The Power of Circle

On Friday I took a call from a lady called Joan**. 17 years ago Joan’s son Steve was attacked by a group of lads who left him with severe head injuries. The injuries lead to some “mental problems” and Joan cared for him for several years until her own ill health meant she could no longer cope. Steve went to live in a local home. The problems of her son affected her husband, who turned to drink. Her husband became violent and abusive and Joan was visited by the Domestic Abuse Unit on 21 separate occasions. Her husband finally left, taking Joan’s last £30 from her purse.

Joan’s health has deteriorated even further and she had not left her house other than to go into hospital in the past 3 years.

Joan had received a letter last year that Circle was coming to the Rochdale area sometime in 2013. She had enquired at the time as she was interested in the Practical Helper Service. She struggled with mobility, her garden was becoming over run and she couldn’t do simple tasks, such as changing light bulbs. Joan saw an article that went out in The Carers News Magazine about Circle last week saying that Circle had arrived, so on the back of that she rang me to see how she went about getting her bits of jobs done.

I went to see her on Monday to see what jobs we could do once Steve our Practical Helper starts work. It was during this conversation she told me her story. When she said she hadn’t left the house in 3 years I told her I would make it my job to get her out at some point in the future.

She said that all her social workers, home helps, doctors, consultants even her son have told her she needs to get out but with no success. We discussed what Circle does and what Circle is about and Joan really was taken by it.

So at 11.50am Tuesday morning Joan is being picked up by Taxi and she is coming to the Flying Horse Hotel in Rochdale to join us for our St. Georges Day Lunch event. After 3 years of being a prisoner in her own home Joan is coming out! As a postscript to this Joan, arrived at the Flying Horse in her “Sunday Best”. She said that her home help had called on her this morning and asked “Why are you all dressed up?” Joan replied “I’m dressed up because I am going out!”

Mark Wynn is Director at Rochdale Circle CIC.

** The names have been changed out of courtesy.

Image by Let Ideas Compete, via the Flickr Creative Commons.

Re-learning neighbourly support

“After two generations of ‘on your own economics’ it’s hard for people to ask for and receive help from their neighbours.” These are the words of a member of a Resilience Circle in the US. Local community support groups based around mutual aid and action, Resilience Circles are part of a growing movement in the US and elsewhere in the west to recreate local support networks in the face of declining social and economic conditions.

Her words struck me as being pertinent to discussion of the shift from transactional welfare – and indeed from a transactional consumerist economy – to a welfare system and economy based around relationships, gifts and people.

The values our society has promoted over the last thirty years – independence, greed, never having enough – have become so ingrained that we are now finding it necessary to relearn the instincts of care, of giving, sharing, supporting – and receiving support – that previous generations would have taken for granted.

Her words reminded me of a charity boss from Zambia I met a few years ago who came over to work in New Start’s parent company CLES on a placement. It was the first time he had left Africa and when I asked him what surprised him most about British life, he spoke about his surprise at how little British people interacted with their neighbours and supported each other in their communities. In his community his neighbours are an integral part of his life, and homeless people and others in need are automatically looked after within the community. While in the west we have structures and services – which demand ever increasing amounts of money – to help those in need, in many other cultures mutual support for those in your locality is a given, making many social services unnecessary.

So do we need to re-learn our need for and dependence on our neighbours and to recreate the mutual support networks we have lost?

Co-produced services are helping us to understand again the value of mutual support. Casserole Club for example invites local people to cook an extra plate of food for a neighbour in need, replacing meals on wheels with a far more personal service. Participle’s Circle Movement helps elderly people be looked after in their homes by re-building local social networks.

The flourishing of the gift and sharing economies are bringing new understandings of how we can relate to and look after each other without the conduit of money.

Sometimes it takes a shock to remind us of our own vulnerability. I was lucky enough to meet Edgar Cahn the founder of Timebanking a few years ago. He invented the concept of timebanking while recovering from a heart attack aged 44 and understanding for the first time what neediness and dependency mean and how the current structure of services treat those in need like passive recipients.

Timebanking works by building up the ‘core economy’ – of family and community and care – things that usually have no value in the market economy. It highlights reciprocity and interdependence and values everyone equally.

But Cahn doesn’t want to return to a dewy-eyed past idea of trust and community. And it should not only be in times of shock that we develop and rediscover our interdependence with each other and revalue human support. Instead Cahn imagines a new understanding of humanity which values and respects every individual’s opportunity to create and develop, just as Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics imagines the Age of Reunion, defined by an abundance mentality and the generosity of a connected self.

At a time when we’re told there are no alternatives to an economic system that has created and continues to create harm and when welfare reform is focused on saving money rather than caring more deeply for the vulnerable, the need to rediscover and value the relational has never been greater. Every baby step away from the transactional and towards the relational is a step towards the new understanding of humanity that Cahn and others have envisaged. And it starts by re-connecting with our neighbours…

 Clare Goff is editor of New Start Magazine.