When I enter into any dialogue about why I do the job that I do, I always find myself reflecting upon how much of a privilege it is to be able to learn from and support people who care so much about the local community.
In establishing relationships with academic colleagues at the University of Essex, we have been able to enhance what we can all know about organisations and the people they work with at one of the most unsettling times in living memory.
I work for a charity, Community 360, that exists to help build a less unequal society and to facilitate conditions that enable people in Essex to experience a better quality of life. We have established relationships with community leaders from many of the hundreds of voluntary groups, non-profit making organisations and community interest companies that operate in the area.
Community 360 serves the leadership by facilitating access to additional funding, providing advice and governance support, recruiting volunteers, offering training, and sharing the experiences of the voluntary sector with public sector agencies in order to collaborate and improve the provision of services.
We are pleased to publish 'Communities Responding to Crisis', a report which was co-designed by the University, 22 contributing community leaders and Community 360. It is based on a series of oral history interviews, conducted between November 2020 and February 2021.
The report shines a spotlight on the commitment, expertise and challenges faced by groups working with people from many walks of life, including younger people, people with long term health conditions, refugee and migrant communities or those who are socially isolated.
Linking up with the University has allowed us to record and share the perspectives of a sector that, on a local level, are not always visible. The pandemic has encouraged more conversations about the scale and reach of the activities groups undertake but we can only know what their impact is by listening and promoting what we they tell us.
We first began working with the University in this way in 2019 by establishing an oral history archive of interviews with volunteers. The project recognised the 50th anniversary of Community 360 and our desire to ensure that the role that volunteers play in Colchester is not lost but recognised in the longer-term.
Through oral histories, Community 360 gains insight into the varied experiences of local people and we benefit from working with students who, in turn, develop their skills while on placement with us. We continue to host MA placement students and add to the volunteering archive, including interviewing volunteers active during the pandemic.
'Communities Responding to Crisis' provides even greater detail, evidence and vision. It is already being used to inform and shape support for the sector as a whole. It is opening up discussions about the levels of investment needed to fund local programmes, encouraging changes to ways in which public sector partners work with voluntary groups and has reinforced the need to celebrate what is already happening in the Borough.
Our working relationship with the University of Essex continues in the coming months. We will capture more oral histories to inform how the changing environment is affecting the sector now. We are also looking ahead to October. We will be hosting a conference where Sir Michael Marmot is providing a keynote speech. 'Communities Responding to Crisis will be brought together with further research from public sector partners at the conference to consider the extent of health inequalities in the area and how they can be diminished by the efforts of us all.
Head of Projects, Community 360
Louise Willsher is a Head of Projects with over 15 years experience of working in the local non-profit sector for Community360. An Essex graduate, Louise collaborates with the University on a number of research projects to explore the experiences of local people and evaluate the impact of voluntary action in the Borough.