Riverside Community Health Project has been fighting inequalities since the 1980s but is now inundated by those falling through the gaps in provision, says Sarah Hunter
‘Local authorities, in partnership with key stakeholders, must work together to create a collective, political and cultural acknowledgement that social growth and poverty prevention are as important as economic growth.’
So wrote Amy Grace in her article in New Start last month. Amy’s sentence took me back – to the early 1980s and to the Black Report, a document which acquired almost biblical status as a reference point for community development workers everywhere who knew, but often struggled to evidence, the links between health and economic inequality. Its conclusion was radical: health inequalities (which, despite the existence of the NHS since 1948, were widening) were less about NHS provision and more about income levels, education, housing, diet, employment and working conditions.
Riverside emerged in the wake of the Black Report, beginning in 1981 and working with communities in the west end of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne ever since, shrinking and expanding, seeing staff and community members come and go, while riding the never-ending waves of change in local and national strategic priorities.
In spite of the shape-shifting, Riverside has never relinquished its core focus or values: these can be seen reflected in every aspect of how, as in its mission statement, it ‘works according to community development principles to improve the health and wellbeing of disadvantaged communities by acting with others to ensure appropriate service provision.’ In other words, it is concerned with enabling (’empowering’, ‘facilitating’ – insert whichever jargon is current) local communities to comment, plan, develop and deliver on identified rather than perceived need.
‘Riverside – as a local community ‘hub’ – sits at
the interface between community and state’
When Anne Bonner, Riverside’s chief executive, gave me an overview of current work, something became apparent: as well as continuing to deliver innovative solutions to health challenges, the organisation is undertaking a great deal of work with those falling through the net of a shrinking public sector. Where, at one time, an organisation like Riverside would be fighting for recognition of the work, it is now inundated with a level of demand resulting (directly and otherwise) from the impact of austerity and political choice which sidelines the vulnerable, the poor, the disempowered.
Take Riverside’s specialist work with Eastern European Roma communities, for which it has workers specifically appointed because they have the skills and language (one size really doesn’t fit all) to engage what are notoriously difficult, insular but also highly disadvantaged communities.
Take the needs of a Czech mother who is at serious risk of murder from a visiting male ex-partner and needs to get out but can’t speak English. This is complex, delicate work: there is housing, schooling and work (the household is completely dependent on her salary) to consider. There is a much-loved family dog and refuges don’t take animals. The police are an obvious port of call but even now are ill-equipped to understand, let alone work with, multiple needs of a victim of domestic violence who finally says ‘enough is enough’.
Social services are utterly inundated and, again, aren’t able to connect all the dots. It was two Riverside workers and one of the few surviving refuges who – with a great deal of skill, knowledge, patience and the commitment to keep fighting – secured this woman’s safety, and probably her life. If that isn’t tackling health inequality, I don’t know what is. It also happens to be an example of Riverside stretching itself to the max to accommodate something that others are failing to do effectively – either because their resources have been taken away or because they lack the holistic knowledge base.
Consider volunteering: in the 80s, there were so-called ‘middle-class do-gooders’ and there were ‘community activists’. Organisations had to be extremely careful about using volunteers in a way that didn’t impinge on what would otherwise be the realm of paid work (unless, of course, they fell into the ‘activist’ category!). Now we have the ‘Big Society’ and numerous job adverts for volunteer coordinators. Within the Riverside Volunteer Project the concept of empowerment is deeply embedded in what could otherwise be seen as simply a ‘something for nothing’ dynamic: upskilling, community activism, personal development and building confidence through achievement, are regarded as fundamental principles rather than ‘nice if it happens’.
Lastly, but equally as important as all the service provision and development work, is the collaborative and strategic aspect of Riverside’s ongoing mission to address inequality. Riverside – as a local community ‘hub’ – sits at the interface between community and state. Local authorities these days are compelled to look to third sector organisations to meet need that cuts have prevented them from providing. This has become yet another example of ‘picking up the pieces’, although partnership working was always prioritised by Riverside by virtue of what it represents: holistic, complementary, cost-effective, broader reaching and just plain better than operating in isolation.
So: between then and now, between new words and old concepts, between the pulling back of the state and community, between inequality and privilege – Riverside remains relevant. I have highlighted a fraction of the work that the organisation delivers, yet its values and principle-driven practice lie at the heart of the struggle to transcend the weight of austerity bearing down hardest on the most disadvantaged. ‘Picking up the pieces’ isn’t the most positive recommendation, and shouldn’t even be an issue in the 21st century, yet it is, I would argue, what Riverside does best.