As well as making life weird and hard, 2020 has done something else to our local community—it’s sapped our trust. On a recent trip to the shops to buy bread-rolls, I ran into a woman I know. She shared stories about her family’s Covid-19 isolation experience. My friend was losing hours at work, and her job looked uncertain. To make things worse, she was worried about her mum, who was 89 and in lockdown in an aged care home, and her eldest daughter was struggling with feeling isolated. My friend said it’s been tough, but they’re ok. As we said goodbye, she smiled.
Then she coughed.
And then she coughed again.
And then she left with two packets of sultana buns.
Now, the cough could have been anything or nothing at all. But at that moment I felt an involuntary wave of repulsion. Was my friend sick? Was she contagious? What was she doing at the shops with a cough? And there it is—right there at that moment, I perceived my friend as a potential threat.
Alone, my bakery encounter doesn’t count for much, but a collective erosion of trust, felt right across our community is something altogether different. It tears at the fabric of community well being and has a rolling impact.
A collective erosion of trust
Suddenly, the people around us, who share our neighbourhoods, workplaces and lives (and buy sultana buns from our local bakery) can feel like potential threats. We’re being coached to be wary and keep our distance and are in a perpetual state of assessment and monitoring. This kind of monitoring brings with it a heightened sense of fear and anxiety. A community that’s on high alert is pretty tense and quick to anger.
Another factor is the steady flow of mixed messages and inconsistency we encounter as we go about our day-to-day business. Our GPs are kitted out like they’re in a war zone, but shopping centres are buzzing. Schools are closed to parents, but you can still vote together and hold a “democratic sausage sizzle” on election day (on school grounds within the same community). Disconnects add up and impact how safe or wary we feel.
Add in the turmoil beyond our front door (a deadly virus, lockdowns, economic fears and pressures, social tension and global politics) and the world has never felt shakier.
All of this together brings with it a type of collective fatigue. We’re over it, even though we’re in the middle of it, and our trust levels have never been lower.
What can we do when community trust levels are plummeting?
If you’re operating in a local community, whether it’s a community group, school or local business, you already know that trust and a feeling of safety matters deeply. As community members and leaders, we have a role in restoring community trust, but instead of big goals and commitments, it feels like a time for small and intentional action.
As someone who’s active in the local community, I’ve found reflecting on these four questions useful.
1. Are we moving towards our community or away from it?
Contributing to the local community feels much harder in our current socially distanced world. You’ve got ever-changing restrictions, unpredictable community participation and a looming corona cloud over our heads. People are on edge and less tolerant. The community is sick of hearing ‘cancelled’, and glad things are cancelled at the same time.
It’s tempting to take a hiatus from community participation and engagement and put it 2020’s massive too hard basket.
As tricky as it is, I think it’s the moment to get intentional about contribution and connection. We’ve never needed a strong and reliable local community more.
2. Can we be more consistent with our messages and our actions?
A bit of stability goes a long way in the face of chaos. When dealing with a community whose radar is continually scanning for anomalies, the impact of using consistent words and actions are both welcome and reassuring.
3. Can we get clearer about our community intentions?
With much of our business-as-usual cancelled, we have a ripe moment to consider whether business-as-usual could be better or different. It’s a great time to think hard and talk about what we are trying to create together; we have an opportunity to get clear while most things are slow or still.
4. Can we simplify things?
One way to meet a complicated situation is to simplify. The mental load for many community members and neighbours is already at capacity. Job changes, school changes, law changes, even the way we have to enter or queue at the shops is different and needs our attention. To make space for this, it’s worth reflecting on whether there is anything that can be pared back or eliminated. Can we still move towards our intended purpose and do less?
I have lots of other questions too like “What the heck happened this year?”, “Can my hands possibly take any more hand sanitiser”, and “when will this end?” but they didn’t seem to get me anywhere.
So far, 2020 has been an exhausting, trust-sucking monster of year, and it’s not done yet. It’s created an environment that has caused our faith in each other and the world to plummet; not even bakery acquaintances are safe. While we can’t control the rolling impacts of the pandemic or the turmoil of 2020, on a local community level, we can take small intentional steps towards restoring a sense of stability and safety. It’s not perfect, but it’s worth a shot in the year that tried to vanquish our trust.