From Russia to Toynbee, with Love

for Miry Mayer, by Sam Dodd

“So many times, assumptions are made. ‘We know better because we design the rules.’ But no, that is not how it works. People are not voiceless, faceless numbers. Listen to their voices, ask them what they need.”

~

Just before lockdown in March 2020, I started seeing someone, so I had company during that time. I had a sense of happiness amongst all the sadness, loneliness and loss around us. But there was also a sense of guilt: “why am I so happy in my personal life, when it’s lockdown? What about those who are lonely right now?” Lockdown was a lonely place for me at times too, but it was also empowering, because I had the opportunity to sort through my priorities. I realised that I no longer need to chase people that don’t get back to me, or go to social events I don’t want to be at; it helped me to figure out who I wanted to make an effort for, and let go of all the things I fill my life with just to have a sense of belonging, or being part of something. Basically, I discovered I really like my own company. And I don’t think I knew that before lockdown. We do still need company, people to ask us how we are, how we’re coping. I might be saying something different if I hadn’t had the new relationship starting at that point in my life.

I also discovered it’s OK to go walking in the park for an hour. I used to do that all the time, but it had dropped off over the years. Suddenly, that sort of activity was almost mandated with our daily exercise allowance… and it slowed me down, helped me to enjoy not rushing. It’s not generally seen as ‘cool’ to go and look at flowers and insects for half an hour in the park. But in lockdown, it was; it was almost like we’d been given permission we didn’t know we needed. I’ve always felt like if I want to stop and smell a flower, I must check no one is watching first. I won’t do that any longer; I’ll just stop and smell them.

But at the same time, there was a painful awareness that as I’m stopping to smell a rose, people suffering; dying; desperately lonely; not speaking to another human being for days at a time; barely coping as a single parent; queuing at a food bank… it snapped me into action and reflection mode. I realised that I was wasting a lot of time and energy on activities and people that I didn’t get any sustenance from; I changed things around, became more focused.

I remembered what it is like to be so lonely you can’t even articulate it, because it’s almost physical. Sometimes, you can be in a room full of people, and still feel lonely. We have so little time on this earth, and there is so much work to be done.

~

I started working at Toynbee in December last year, 2019. This is my dream job, I wanted it so much. My last job made me unhappy – I wanted more responsibilities and projects, but they just weren’t there. I was bored. So, I started doing a lot of volunteering. Crisis at Christmas – 3 years at the catering warehouse, very physical work that I really enjoyed. Last year was my first year in a centre working directly with the guests rather than out the back, and I loved it. Then another great opportunity came along for me to merge my skills with what I love – I am also a runner, and part of a running group charity called the Outrunners. They use the skills of the runners to give back to the community – so runners that live in Hackney take part in career days for the local community where they talk to young people about how to get into the careers they’re in. They’re not the standard mainstream careers either. Yoga teachers, chefs, fashion designers, actors – well, we’re runners! So of course, we’re from all walks of life. We do still have the mainstream jobs there, but from people that are more relatable to Hackney youth – a lawyer from a mixed-race background is one example. We want the kids to feel like they could see themselves, that it is possible for them to do that sort of job too, if they want to. We’ve done three now, every six months, and each one attracts about 100 young people. Running those career days gave me confidence back that had been knocked out of me at my last job.

So from all that, I realised I wanted so badly to be more involved in the community. It fired me up. So, I started applying for jobs. I had an interview somewhere else and was offered the job – but then I also got the job at Toynbee! The loveliest thing about Toynbee was that I’d had the interview on the Wednesday, and they said they’d call me by the Monday to let me know. But then they called the very next day – and that boosted me so much, because I felt wanted, and like I’d be valued. It was exactly what I needed and I love it.

