“Rather than being the saviours of our communities, the public sector is being encouraged to step back and empower citizens to be the agents of their own destiny” says Bryony Lawless, who works for Health Partnerships in Leeds City Council, and helped to organise the city’s first Unloneliness Conference this July.
The Conference set out to encourage more people in the city to take an assets-based approach to working with communities to help reduce social isolation. An assets-based approach is based on the principle that communities have many of the assets and resources they need to resolve issues in their lives. This glass half full view of communities completely flips the usual dynamic between organisations and the people they work with. Bryony updates us on the impact the conference had.
Social isolation is what happens when communication and communities break down and get fragmented. While it affects lots of people in the city, each one will experience it differently and although it can be understood in terms of the number of social contacts and interactions a person has, it doesn’t necessarily indicate loneliness; loneliness is a subjective negative derived from a deficiency of emotional and social contacts. Because social isolation means different things to different people, there’s no quick fix, so organisations which prefer one-size-fits all strategies and services are not best placed to make a difference for people who are isolated.
Lots of the people who came to the Unloneliness Conference came from organisations, but were asked to think as citizens, people who lived around Leeds, who could make a difference in their day to day life and interactions. They were asked: “what one thing you could pledge to do to make Leeds a more socially connected city?”
Towards the end, we asked everyone to join their ideas up in a paper chain of these pledges- as a way to illustrate some of the connections we’d made throughout the day and how each pledge would work to bring people closer together.
I followed up with one of our attendees from the event, Anne Arnold who works for Leeds City Council and lives in Adel. She told us how she got on with her pledge to:
‘Dance more and spread how socially inclusive it is as a hobby’
What sparked your interest in social isolation as an issue?
Initially, moving around and making new starts in different locations. Moving to Leeds was the loneliest move I’d ever made – dancing saved me, and my sanity. Also, being a carer for my mother who is disabled and totally dependent on me. More recently my partner’s diagnosis with ME (chronic fatigue syndrome) has had a huge impact not only on him but also on our social life.
What (if anything) stayed with you from the talks and activities from the Unloneliness Conference?
I was particularly affected by how difficult it is to admit to being lonely and the discussions about the difficulty of breaking out of social isolation and the costs of social activity really interesting. The conversation about the difference between isolation and loneliness was thought-provoking, and I found the point that living alone does not equate to being lonely very valid. I was surprised about the negative attitude of one participant towards improving relationships between the local community and students.
Have you taken any steps to put your pledge into action?
Not as much as I would have liked. I’ve started a new dance course which means I’m the new person again. I do take every opportunity to talk about the health and social benefits of dance along with making an extra effort to encourage newbies to the dance world.
What have been the barriers to your making a connection?
Time and being self-conscious that attempts to chat might be rebuffed
What do you think could bring this barrier down?
Confidence, time and patience.
When was the last time you made a connection with someone you didn’t know?
Sunday in York. We swapped our table for 4 to a table for 2 with a family of four and got chatting.
What would make making connections like these easier?
Being more aware of our surroundings – being more open and not so closed to what is happening around us and getting involved.
Thanks for letting us know how you are getting on.
Having spoken to lots of other invitees about their progress on their pledges, it became apparent that everyone had come across similar hurdles. People reported having too much pressure on their time, having to prioritise their day job, and finding the effort take the first steps a daunting prospect.
The compartmentalised approach people have to their home and work lives play a big role in reinforcing barriers between people. The fast pace of modern lifestyles and the cultural embarrassment about speaking to strangers mean we all live increasingly inward looking lives.
It seems like the best way around this is to start small! In the millennial film Pay it Forward, a bright eyed boy attempts to make the world a better place. He comes up with a plan to do three good deeds for three people on the condition that they pay their good deeds forward to three other people. As social isolation is such a wickedly widespread and varied problem, this every little counts approach could make all the difference. The more individuals challenge themselves to speak to people outside of their immediate circles, the more comfortable we will become with cross- community cross-generational interaction in our day to day lives.
There is lots organisations can do to make services more inclusive and break down social isolation, but we can do just as much as individuals.
By speaking to people who are different from us and by making a conscious effort to include people who are on the peripheries, we might begin to reverse the tide of our introverted communities.
As this Human of Leeds says ‘I’ve always thought that the best way to cheer myself up was to cheer someone else up.”
Bryony Lawless, Project Support Officer, Health Partnerships in Leeds City Council