The latest piece in our series of responses to prompt cards from our resource Navigating with Kindness was written by Artistic Director of Cohesion Plus and CEO of the KECC (Kent Equality Cohesion Council), Gurvinder Sandher.
Kent Equality Cohesion Council (KECC) works in partnership across Kent with both the voluntary and statutory sector to promote community cohesion and to eliminate discrimination. They provide free advice and support around a range of diversity issues relating to Race, Faith, Disability, Sexual Orientation, Gender and Age. They are also specialists in community development, community outreach and community cohesion, and provide training and policy development as and when required across both the voluntary and statutory sector.
Cohesion Plus is a North Kent based, BAME led community arts organisation who produce culturally diverse festivals, artistic productions and content. The ethos of the organisation is to use the arts to break down barriers, bring communities together and promote cohesion.
Gurvinder is the second contributor in this series to reflect on the prompt card “Connect, check and communicate”. (You can read the first response to this card from artist, researcher and People United associate Sue Mayo here on our news and blogs page).
The given prompts with the card (which is pictured below) were:
Think about how you are building and maintaining clarity of communication in a time of social distancing.
Are you working harder at communicating during this time, or have physical barriers opened up new ways of connecting? Can you still communicate clearly about what you expect of others? Think about whether you still know what is expected of you? Are you able to reach collective understanding and align expectations?
Gurvinder took time to reflect on how COVID-19 has impacted on the work of both Kent Equality Cohesion Council and Cohesion Plus. He talks her about how he’s responded to some of the challenges his organisations are facing, and how they are maintaining their strong community connections at this time.
Connect, Check and Communicate
Both umbrellas under which we work, the Kent Equality Cohesion Council and our sister organisation/arts arm Cohesion Plus provide services that rely on one-to-one and group interaction. Through KECC we offer support and advice on issues such as race, faith, disability, sexual orientation, gender and age. The service is fully confidential which means that under normal circumstances we meet with clients face to face.
We have always strived to provide a safe and private space for individuals to meet in person to discuss the various and nuanced issues affecting them as some matters can be of a sensitive nature. This is especially the case when dealing with members from a BAME background, as culturally there are far more complex barriers to navigate. Meeting in person is a more reassuring way of assisting and providing support.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has impacted on this drastically and we have had to navigate a steep learning curve over a very short course of time. Our challenge has been about finding ways to connect with members of the community, be it providing support and assistance on an individual level under the KECC umbrella, or on the Cohesion Plus side of things, maintaining a connection with large cohorts of artist partners as well as members of public who attend and engage with our outdoor festivals.
We’ve had to think and work very quickly on our feet in a restrictive environment, particularity so given that some of those needing assistance don’t have access to online meeting suites, and neither families or individuals can attend our mass gathering events. However, we have found ways to ensure the communities and individuals we work with are aware of the ways they can be in contact us directly. We’ve also amped up our artistic content by creating more online content to stay in touch with people who have been loyal to our outdoor programme.
Through KECC we set up a ‘Phone a Community Friend’ scheme which offers the opportunity for a friendly chat to people suffering from loneliness and social isolation due to social distancing, helping them to connect in a positive way with the outside world. We’ve found that loneliness isn’t always visible and can sometimes be overlooked if you aren’t in an obvious social group. We know many of the elderly are feeling isolated, but others are lonely too – for example, single parents are missing adult interaction and conversations, and those who are self-isolating along with their carers have fewer freedoms and have to remain isolated for longer. Where we have found our scheme has been particularly effective is for those who have English as a second language, as our team speak a number of dialects from the Indian Sub-continent and this has allowed us to help people who are struggling to access external support.
Similarly, our work around community events and festivals relies on and is fed by human interaction and community connectedness, but on a much larger scale with mass gatherings ranging from 80 people to crowds of 10,000.
These events are touchpoints and celebrations for our communities – points of real connection. But it is unlikely that we will be able to deliver any of the 11 outdoor events planned for this year. So, like many organisations, we have been working very hard to connect and engage our audiences online – from sending positive messages about communities staying strong in these unprecedented times to sharing previously unseen archive material from our portfolio of previous festivals and productions. And we’ve developed a project called ‘Take 5 with Cohesion Plus, which is a series of online talks with culturally diverse artists. We felt this was important to do, particularly for BAME artists, who normally rely on the summer carnival and mela circuit. They are now largely out of work and we wanted to find ways to support them and to share their stories and portfolios.
This crisis has shown us the importance of being able to adapt to changing situations and having the ability to take a flexible approach across all of our work. This is what we have tried to do – and like everyone else we have been, and still are, learning on the job. What seemed like sensible plans at the beginning of March were impossible by the end of the month. Through open communication with partners and funders we have developed a road map for the coming year, offering public facing online activity along with the important behind the scene mentoring to individuals and artists. The crisis has shown us how vital it is that communities and artists stick together and support each other so that when we come through this at the other end, we can recalibrate and make sure that in a changed world we continue to place a high value on connecting, checking and communicating.