We support the community in a host of different ways here. There are debt advice clinics, legal advice clinics, a research team, a community centre, a heritage team, a food bank, and we even have a few community celebration days – we do a lot of things! We also hold feedback days, where we ask people what they need in the community – things like disabled access to buses, just as one example. After those days, a policy suggestion is designed by our research team, and then taken to the London Assembly or Tower Hamlets Town Hall. We want to know what people think about what their councils are doing well, and what they can improve – we push for user led, community led, tailored services based on what real people need – based on listening to their voices, not just nodding when they talk but then going in a totally different direction. The research team here really cares about this. The fundraising team go to the research team meetings so that they can really understand what money is needed for – and explain that in real terms, with real voices, to potential funders.

We also do a lot of research on schools and poverty. How can you understand a situation or a problem unless you go into that group of people that is affected, and ask them, talk to them – and listen properly? This is their lived experience. You cannot design policy without it, and when we do, it doesn’t serve the intended individuals. So many times, assumptions are made. “We know better because we design the rules.” But no, that is not how it works. People are not voiceless, faceless numbers. Listen to their voices, ask them what they need.

Then lockdown happened!! On Tuesday 17th, we’d decided to close. I talked to some of the clients that day, who said they’d still come in even if there were no events being run. That really concerned us, here we were going into a full-scale societal lockdown and people still wanted to visit! We couldn’t have that weight on our minds if anything happened to them. So, the team decided to close fully, and set up shop from our respective homes. I picked up everything on the Thursday, and it all went into a huge bag. It was so last minute. That bag was so heavy! And while I was there on that last day, I found medicines for one of our clients in the fridge, so dropped that off at their home too! I’ll tell you something, I was never bored in lockdown. Work kept me busy, and I was grateful for that. There was always something happening.

My main concern was how we’d keep in touch with our clients. Quite a few of them say quite often that if they didn’t have Toynbee to visit, they’d be depressed. Either that, or they were depressed, until they found Toynbee. They also love all the activities we do here. And so many of them don’t even have mobile phones. So, as I didn’t know whether we’d be able to access the database from home, I had to download our clients, more than four hundred, so that we had a way to be in touch with them. The first week was just mad. We just called everyone to let them know that we were closed, and because I was still fairly new, I didn’t know all their names properly yet. At one point, I thought maybe we can use Outrunners as guinea pigs for volunteer telephone befriending, or maybe even for medication or shopping runs – they are runners, after all! The coach runner and CEO backed me, and I got in touch with the runners. They all mucked in, it was just absolutely amazing and so very moving.

So many people didn’t have food or prescriptions – they didn’t know how to go and get it, or were too frightened to leave the house. Prescription runs had to be done in pairs, to hold each other accountable for the medication staying safe between the pharmacy and the community members’ home. I got in touch with the Tower Hamlets Volunteer Centre and they published my advert, and within a week I had over 50 volunteer sign ups! There was so much goodwill, so many people, in this community who wanted to help other people in their community. It was easy to recruit – but the admin and coordination side was a bit trickier. We also made sure to evaluate and reevaluate as we went along – what was working, what was not. Initially, the telephone befriending scheme was meant to run for 12 weeks, but it has gone so well that we are continuing it indefinitely, and recruiting for a new role of Befriending Coordinator.

I do this work because I believe in community. The way the world is headed feels so insulated – always stuck to our phones, our front doors locked, very individualist. Almost as if we fear each other, but there is so much beauty in people, in community, what are we afraid of? We cannot survive without each other. We need each other. But there is so much division, and in the East End where there are so many different communities who live side by side who don’t mix because they’ve been taught to keep themselves to themselves, because there’s a fear that people will try and change them if they allow them in, you can feel it strongly. We need to better understand who wants and needs what, and how we can make that happen. Listening to people, and creating spaces where people are safe and feel heard. Not bombarding the community with impossible to understand surveys and notices, and building things for them that are of no use to them because they’ve been built by policy teams with totally different lived experiences. There is so much money being spent on services that are only useful for a very small percentage of the intended users of that service. What is the point? We need to listen to this. We need to change how we do things.

