape and bureaucracy have just gone. I think there's been a real increase in the ability to work with uncertainty for people. We’ve all just been comfortable and forgiving – yeah, we're going to implement this and there's going to be mistakes, and it's going to be difficult. But we're all going to be kind to each other. And acknowledge that we're all doing our best. And that's felt really different from before. It's kind of magical, somehow. It's just a group of really, really lovely people that are excited to get stuff done. But also know their limits and aren't trying to do everything. Everyone just really wants everyone else to do well. And there's a lot of respect for each other.
It's really made me think that systemic change is possible. And maybe that will shape what I'd do in the future, I think, like working on stuff that is actually happening now. I can't see myself being in an academic job, planning for what should happen in 50 years. No, if we want change to happen it can happen now, we've just got to fight for it. If there is something meaningful to do, people want to get out the house and do it. I felt very lucky to have been offered an opportunity to be involved in a very direct way, very quickly, throughout the crisis. The fact that we were locked down, or what we're in the middle of, didn't really land, because I never felt helpless. Because I was always helping. And that's a real gift.
Edited by Sofia Smith-Laing