This article is part of a week of reflection on the past year and what it has meant for individuals, communities and local government. Unlocked: local stories from a global pandemic.
From August to December last year, as part of a region-wide arts project called Atlas Pandemica, funded by the Scottish Government’s Supporting Communities Fund and led by The Stove Arts Organisation in Dumfries, I was writer in residence at Dumfries and Galloway Council.
My role was to chart a council navigating the early stages of Covid – but to focus on the individuals on the front line and behind the scenes. I wanted to talk to staff about how the pandemic was affecting them personally, in their jobs, and in the communities they serve. Using a mix of video messaging, virtual meetings, staff blogs and phone chats, I tried to capture as wide a range of experiences, from as many different jobs as possible, and then fictionalise them. The result was Here Is Our Story, an anthology of twenty-one stories covering everyone from gardeners to auditors, to teachers, to home carers.
Writing short stories rather than a report allowed me to do what writers do, and respond creatively: to tell a wider truth and distil the various thoughts, themes and experiences I’d gathered into the essence – or the spirit, perhaps – of what life has been like for those in public service. It also allowed staff, I hope, to talk openly and honestly, without worrying about seeing their names in print.
My residency was a way of documenting this unprecedented period of history, but, as an ex council officer myself (albeit in Glasgow), I knew what it was like working in a local authority, even at the best of times – let alone during a pandemic. Often, we just do our best and rush from one crisis to the next, with scant time for reflection. That can be exhausting – and demoralising too. So I wanted to use my residency to give staff a space to pause for breath: to consider what they’d been working through, and how it was affecting them – the pace of change and flux, as well as the magnitude it.
As with all aspects of this last year, there’s been highs and lows – and everyone’s experience is unique. But there were common themes arising from the staff I spoke to. Folk often felt they’d become advocates for the communities they lived in, but also ambassadors for the council, within those communities. Whether that’s due to the rural nature of our region, the existing bonds of resilience, with everyone ‘mucking in’ to get things done, the pandemic appears to have strengthened this sense of connection and investment in the places in which we live and work. And of course, there was the surprise and pleasure some staff reported of becoming a symbol of appreciation for council efforts to keep key services running in these trying times. My short story Stars In Their Eyes (attached) pays tribute to that.
As well as barriers between ‘council’ and ‘community’ breaking down, I got a sense that boundaries were blurring inside the council too, with staff adapting and redeploying as required, sometimes working across various service areas, working remotely, or even taking on entirely new roles. Again, this seemed to heighten that sense of being part of a collective; a feeling that no matter where you worked in the council, you were part of a bigger whole. However, for those working from home, while many found this a real boon, for others, it definitely led to a sense of isolation and lack of confidence.
Outwith the council, staff were forced to develop new, often collaborative ways of working too. In Dumfries and Galloway, we had geographically based cells forming, where council, community groups, third sector, health partners and so on operated together in local hubs – especially when resilience issues meant time was of the essence. One council officer commented that having everyone round the (virtual) table meant problems got solved almost as they arose, and that keeping these new channels of communication open would be essential, going forwards.
All my stories will be contained on the Atlas Pandemica website, but I’m delighted the council have agreed to publish some limited hard copies of the anthology too, which will be made available to communities, council staff and elected members. I hope the anthology will give some insight into the personal stories behind the professional decisions council staff make every day. And I hope too, that, by keeping the edges between us blurred, we can continue that collaborative, grassroots-led way of working which Covid necessitated, as we recover, rebuild and renew.
Read Stars in their Eyes , one of Karen’s short stories from the project.
Karen Campbell is a novelist & writing tutor. Originally from Glasgow, she’s now based in Galloway.
‘Atlas Pandemica: Maps to a Kinder World’ is a Dumfries and Galloway wide response to Covid, conceived and managed by community-led arts organisation The Stove Network. Ten local artists have been commissioned to explore local responses to the pandemic and how these might shape new approaches to our shared future.