~

I have a weird background myself, so I’m invested in this way of thinking from a deeply personal place. I was born in 1982 in Russia, when it was still communist. So, I grew up with the idea that you have extended family as well as your biological family. If there was nowhere to go, you’d be at your neighbours – there were always people around – for example, I don’t remember my mum ever taking me to school, there was always someone in the community doing school runs, and things like that. It was a real community. Obviously, communist Russia was terrible. But in the community, where it mattered, we helped each other – possibly because the government wasn’t doing that for us. We had solidarity. It was us as a community against something unpleasant, so we stuck together.

When I was 8, we emigrated to Israel. I didn’t even know I was Jewish till we started planning the move, as my family could not be open about religious convictions in Russia. I didn’t even have a concept of God until then. So, when I moved to Israel I was handed a prayer book all iof a sudden! I used to hide my own books inside the prayer book and pretend that I was reading prayers. In Israel, there is also a very strong sense of community. If you are stuck in the middle of the street without money, you can tell people there what happened to you and they would help. But at the same time, this only happens if you’re from a certain background. If you are Jewish Israeli, this is you. But when I emigrated there were very few Russian Jews, so there was prejudice against us, “who are these weird white people who speak Russian”. But now it is better. However, if you are Muslim, Christian, or Atheist, you are still excluded, you are not part of that mainstream community. But I didn’t realise that, I didn’t have a vocabulary for it.

Then I went travelling, and for the first time, I saw community that wasn’t based on religious convictions, people not being excluded because of their beliefs. It was then that I realised I could never return to Israel. Because as lovely as some parts of it are, I don’t belong there. It is a macho society. On paper women are equal, but in reality they are not. Expectations of women are very high. Women are multi-dimensional. We are not just what people think women should be. In Israel I experienced it in the form of having good grades, which was viewed as positive, but wanting to be outside a lot, which was viewed as negative and inexplicable. I wanted to go travelling, but then I also spent a lot of time in libraries. So how do those things tally? The expectation in Israel is that if you’re not married with at least one child by the age of 26, then you’re straying from your purpose. I wanted to get away from that, and find my spot in the world. But then I realised I don’t have just one spot, I have many. As many as I want. I was able, then, to let go of wanting just one spot. And of course, there are the terrible things happening across the border of Palestine, and either willingly or unwillingly, people do not want to see it.

So when I came here, I initially sought out Hebrew speaking people, just to still feel a sense of belonging to something, but eventually I realised I was just separating myself from everyone else, and it was making me unhappy. London can be a tricky place to find your community. But in a way, that can be a nice thing – you can have several communities, pick and mix, and get different things from all the groups you belong to. It is very common to move to another country and find your own people, but in doing that we don’t experience the joy of getting to know other types of people, with different backgrounds to our own. I want to learn more. I don’t want to live with the fear that has been installed in me based on politics and religion. There are so many similarities between Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Especially in the Middle East when you look at custom, culture, food, family attitudes – but we never talk about the similarities. We only ever focus on the differences. There is always a divide. Whether it is a physical wall or a mental one – if you’re not the same, you’re just not the same, and that’s that.

But it can sometimes be lonely, trying to find your community, trying to find where you belong. I felt very lonely for a long time. A lot of socialising in Britain tends to be around alcohol, and I don’t mind a drink, but I don’t like being drunk. And I’m not a girly girl, so I don’t enjoy being in a big group of girls, talking about makeup and all that. I like football, so I always hang out with the guys more. But then you’re in another sort of box. Like, ‘ooh, what are you?’

