For the final piece in our Navigating with Kindness, COVID-19 response series, our CEO Janice McGuinness reflects on the series as a whole in the context of where we are now.
Janice wanted to respond to the prompt card “Celebrate”, pictured below and with the following prompts:
Celebrating together builds confidence, trust and meaningful connections. Are you building celebration into your life/work/projects at this time?
What/who do you want to celebrate? What are others celebrating – and how has this touched/influenced you? How are special occasions to be celebrated in this new landscape?
How are you noticing and celebrating the tiny moments of joy and achievement?
I celebrated my birthday in March. It was just a few months ago, yet now it feels a lifetime away. I shared fajitas with my husband in a bustling Canterbury restaurant, then watched a sell-out show at the Marlowe Theatre in a space shared with over a thousand other people. We didn’t wear masks or use hand sanitiser; we didn’t wipe down seats or measure the metres between strangers jostling in the crowded bar. We laughed, mingled and had a wonderful time – but on the way home we wondered how long this normal life could continue in the face of the growing coronavirus threat, and it didn’t take long for the dominoes to start falling. Within days the theatre closed, then the restaurant shut, quickly followed by almost everything else. Then we locked our own doors, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. Hospitals became the front line and essential shops marked out the distance between safety and danger on their floors.
We moved into survival mode – making practical short-term plans, following the rules, working out how best to protect ourselves, our loved ones, our livelihoods, our communities. Many organisations, from the civic to the commercial, switched their models from rational to relational, pivoting their resources to help the most vulnerable. The Arts Council, for example, threw out its rulebooks and red tape and showed us exactly what kind leadership looks like – visible, flexible, direct, supportive, responsive and honest. We all learned that if we have the will, we really can make radical change at a structural level, and that is to be celebrated, because it holds so much promise for the future.
At People United, once the initial survival plans were in place, we wanted to do something simple that might reveal a little of what living in these extraordinary times was like, ask what it could teach us, give voice to different perspectives and reflect on the importance of kindness in a crisis. So, in early April we invited some of our friends, partners and advocates to share their experiences, observations, thoughts and challenges by responding to our ‘Navigating with Kindness’ prompt cards (the card pack is part of a project delivery toolkit based on People United’s methodology).
We could see that, despite the locking down and social distancing, people were connecting and reconnecting – to themselves, their communities and to the wider world. Kindness was flourishing and becoming embodied in actions. The Navigating with Kindness series aimed to capture this and celebrate it.
The response to our series took me by surprise. Different pieces resonated with different people. Comments flooded in. Tate asked if they could work with us to pair quotes from the series with pieces from their collection during Mental Health Awareness Week, a poem written by Stacie Lee Bennett-Worth was retweeted again and again – well beyond our networks – as an offer of comfort in difficult times, eventually being broadcast on the radio. Liz Flynn struck a chord with so many of us when she reflected on our instinct to set ourselves impossible targets. She talked of the need to take time, make space, rebalance and rediscover, saying “we need to de-condition ourselves from the mindset that success is about running around in constant circles trying to do everything. You don’t have to do it all. Don’t waste the opportunity you have right now to slow down”. Her words were very personal, but universally relevant.
I thought the same about Alan Lane’s reflection on living our values. In describing the purpose of his own organisation, Slung Low, he asked us all to consider the fundamental question “What are we for?”. Not what we do, or who we are, but what we’re for. It stopped me in my tracks, and I reflected long and hard about what People United is for. Asking yourself that question is searching and revealing, and I know it’s something I’ll keep coming back to. If you haven’t already, do read Alan’s piece. It’s short, but its reach is long.
I want to thank all the contributors for giving us the gift of their time, their thoughts and their honesty at a difficult time, and I especially want to celebrate the contributions from those who began their creative journey as participants in previous People United projects. Symone Crouchman’s powerfully moving words and art were created for us and shared during Mental Health Awareness Week, and our fittingly final contribution, from the young people of Chill Club in Ramsgate, took us on a journey from the very start of lockdown through to where we are right now.
Working through the cards, talking to the contributors and being astounded by their responses has been a journey for us too. Charlotte Guy, our Head of Operations, who worked with me on this series, said “For me, the Navigating with Kindness series has been special. It has allowed us to share glimpses of how different people within People United’s broader community of friends/colleagues/participants have found life and work during “lockdown”. We’re all living through something that even now, three months in, feels inconceivable. We’ve adapted to a new way of being, new ways of working and of socialising. It’s something I think we’ve all struggled with at times. One of the fundamental aims of People United’s work is to shine a light on people’s lived experiences and to show how everyday acts of kindness are powerful. I hope that by sharing this series we have helped people to feel less alone”.
And Navigating with Kindness is, above all, about just that – kindness in a time of crisis. Taken together, all of these short essays, poems, artworks, videos and sound pieces, tell a bigger story. It is set during a perilous time, but peril is not its subject. It tells a story of creativity, compassion, bravery, love and hope. It belongs to the contributors and they offer it to you with generosity.
Back in the early days of the pandemic, when most of us were locked in the present, artist Bernadette Russell wrote the first piece. Even then, she looked forwards with hope, inviting us to consider the future, reminding us that the time would come when we emerged into an altered, redefined world; yes, grieving for what we had lost, but hopeful about what had been gained and reflecting on how we might use these experiences to create a kinder world. That moment is now.