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Opus during Covid-19: Thoughts and reflections

Opus - whose social projects include Now Then Magazine and Festival of Debate - share their experiences of adapting to a completely new landscape in Sheffield - and what is still left to be done to make our city better for everyone.

Now Then Product Photo MG 3072
Andy Brown

Opus has been working in Sheffield for over 12 years. We are an umbrella social enterprise for many projects across many areas of interest.

Our work has included establishing decentralised international networks to explore Universal Basic Income (UBI); facilitating storytelling and creative writing projects on domestic violence in India; running media platforms like Now Then Magazine and the Now Then App; programming regional event series like Festival of Debate; managing print distribution for arts and culture organisations; delivering workshops with young people on grassroots politics; and writing research papers on the value of civil society.

We do a lot and we probably don’t shout about it loudly enough. With that in mind, we want to share the story of our work over the last few months.

At the point of lockdown Opus comprised a team of 13 members of staff and was running 21 live projects. Our work is predicated on the view that to effect progressive social, political, environmental and economic change, we need to direct action towards the root causes of systemic issues.

We must head ‘upstream’ to find the source of these issues and a way of recognising that at their root, not only are the severe problems we face man-made, but they are solvable, and that a better way of living is possible.

The Pandemic Hits

By Thursday 12 March media outlets were reporting outbreaks of coronavirus in the UK. It becomes clear to everyone with half a grain of sense that the pandemic is here, that it is here to stay, and that it will change everything.

Like many other people and organisations, we scanned the horizon together as a team, considering the implications of a mass lockdown and realised immediately that the model Opus had built over 12 years of hard work, that employed 13 people, was broken, could not be fixed and would not survive in its current form.

Now defunct, how long did we have left before we could not pay wages or maintain our platforms and projects? “Unanswerable, not enough information and not important right now” was the conclusion.

Our thoughts moved to what we could do while we were still in play. We spoke of the independent traders, voluntary groups and civil society organisations we served and worked with day in day out, and how they would be hit hardest and quickest. We decided in that moment to make all of our platforms free to those organisations.

We began posting on social media and sending emails to regular stakeholders. “If you need to use our platforms to notify people about how you’re changing your services, just let us know and we can amplify this for you.” We cancelled all outgoing invoices and regular subscriptions to those organisations, recognising how precarious they now were. It was Friday 13 March. We went home to set up there. What else could we do?

Now then app vcs comms hubs

Interactive map of community hubs, support organisations and Mutual Aid groups across Sheffield, shown on the Now Then App.

‘How Can We Help?’

We began meeting virtually as a team. We discussed ways of working remotely and put plans in place. We asked: Are we all ok? Are any of us at risk? Are any of us showing symptoms? We went over the public health guidance together. We kept asking the questions: What can we do to contribute? How can we help? How can we repurpose? This problem needs everyone it can muster and we want to be in this, doing what we can.

We began re-framing our projects, pressing pause on those that no longer made sense with social distancing or were not able to contribute to solving the problem at hand. With heavy hearts we suspended our 12-year-anniversary print issue of Now Then Magazine, shifted our entire schedule of content to the Now Then App, and focussed energies on the launch of a brand new Now Then website, the result of 18 months of planning and mapping which is still ongoing. We pressed pause on Festival of Debate 2020, which would’ve been our biggest festival of grassroots politics to date at over 130 events. We wrote to partners and ticket holders explaining our thinking.

The Voluntary Sector Response

On Tuesday the following week, one of our directors was invited to attend a meeting of voluntary and community sector organisations at The Circle. He reported that Voluntary Action Sheffield were clearly showing real leadership for the city, and that their thinking was arguably weeks ahead in understanding the severity of the wave about to hit us and the impact on communications and services.

VAS had mapped an early framework for the voluntary, community and faith sectors to operate within and were providing a critical point of contact between the city’s public health team and those community anchor organisations closer to the ground. We knew there was expertise that the team at Opus could bring to this framework and so we began mapping where we could be most useful and how we might use our digital platforms to serve as a crisis response tool for the voluntary and community sector.

This work began in earnest on 20 March with a takeover of the map function on the Now Then App, illustrating points of contact for community support organisations and mutual aid groups across Sheffield.

The UBI Lab Network

In other project areas at Opus, work was also moving at pace. The UBI Lab Network, developed in 2016 in response to a Festival of Debate event on Universal Basic Income, is an international community of people working together to explore how a Universal Basic Income could transform people’s lives. This project took on a new shape as a result of the pandemic as it became increasingly clear that vast sections of our society - as many as five million people - were not going to receive any financial support from central government, exposing the structural inequalities inherent within the state-citizen contract.

The UBI Lab Network is made up of autonomous groups of people across the world, who each commit to a ‘handshake agreement’ which defines the values and a broad strategic framework for how a ‘lab’ will operate and behave. As a decentralised network we share resources, knowledge and best practice on how to advocate for testing or piloting a UBI in the UK, how to engage with members of the public who are new to the idea, and how to lobby elected representatives at local, regional and national levels. We meet on a monthly basis as a steering group and Opus provides staffing and support to the network.

UBI Survey MAP UBI Labs Organise Compass crop

Map of almost 20,000 public responses to UBI, put together by Basic Income Conversation, Organise and the UBI Lab Network.