Running helped me. Initially it was just for a few months, I wanted to lose a bit of weight – I didn’t want to go running unless it was ‘necessary’. But it gave me so much freedom, so much confidence. It’s a different sort of confidence to the one we’re sold as desirable, though. It’s a quiet, internal confidence. It’s about how you feel about yourself really, not just wanting to look a certain way, but feel a certain way too. It’s fine if you like make up and heels, but your confidence shouldn’t come primarily from that. I looked down at myself one day when I was running. I was wearing shorts, bright light green top, bright orange trainers and weird socks – and I looked ridiculous. But I didn’t care! I didn’t worry about what my body looked like. Instead, I was thinking about what it could do, how it felt. That day, during a 10 mile run, I went and explored Little Venice. That’s something I never would have done if I wasn’t running. So, it’s things like that. It makes you braver.

Running is solitary, which is nice. But there is a very strong community in the running world. I was reluctant to join a running group for a long time, but then I found a group that met up regularly in Victoria Park and I joined to see what it would be like. Over time, I built friendships that were more substantial and significant than ‘we just like going to the pub every Friday night. I still like running on my own as a sort of meditation, but it’s nice to be able to share that with other people as well.

For me, finding a safe space, and a comfortable space, to do my own thing but also be with people, was really valuable. We can be individuals, be ourselves, but still need people around us. We can still be an individual in a group. But we cannot just be an island. Or think our actions don’t affect other people. There is so much joy to be gained from making someone smile or laugh, or being there for them when they’re having a tough time, or accepting support when we are struggling ourselves. We need community. We need to be vulnerable with each other.

Vulnerability is a strange thing. I can easily tell others how important it is, but it’s often much more difficult for me to allow myself to express it. To be honest about my needs. If you’re used to being the helper most of your life, how do you switch roles and admit you need other people? It is easier to be needed; empowering. It’s the ‘I’m being a nice person, I feel good about it’ effect, but you’re still in the position of power in that dynamic. So vulnerability, too, is important in our communities – for all of us. A lot of people who want to help, in my experience, have a fear of losing control. They regain power and control by helping others, because honestly, often, people feel powerless. So you don’t want to feel even more powerless by being the person accepting help, instead of the one giving it.

We have clients that swear they’re fine, but we know they’re not. When we offer those people support, they don’t want it – there was one person who cancelled a service we provided because they wanted it to go to someone else. That person is very sharp, very independent, a real survivor – so when we gave them a laptop to increase their connection with others, they wanted it to go to ‘someone else who needs it more’, because ‘I can still entertain myself somehow’. Yes, there are people who need those things as well. But it is not a competition, resources should never be finite but we are taught by society that they are, and they must be – so we learn to assume someone else needs it more. It is heartbreaking. And we have people who we ask directly, ‘do you need help, do you need food?’ they’ll say ‘no, I’m fine’, because there is a stigma around food poverty, a shame in needing help.

However, there is sometimes the opposite thing, of people who take a lot more than their fair share. But this is much more complicated than surface impressions more often than not. For example, if they lived in poverty for a long time, they’re now used to not knowing when a resource will be available again, so they stock up. It is too simplistic to default immediately to ‘they’re greedy’ – there is a reason for everything, people behave in the ways that they do based on their life experiences, so it is never black and white. We always make an effort not to blame or shame, because that isn’t fair at all. We try to understand instead. The mind goes straight away to judgement. But when you hear that judgement come up inside you, you can decide to think more deeply about why this may be happening. Why are they stuffing sandwiches into their bag? Is it because of what they’ve been through?

Some of our clients have incredibly complex stories. I wish I had time to hear everyone’s. But sometimes there is a huge language barrier. And the problem I’ve seen with that is that when there is a language barrier, everything becomes simplified in order to relay the message, so it becomes about the very basic needs – food, rent, heating, etc. Every person has so much more than that. Thoughts, dreams, life experiences. We don’t want to reduce them down to whether they need to use the food bank or not. They are so much fuller than that, they are a whole person, and we need to always remember that when delivering services. The people who come to us are human beings. Same as all of us. We are human, trying to survive, trying to love as fully as we can, do our best with the tools we were given.

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