Lessons from a year of building relationships

(Almost all of) The Cares Family team, December 2019

“Connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgement; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” (Brené Brown)

Two years ago, ill health, grief, and the demands of setting up and running a charity left me feeling intensely lonely, even while surrounded by hundreds of friends in a city of seven million people.

I was running the Jo Cox Foundation at the time: the organisation behind the drive to appoint a Loneliness Minister as well as the Great Get Together, which provided millions of neighbours with a reason to come together in partnership with The Big Lunch. Yet, even as my belief in the transformative value of this work continued to grow, I let — ironically perhaps — many of my most nurturing relationships fall by the wayside.

So, in the summer of 2018, as I celebrated a significant birthday, rejoiced in my return to good health, and handed over the reins of The Jo Cox Foundation, I resolved to renew my commitment to connection.

In one of life’s serendipitous moments, I was offered the chance to work for The Cares Family, an organisation dedicated entirely to building relationships. Over the past eight years, this charity has seen the devastating effects of isolation first-hand. How it robs us of perspective and causes our closest bonds and so our safety nets to fray. The way it eats away at empathy and erodes solidarity only to supplant it with a creeping sense of dislocation. Yet despite the complexity of forces that render people lonely, old and young alike, this big-hearted, ambitious organisation has worked tirelessly to recover those lost connections.

Community is written into The Cares Family’s culture. It’s in the listening, hand-holding and problem-solving members of staff extend to one another day in, day out, as they go about their painstaking work opening doors, growing trust, and building relationships. Heading out into the streets of London, Liverpool and Manchester, they draw neighbours of all ages, races, classes, and political beliefs together with an understanding that meaningful connection can grow from the smallest of kindnesses: through eye contact, a cup of tea, and the promise to listen.

Arms stretched wide, The Cares Family’s staff walk towards the lives of people experiencing loneliness, not away from them, however difficult their suffering is. Behind older neighbours’ doors that haven’t been knocked on for years, they find unmet mental and physical health needs, while younger neighbours suffer in silence behind screens and under the pressures of big city life. They spend time with them, welcoming their stories, and matching them with a neighbour also looking for friendship or helping them become part of a thriving social club. And they refer them on to other groups if their work to build social connection isn’t likely to be enough.

During a time when it’s easy to pay lip service to values, we must make our values visible. The Cares Family’s number one value is kindness, and I see this writ large in the decisions and actions of the amazing team when older and younger neighbours say they feel a ‘part of something bigger’ as a result of their work.

So, 18 months later, what I have learned about my own relationships?

I’ve embraced and encouraged true honesty with and between my colleagues. Questions I’ve asked more than ever before include: how do others around me perceive and understand my work? What do I need from colleagues in order to feel competent and confident? What more can I do to support and unleash the same in those around me? The best way to do this is face to face, with enough time to explore the answers and come up with practical next steps before cracking on with our to-do lists.

Beyond work, I’ve tried to apply the same attention to presence and meaning. I’ve relied less on WhatsApp and more on picking up the phone to friends and family for a chat when I’m wondering how they are, needing their advice or wanting to apologise for something. Working four days a week has helped create space to engage more fully with the people I love. And dating over the last year has been hugely improved by relying less on the binary yes / no interface of an online platform that seeks to iron out the inevitable messiness of human relationships and more on lifting my head up and embracing that uncertainty.

With so many conclusions already drawn from last month’s election result, one is emphatically clear to me: we need much more Cares Family-style connection in the months and years ahead if we are to stand a chance of understanding and healing the divisions we are experiencing. It’s not just an act of solidarity to share time and laughter with someone, but an act of radical kindness and political power-sharing.

Thank you, brave people of The Cares Family. You’ve pushed me, nurtured me, showed up for me and showed me what’s possible. I am so lucky. It’s no coincidence that the neighbours you work with say the same.

Iona Lawrence is a freelance consultant working with individuals, charities and businesses to develop and deliver ambitious strategies and coalitions to achieve breakthroughs on intractable issues. Previously she was the founding Director of the Jo Cox Foundation, led change makers in the Calais ‘jungle’ camp for Safe Passage, coordinated coalition campaigns at Save the Children and worked on youth engagement at Restless Development and the International Citizen Service. To find out more or get in touch go to www.ionaconsultancy.com.

Iona is a freelance strategy consultant. Previously she set up the Jo Cox Foundation, worked in the Calais refugee camp and campaigned for Save the Children.