England & Wales Communities and society, Covid-19

Stories of Oxford lockdown


Becky Willis at Oxford City Council and Sara Fernandez at Oxford Hub highlight key learning themes from Oxford Together, a community response volunteering programme involving collaborative working with Oxford City Council.

On the 12th of March, a social action charity in Oxford City set up Oxford Together, a community response volunteering programme. Over the following three weeks, the City Council joined these grassroots efforts, which had mobilised over 5000 residents, and integrated its scale and resources into the Oxford Together volunteering programme.

The principles of the programme are based on neighbourliness and community connection, what emerged throughout the pandemic under the banner of ‘mutual aid’. Oxford Together developed a hyper-local network of street champions, volunteers to offer daily friendly phone calls, and a network of practical support volunteers who were able to run errands for those who were self-isolating. The effort was powered by a purpose-built digital system put together by two local software entrepreneurs, which was integrated into the City Council call centre, for a seamless response for residents.

There were many challenges during this time, and many learning opportunities. In order to record some of the experience, Arts at the Old Fire Station offered its expertise in storytelling as an evaluation methodology, and from that emerged 32 remarkable stories of Oxford under lockdown.

This storytelling project has influenced the City Council’s approach to evaluation, and it has encouraged us to consider more ‘meaningful measurement’ approaches, which are detailed in the recent NESTA report as part of our involvement in the Upstream Collaborative.

We wanted to share with other LGIU Councils six of the key learning themes from the project, which you can find below. However, nothing is more powerful than the stories themselves, which we encourage you to read via the website. For more information about storytelling as a learning and evaluation methodology, you can get in touch with Sarah Cassidy at Arts at the Old Fire Station.

What have we learned?

Each of these themes came up again and again in the stories and discussion sessions, and is illustrated here by a quote from one of the stories:

  1. We need to build and sustain relationships

“New relationships, internal and external, have been a real positive. I think the way the Council has been collaborating with Oxford Hub, and the Oxford Hub has been working with lots and lots of different organisations, means that the Council has formed stronger bonds with individuals and community groups, like the Central Mosque, that it wouldn’t have otherwise been able to interact with. These relationships that have been built up have been really, really positive and I think it’s important we hold onto them going forward.” We’ve shown that we can adapt

  1. The small things really matter

“It’s like a pebble in a pond, you chuck it in and all those ripples, you know, the dog walking helped me, helped the dog, helped my mum, helped the NHS ultimately, since I wasn’t there for another problem with my health. I think that’s what’s so wonderful about what they’ve done, is that they’ve opened the world up not just to helping me but other people as well. You don’t realise it, but one act helps many.” – Like a Pebble in a Pond

  1. We need to support collaborations

“So we just said, “We’re gonna get on with this”, and the Council got on with their thing, a bit slower than us. And then there was this kind of uncomfortable, “Well, they’re doing that and we’re doing this and that’s stupid,” (…)  So it was really badly coordinated, but that wasn’t for long. I’m not sure how long, it’s hard to remember, but like maybe 10 days or something. And then I think things became much more aligned between what we were doing and what they were doing. I mean, now we’re working collaboratively to a ridiculous extent. We’re very reliant on each other for this project. But it’s just happened so quickly, in a very informal way, which is really cool because it’s forced this kind of quick response to happen.” – It’s Such a Time for Innovation 

  1. We need to support less-hierarchical ways of working

“I think actually Oxford Together did a really good job of quickly coordinating things. It’s really well organised. I think I’ve moved from feeling really inexperienced, and ill prepared for this situation and feeling quite overwhelmed, to feeling actually quite empowered and like I have learned an awful lot in a really short amount of time. I also feel much better connected within Oxford as a City, and within the Council I understand people’s roles more.” You become a problem solver really quickly 

  1. We need to support people to be creative and take risks

“There’s a sport called Speedway racing -you should see the rulebook – its vast.  So every year they have a conference to say, “Well, Ok, last year somebody got through this loophole, so what we will do, we’ll put something else in the way,” which provides two other loopholes. And since about 1965 they’ve talked about scrapping the rule book and starting again, because it’s just too complicated. Now, in Oxford, it’s like we’ve done just that – we’ve started again.” We’ve scrapped the rule book

  1. We need to support and empower local groups, communities and volunteers

“It’s been interesting watching as someone who’s been involved in community environmental action for the last few years, watching how much those smaller groups suddenly became key to solving some of those issues and how the council was like, ‘These groups are amazing, we totally need them,’ whereas a couple of years ago, I felt like we were on the margins, knocking on the doors of bigger organisations.” The council for me are the people on the ground

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