When the COVID-19 crisis hit, Pembroke House, the settlement house where I live, was as unprepared as everyone else.
Staff and volunteers had been making plans for the next phase of our community cafe, drawing up a schedule for our reading, gardening and music groups and applying to run our annual summer street party. Instead, we found ourselves rapidly shifting gear, figuring out how we could put the assets we have at the disposal of the neighbourhood. Like most people, our instinct was to throw what we had into the communal pot.
Back in 1885, when a group of progressive university graduates founded a settlement house, settlements were relatively unknown - as they still are. The idea of a residence founded to draw in and help the neighbourhood seemed to many utopian, even naïve. But these social reformers were fired up by a conviction that levels of poverty were inexcusable. There were soon hundreds of settlements all over the country and across North America.
These were people – like Clement Attlee – with a strong desire to help the poor, but aware that they were relatively ignorant of poverty. Past models of charity had preserved strict (often physical) distance between benefactor and beneficiary, but settlement workers sought proximity and intimacy. They were neighbours, not philanthropists. Despite class and cultural tensions the settlement workers stayed put and put down roots. Their belief was that everyone had ‘time and talents’ – the name of a settlement in Bermondsey that still exists. Everyone had as much to gain as to give. A pioneer of settlements, Nobel peace prize winner Jane Addams, saw the mission as one to “socialise democracy”.
This philosophy is echoed in the idea of ‘mutual aid’ – it suggests reciprocity, solidarity, neighbourliness, community. And benefits can be more than a bag of groceries: a sense of purpose and connection, the invitation to be part of something bigger. In months marked by isolation and demobilisation, this has been particularly welcome.
But it wasn’t long before the ethical, political and social questions around the food crisis came into focus. Covid-19 has exposed and exacerbated rather than caused many of this country’s social and political crises.
Like our Pembroke predecessors during the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak and the 1940s bombing raids, we could offer our buildings. Overnight, the team transformed our hall into a food hub with hundreds of delivery riders operating two shifts a day taking food where it was needed most. We were inundated by offers of help, people drawn by a direct and practical task, connection to neighbours, a chance to feel useful. In a pandemic, direct participation has power.
Since March, over 350 volunteers have delivered over 140 tonnes of food, cycling over 60,000km to reach around 1,350 people a week. But it wasn’t long before the ethical, political and social questions around the food crisis came into focus. Covid-19 has exposed and exacerbated rather than caused many of this country’s social and political crises.
Before the crisis, we knew that 25% of children in Walworth lived in poverty, and 20% of families regularly missed meals. That raised the question that many food banks face – in the long term, how do we make ourselves obsolete? A food distribution hub, necessary in extraordinary times, is scandalous in ordinary times.
We began by getting the neighbourhood round the (virtual) table. We knew that the next bit – the tricky part – would require dialogue and deliberation. The event, called ‘We Need To Talk’, had three stages: a public forum to identify the causes of food insecurity; a ‘daisy-chain’ stage – a series of 1-to-1 conversations linking up the neighbourhood; and a number of action groups. Sessions followed good deliberative practice: highly facilitated, time-bound, small groups wherever possible, with a clear purpose and, through much practice with Zoom, a sense of conviviality.
People were quick to make the links – between time and availability of food; between isolation and poor diet; between mental and physical health. We talked through costs, risks and hitches to every solution. We accepted that this was multi-layered, as much about feelings as logistics. From community gardeners to business owners, council workers, food recipients, neighbours, volunteers and staff – all demonstrated high levels of imagination and practicality. The best ideas were, as ever, a combination of the two.
You know the local park, the pool, and the play area; and now you’re addressing local food insecurity. Democracy begins at home – and is better in the specific than the abstract.
What conclusions about democracy have we drawn? The recognition that the democratic ethos demands equality of contribution – citizens with as much to give as to gain. Mutual aid must live up to its name and move beyond one-way charity, as the early settlement workers knew.
Democracy’s demands cannot be fulfilled as easily by everyone. Despite our best efforts, many in our neighbourhood who should have been round the table, weren’t. Democracy – especially the deliberative kind – takes time, energy, commitment, capacity and confidence. These assets aren’t evenly distributed in our society, as millions juggle jobs, precarious finances and caring responsibilities. There is food insecurity but also time poverty. Participation cannot just be the privilege of those who can afford to show up.
Secondly, we know that democracy demands and delivers a heightened sense of the power of the collective. In order to grow this power, we invited tales of ‘life in lockdown’ – what people had been doing, learning and sharing in the most difficult of circumstances. But different levels of confidence don’t just disappear inside the hallowed space of deliberation. They are chipped away through deliberation itself.
Thirdly, the question of credentials – ‘what do I know?’, ‘why am I qualified to participate in this?’ One of the benefits of neighbourhood democracy is the clear answer: because you’re an expert in your own neighbourhood. You know the local park, the pool, and the play area; and now you’re addressing local food insecurity. Democracy begins at home – and is better in the specific than the abstract.
Finally, the question of investment. Our deliberative project is slow and sometimes tedious. Unlike the food hub, it wasn’t set up overnight nor does it have the energy of an emergency. But neither will it be taken down next week. Dozens have now had a dose of deliberative democracy and they cannot walk away from one another – they’re neighbours.
This year especially, citizens have seen themselves – and been seen by politicians – as organised, creative, persistent and generous, an important boost to our collective sense of self. It takes time, but unlike the fast-food sugar-hit politics of elections, deliberation is slow-cooked democracy. Ingredients are planted, cultivated and gathered, the dish is cooked with care and thought, and the final offering is savoured among friends.
If you’d like to support Pembroke House’s ongoing food distribution work, we’d appreciate anything you can give: support Pembroke House for a better society (actionnetwork.org).
(Photography: Rachel Elizabeth)
This piece is part of the "Democratic Response to COVID-19" series curated by Involve and the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Westminster University.