At the beginning of lockdown, the UBI Lab Network had 7 autonomous groups operating. As we enter the fourth month of lockdown, there are now 24 self-initiated labs, covering almost every major city in the UK and with emerging groups across Europe and Indonesia, in addition to ‘targeted’ labs on areas of specific social concern such as Youth, Disability and Women.

Among many successes in the past three months, we’ve helped bring UBI into the national consciousness in the UK, with almost every major news outlet in the country covering our work, five councils passing motions in support of a UBI pilot in their area, and a number of public petitions led by various city-based labs.

In April over 100 cross-party MPs signed a letter in support of a Recovery UBI, a policy proposal developed by UBI Labs. We also led on an Early Day Motion in Parliament with over 90 MPs in support. We created several different policy propositions around the idea of an ‘Emergency UBI’ and a ‘Recovery UBI’ and have been engaging with economic strategy teams and councillors across the UK on these propositions.

Perhaps most significantly, we have shifted the ‘Overton Window’ on the rights of citizens and the importance of a universal income floor in freeing people from the cognitive and health burdens of poverty. UBI is now a mainstream policy proposition across much of Europe.

In early July, working with Basic Income Conversation and Organise, we helped bring together nearly 20,000 responses from the public across the country for a DWP select committee on how a UBI might improve people’s lives. This truly is a piece of transformative work that is solution-focussed and gets to the heart of why our current economic and political system is utterly unfit for citizens.

Covid Crisis Comms

By April 2020 the furlough scheme had been announced. Opus was increasingly understanding its financial position and it was clear that we were running out of savings to support our wage costs. We were forced to furlough the majority of the team or face insolvency. We managed to keep some members of the team active in projects and maintain our input into the rapidly-growing UBI Lab Network, and our role in the newly-defined ‘Communications Hub’ for the voluntary and community sector in Sheffield.

Through this work we have learnt and amplified stories which illustrate how critical the voluntary and community sector is for so many Sheffielders. Something that really resonated was finding out that 1 in 150 households were receiving emergency food in Sheffield in April 2020. Consider the implications of that in the fifth biggest city in the UK.

Foodhall, one of the volunteer-led community organisations tackling the food crisis in Sheffield, contacted us about the possibility of using our distribution van to carry out their food parcel deliveries. As our print distribution service was on hiatus for the foreseeable future, we were glad to be able to offer them free use of the van so they could reach the people of Sheffield who are most in need.

As April passed, our role as crisis communicator expanded as we began to map out a request from Citizens Advice Sheffield (CAS) to help them amplify their changing service offer and the implications of government schemes for members of the public. In May we started sharing stories of lived experience told by CAS advisors and clients, and in June we took on managing the charity’s social media channels too.

Festival of Debate 2020 Online

Meanwhile, having publicly postponed Festival of Debate in April, the team had begun thinking about how we could produce an online festival.

We recognised that the world had changed and therefore so must the topics covered by the festival. We recognised that increasingly the government’s response to the pandemic was becoming more opaque and less democratic, and that the festival as a mechanism through which citizens could engage with issues of social concern was still hugely important. We also recognised that live streaming and video content was not something we had experience of, so we set about learning the ropes.

By mid-May we had an outline of what we could deliver: a programme lasting seven weeks, with a weekly live stream engaging panelists from across the country on core systemic issues including Black Lives Matter, income inequality, climate change, wellbeing economics and the impact of the pandemic on arts and culture, alongside a wider fringe programme working with partners such as Migration Matters Festival and Utopia Theatre, among many others.

We also began interviewing community leaders in Sheffield and creating short ‘talking heads’ films illustrating their perspectives on the crisis and what needed to be done. In concluding our final event on 9 July, Festival of Debate Online had engaged with tens of thousands of people, hosted over 130 speakers and offered a unique and compelling snapshot of the issues we collectively face.

If you missed Festival of Debate 2020 Online, you can find it all at festivalofdebate.com.

Now then mural

Now Then mural by Rob Lee, located on the corner of Arundel St and Howard St in Sheffield city centre.

Andy Brown

‘But What Else Can We Do?’

The project work described here is still ongoing, still happening and there is plenty for all to be input on. We would really welcome your ideas about what else Opus can do for Sheffield.

We are a small organisation. We are still trying to understand our collective future. Like many, we are still trying to understand how we survive, continue to pay wages, and how our purpose as an organisation is changing.

But this is not the most important thing. Understanding how our work contributes directly to a better Sheffield and a better world - in key systemic areas such as income inequality, the democratic deficit, climate change and anti-racism as we exit lockdown - is the most important thing. Getting this ‘lens’ right - recognising that the deep-rooted problems we face as a society cannot be solved in isolation - is critical to making sure our work is meaningful and effective.

We’re going to try and be more open, more transparent and more ‘deliberate’ about our thinking on this in the coming weeks and months. We want to share the process of transformation we’re going through in the hope of learning from others, and we also plan to share our learning further afield with the hope that people in Sheffield and beyond will be interested.

This pandemic offers an opportunity for everyone to build a better, more equitable future. We face some deeply existential collective challenges in this, from climate change to a renewal of the state-citizen contract. We must carry hope in our fists and believe we can do better.

A simple idea has characterised some of our thinking so far. It invites both our social imaginations as well as our pragmatism: Common good is common sense.

Get in touch.

Filed under: #Coronavirus

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