‘Restoring social Confidence’ – a new report on the work of Near Neighbours during the pandemic

More than 70 people from community and faith groups across the country attended the launch of a new report on the work of Near Neighbours during the pandemic.

Online PR News – 13-October-2021 – London, UK – More than 70 people from community and faith groups across the country attended the online launch of the report “Restoring Social Confidence. Lessons from faith-led social action during the Covid-19 pandemic”, published by the think-tank Common Vision after five months research into the work of Near Neighbours. The report can be downloaded here.

Near Neighbours is a national charity set up by the Church Urban Fund in 2011 and funded by the Ministry for Levelling Up, Housing and Community. They work in some of the most culturally and religiously diverse areas in England to help communities bring different people together, nurture leaders, promote local ownership and encourages open communication on important but challenging issues.

The report analyses a variety of pandemic projects supported by Near Neighbours during the lockdown, from food delivery to addressing vaccine hesitancy, from courses online to spiritual support for grief. The report introduces the concept of social confidence, described as “the trust we have in ourselves, our community and institutions to look after our individual and collective wellbeing.”

Also highlighted is the “significant value” of Near Neighbours work over the last decade, through an established network of hubs, local connections and a wealth of experience and expertise.

At the event, Marzena Cichon-Balcerowicz, coordinator of Near Neighbours in East London, spoke about the work of Shadwell Responds, an alliance of churches, mosques, schools and tenants associations, that set up a network of practical and spiritual support of local people. In addition to the distribution of food parcels, and activity packs, they also campaigned successfully for the supermarket chain Iceland to accept the government food vouchers distributed to families in need.

The work of Luton Irish Forum, an organisation representing and caring for the wellbeing of Irish and Irish Travelers around Luton and Bedfordshire was also featured at the event. Noelette Hanley, the Director of the organisation, spoke about the long-term relationship with the Shri Guru Ravidass Sangat Gurdwara in Luton set up more than 4 years ago thanks to a small grant from Near Neighbours. “The partnership has grown from strength to strength – she explained – and during the lockdown we were able to help each other, delivering PPE and hot meals to people across the city.” With another grant from Near Neighbours, the Luton Irish Forum helped the NHS to reach out to traveler communities and also promote the vaccination programme to communities where hesitancy was highest. They managed to bring down barriers to accessing the vaccine, with leaflets and video messages specifically designed for the travelers’ community and a pop-up vaccination centre on a bus.

Humayun Islam, the Chief Executive of BEAP, a local wellbeing focused organisation for the Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities in Bradford, spoke about the strong partnership they created with the Hindu Temple to deliver hot meals and non-perishable food to hundreds of families in the area. They involved local taxi drivers who were out of work during the lockdown, delivering meals across the city. Thanks to the work with the Hindu Temple – he explained – “We were able to diversify our work and reach to a wider community. And we have been in touch ever since: Near Neighbours helped us to create not just a partnership but a real friendship.”

We also heard from Nitin Verma, a young Hindu person from Luton, who has been involved in Near Neighbours since the age of 9, when he first took part in an archery project. He is now 18 and a coordinator for the Luton Youth Council, which set up on a project called Mental health wellbeing bags to support young people’s mental health during the lockdown. They created a care package, filled with items known to aid mental health such as recipe cards, therapeutic colouring, cards for creating origami and modelling clay. He explained: “Many people talk about anxiety, depression, resilience in young people, but we wanted to offer young people self-help strategies that they could also pass on to other people around them.” They delivered 546 wellbeing bags, 8 out of 13 high schools in the Luton Area wanted to support their students with the bags and they also created a School Champions scheme to support the wellbeing of their students.

The work of Near Neighbours has been a crucial part of faith-based community groups’ responses to the COVID-19 crisis. With a network of connections already established at local level with many community and faith groups Near Neighbours work focused on maintaining human dignity, connection, and hope in the face of the pandemic.

Caroline McFarland, Director of Common Vision and author of the report said: “The experiences of faith-based community organisations provide valuable insights into what it takes to strengthen social confidence. Although often overlooked in secular literature on voluntary and community activities, faith-based initiatives have a long history of supporting the needs of communities, particularly in response to hardship and uncertainty. Many of the case studies in this report parallel wider best practice in the voluntary and community sector, whereby it is the local knowledge, trusted relationships, and the soft skills of the people within grassroots organisations that are their unique assets. Faith-based organisations drew on their deep relationships, historic trust, and cultural intelligence to reach communities during the pandemic who might otherwise have been excluded by other neighbourhood or statutory services. But they also played a unique role providing emotional support to their communities, safeguarding personal esteem and self-worth – something which is pivotal to social confidence.”

Liz Carnelley, Partnerships Director at Church Urban Fund said: “Near Neighbours has a long history of bringing people together in communities that are religiously and ethnically diverse, so they can get to know each other better, build relationships of trust, and collaborate together on initiatives that improve the local community they live in. The deep well of experience and expertise that Near Neighbours has established over the last decade is something which grassroots organisations have been able to draw on during the pandemic, and I am delighted that this report confirms the significant value of this. From building relationships with local authorities to mobilising volunteers and resources, Near Neighbours supports communities to bring different people together, nurture leaders, promote local ownership and encourages open communication on important but challenging issues. Ultimately, these insights provide a source of expertise and inspiration on how social confidence can be rebuilt and safeguarded in an uncertain future.”