When COVID-19 hit, rural and remote Indigenous communities across Australia immediately began closing in an attempt to protect Elders and other vulnerable community members. For the Nawarddeken Academy, a bilingual and bicultural school in West Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, this meant immediately shifting gears from educating kids to the needs of the broader community. Racing against a travel shutdown, the small team swiftly coordinated a food shipment to prepare for a long closure and brought community members home from other parts of the country on a specially chartered flight.
The Nawarddeken Academy experience is just one example of for-purpose community connection in COVID-19. Across Australia and the world, organisations with deep connections into their communities rose to the fore in the pandemic – shifting on a pinhead to ensure people had access to food, housing and other essentials. Mutual aid initiatives sprang up seemingly overnight – parents’ groups, sporting associations, faith communities and more evolved and refocussed to reach out and connect with people around them.
While the commitment of these organisations and people is inspiring, it also poses some challenging questions:
What happened in communities without a deep relational fabric or established channels for community connection?
Do we undervalue the social role of public spaces where people gather and connect, like community centres, libraries and schools?
How did these close communities interact with the government and civil society organisations who are funded to support people in crisis?
These are the kinds of questions that Strengthening Australian Civil Society is here to ask.
Through a series of workshops, dozens of interviews and workshops, as well as reviewing reports and collecting stories and resources from around the world, we’ve been trying to understand the role of advocacy and influence, community connection, systems and networks, and leadership in the way that civil society has responded to the challenges of COVID-19.
Our research team is in the process of producing a series of discussion papers and conversation kits based on what people have told us so far, to help deepen Australian civil society’s collective processes of reflection and adaptation.
For now, we wanted to share four preliminary insights that have emerged about community connection:
- Crises shine a light on the strength of our connections and our commitment to them: Many people, communities and organisations shone during COVID-19, innovating and pushing their limits to connect with those around them. Others struggled. Some organisations closed their doors, some were unable to respond quickly, and some tried their best to help but discovered they weren’t as community connected as they thought they were.
- People need and crave social connection: A system that takes problems and crisis as its starting point undervalues the inherent strengths and potential of communities which emanate from our connections to each other. Looming amidst the economic and health challenges of COVID-19 is a mental health crisis among people pushed into vulnerable situations and social isolation.
- Technology can help connect us, but it’s no substitute for connecting in real life: The speedy adaption to increased use of video, phone and other online media channels has opened new possibilities. It also raises concerns around what might be lost, like informal check-ins and relationship-building “water cooler” conversations, and highlights the ongoing inequalities when it comes to people’s ability to access and use various technologies.
- What even IS civil society anyway? A lack of robust public conversation about the multifaceted nature and role of civil society means that we underappreciate how important it is for people to come together for collective action. Other important conversations we need to have include how funding can both inhibit and empower for-purpose organisations, and how to get past token consultation towards true community engagement and participatory democracy.
Our team will continue exploring and sharing stories and ideas related to community connection and civil society over the coming months, so make sure you have signed up to receive updates when we release them.
At its heart, Strengthening Australian Civil Society is an ongoing conversation, a meeting place for people and organisations to share ideas, find common purpose and generate new relationships for change.
If reading this short piece has provoked thoughts and ideas on campaigning or another aspect of civil society, please get in touch and share where you’re at.
 For more about this community’s response to COVID-19, as well as stories from four other communities across the country, check out Dusseldorp Forum’s July 2020 report, Place based resilience: community driven response and recovery in a time of COVID-19.