Sophie King, Development Manager at CLASS, explores what the Community Savers-CLASS alliance has learned about the importance of reflection and retreats for women’s community action.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Explore any urban neighbourhood – seek out its craft groups, its over 50s exercise classes, its food banks, parent groups, and meal clubs – and there you will find amazing women.

Women have always played a critical role in community action in the UK (and across the world). Since the onset of austerity policies in 2010 which has reduced spending on public services and social support, women have been at the forefront of the battle to provide a safety net for the most vulnerable in our society. And now COVID.

The gendered nature of community action usually goes unrecognised. It is almost always unpaid, and the cost of activities are frequently shouldered by communities themselves.

This presents us with a very real challenge. The Community Savers approach amplifies and builds upon the expertise and resilience of grassroots women leaders to make change happen. But this creates additional demands on women who are already shouldering many of their own community, family and work pressures.

Yet, being in the network also builds resilience and enables effective strategies to spread. Throughout the pandemic, savings group leaders have been able to fall back on their network for moral support, ideas and information, or just to offload when things get tough. Crisis resources have been shared between groups – when there is a surplus in Miles Platting, Manchester, women in Wythenshawe have been able to collect and redistribute in the south of the city. Before COVID, groups were travelling to learn from each other’s projects and approaches, where a savings group set up in one place, a food project would replicate in another.

Retreat and reflection

Grassroots women leaders need time away from firefighting to have the space to take a breath, reflect on their achievements and challenges, and share experiences with each other.

Taking this time for reflection enables them to take stock, recognise all that they have achieved, re-energise and re-strategise.

Some movements and initiatives can do this in-situ, but it is very different in the context of women providing crisis support in low-income urban neighbourhoods.

Women in the lead

Building on 30 years of SDI’s learning by doing, the Community Savers-CLASS alliance are attempting to build a genuinely alternative form of community-professional partnership.

Our work together is led by, for, and with grassroots women but protecting that principle requires constant dialogue, reflection and renegotiation. The issues we must address jointly are challenging and tension is the norm. One size of professional support does not fit all groups as one of our leaders pointed out the other day. Equality of access to support is also important.

We need to make collective decisions about how workers spend their time, what resources are raised for which activities, and how they are distributed. But as the network grows the governance demands become greater and more complex. Under what conditions should community leaders be remunerated? How are funding proposals developed? Who represents who under what circumstances? Which processes are going to secure transparency and accountability and avoid tokenistic solutions?

And: where to find the time and space to have these discussions without needing to rush to school pick up, hospital appointments, food collections, or tonight’s campaign meeting?

September 2021

In September 2021, Community-Savers & CLASS will be going on a 2-day retreat in North Wales. We would like to enable 4 amazing women from each of the Community Savers affiliate groups to attend.

We need to raise an additional £1,000 to make this possible. If you can, please help us to reach our target by making a donation.