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  • Oxford Together Stories

Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow

I’m a firm believer in creativity being an essential part of everyday life for everyone, whether they know it or not. I’m seeing other people being creative, not just in the sense of art but in the sense of thinking how we get through this together, and actually having the time to connect more.

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I’m the Culture and Community Development Manager at Oxford City Council. My role initially included overseeing the Museum of Oxford team; twinning and international links; the Cultural Partnership; events in the city - May Morning, St. Giles Fair, the Christmas Lights Festival, Dancin’ Oxford and events run on Oxford City Council land. More recently, I’ve been also working with the Localities team to try and knit the community side and the cultural side together a bit more. It was all very much in process and we were looking to make changes over the next year or two. When Covid happened, that fast-tracked everything; within three days staff from across the council started working alongside each other in the response hubs. So it’s been really interesting to see the theory of different teams working together turned into practice.

I think we’d got to a point where people were emotionally ready or at least emotionally prepared to give it a go. There’d been enough discussion and foundations laid about working in a different way. The urgency was there. what we did was quickly set up a different way of making decisions to help share the load and create more resilience in case people became ill. Everybody involved in service planning met every morning and decisions were made through collective discussion rather than it being predominantly by emails to our manager. We owned it, not just in helping to hone those decisions, thinking through all of the implications with a few more brains, but also so that if anybody got sick we could fill their shoes as best we could. The first decisions were to think through how many locality hubs were needed, where, and who was available to work in them. We deliberately wanted a mix of skills and knowledge to be able to meet the needs of the community.

My role has included leading on a number of thematic groups. One is around thinking through how we support volunteering roles, not just now but in future phases. It’s amazing how people can adapt to different things, but it’s amazing how quickly people go back to old habits as well. If we want to make some longer-lasting benefits, how do we redesign, whether it’s a physical space or strategies or whatever, to make that more likely to happen? Another key area is about equality, diversity, inclusion and belonging. We’ve got these Hubs, but how do we make sure that we’re really accommodating all of the diverse cultural needs? Making sure that we have the right food in the boxes for Ramadan, for example. Or helping to celebrate Pride online with Oxford’s LGBTQIA+ communities. Where we could, we added a bit of joy in the box, like a poem or homebased family activities, as well as the food.

Another element that I’ve been helping with is the resilience and recovery plan; thinking through what the world will look like from September onwards; what we might need and where our priorities might shift. So looking at how many more people were claiming Universal Credit, how many were reporting domestic abuse or evictions, and positive effects too, like people taking up cycling and walking, and the benefit for the environment. There is going to be a shockwave of change coming down the line in many sectors. I think we’re going to have even more of a sense of needing to band together in the years to come, even than in the peak of what we’ve had to go through already.

When we set up the Hubs, we purposefully decided not to set up a one size fits all process, but instead to enable each Hub team to respond to individual needs in a holistic way, which was quite a different way of working. We encouraged each of the hubs to respond to and link with local networks in the way that they felt was best at the time. And of course, to people who would ordinarily go through frameworks and strategies, not having to get sign off on this and approval from a committee for that, being able to just make a decision when someone rings up was a real learning curve, not just in terms of being allowed to get on and do things, but in terms of the responsibility and ownership that comes with that. Everybody was kind of in the same boat of working in a new team, but the energy that came with such a rich mix of skills, interests and experience generated a creative and proactive drive and everyone stepped up to meet the daily challenges.

I’ve got members of my team working on the ground who directly put themselves at more risk of contracting Covid than me, and ordinarily as a leader you do feel that pang of responsibility, to be there with your team in the thick of it. However, I am a mum of a three-year-old whose routine has been massively impacted and she needs me too; like so many others, I have had to balance home-working and family responsibilities as best I can.

If I’m totally honest, I’ve loved the change in my job for many reasons. There’s a huge sense of team achievement in getting out there and helping rather than just doing strategy work. Meeting every day to think through some of the complexities of the on the ground operations makes you feel part of something worthwhile. Sometimes strategic planning can feel like visioning for the tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow, which never comes but Covid brought us with a jerk to the right here and now. The decisions and actions are making a difference every day.

There are certain points in your life where you have bit of a rethink. I nursed both of my parents until they died and your life becomes very different when you’re looking after someone who’s dying. I think that really set me in good stead psychologically, to be able to readjust the set and appreciate the small and beautiful things around you close to home.

I live in Salisbury ordinarily but I’ve actually given up my house for key workers so that commuting medical staff working at Porton Down could continue to be in the area and do their jobs. I knew it would be challenging juggling home working and making sure my daughter has a quality of life too. I’d only just very recently taken on the Localities team as well as the Culture team, so I was already combining two jobs. I realised the addition of the hub work for Covid would be three and then looking after my daughter on top of that would be four and I just thought, that is not going to work. For her, not just being with me on her own when she was used to being around her peers at nursery, but also with me working, with a laptop barrier, I realised how life was going to change radically. So two of my siblings and I took the decision to move in together.

We chose the person with the biggest place, a smallholding in Devon, and a couple of days before the lockdown officially started we moved to be together. We decided the five children would sleep in the same room – dormitory style – and all four adults would be part of the whole home-schooling thing, putting our skills together, pitching in on a rota to share the cooking, cleaning and everything else. I was the music and drama teacher, among other things, for my nieces and nephews and my daughter, and we did a play together. I was there for a couple of months until last week and it worked really well. None of us knew whether it would work or not. The last time any of us had lived together for any length of time was when we were children. We certainly spent a lot more time together than we would have done and had some really fun times.

I’m a firm believer in creativity being an essential part of everyday life for everyone, whether they know it or not. I’m seeing other people being creative, not just in the sense of art but in the sense of thinking how we get through this together, and actually having the time to connect more. Creativity is about connecting more with yourself and your own sense of expression, but it’s also about sharing that with others. One of my late mum’s best friends is in her late seventies and on her own and she’s a ceramicist. She was going to have an exhibition in the summer that’s been cancelled. So we decided to create a soundtrack to the exhibition, which will happen in her barn. She’s been ringing her pots, making them sound and sampling it, and we’ve been adding soundtracks and music across that. Her daughters have texted to say you will never know how much this is keeping our mum going, way more than just phoning her to check if she’s alright would ever have done. And I think, in terms of creativity, that says it all, doesn’t it?

Edited by Sofia Smith-Laing


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