Covid-19 has been the worst of all possible times. It has also, strangely enough, been a time of new opportunities, creativity and, in some instances, celebration. It has hastened well-recognised life cycles of death and new beginnings: of people, ideas and ways of being.
I encountered and witnessed struggles with Covid: my own, my family’s and the wider community. Stories of sickness, of death and of frontline workers offering emergency support to those in need despite their own personal danger and tragedies.
I last blogged a year ago as we entered a second wave, and now we are faced with the real possibility of another winter lockdown, this time due to the Omicron variant. As, once again, it looks like this will prove to be extremely challenging for us all, for individuals, families, and communities (I have had to cancel my travel plans to South Africa!). I feel drawn to reflect on one of our most significant creative interventions from the past 20 months.
A call from a longstanding colleague (employed at the time by the National Lottery Community Fund – NLCF) back in April 2020 suggested a new emergency Covid-19 response. This led to the creation of The Phoenix Fund, a £2.4m NLCF investment for Black and racially minoritised communities across England. This single act set in motion a series of strategic gatherings with more than 20 experienced Black and racially minoritised community leaders from around the country. As a group we worked tirelessly in partnership with Global Fund for Children to co-design a collaborative grant-making and support process for registered and unregistered micro and small groups. Being, as we were, on the margins of the mainstream Voluntary and Community and Social Enterprise sector most of us had never met in person before – in fact most had never even heard of each other prior to the pandemic.
As highly experienced and dedicated leaders in our own right we quickly built relationships and established ways of working. What happened between us debunked stereotypes about ‘black people not being able to work together’. And, even though leading this specific area of work was new territory for several of us, we all approached it with an open heart: creating space for ideation, listening, challenging, learning and supporting, and despite the tragedy unfolding around us there was a lot of laughter and camaraderie. Our mission was to achieve more equitable funding outcomes for our sector during Covid-19 and this was achieved through a truly collaborative process driven by core values of working beyond racialised boundaries; challenging racial injustice; trust; consensus decision-making and generous leadership in action.
We put in place robust architecture through governance arrangements and administrative processes and systems including a National Steering Group, grant panels and learning. Global Fund for Children were important partners, actively supporting the grant administration process and capacity building nascent groups which emerged during the pandemic.
Our response led to some 1400 applications with the bids totalling £22m. Although we were only able to fund 185 groups the scale of the demand showed the extent of the unmet needs. It also demonstrated to us that complex processes are not necessary to generate high quality ideas and actual applications. Local organisations are still delivering services with Phoenix funding as I write.
Like most emergency responses our work was done at breakneck speed, because, as we knew from our Covid-19 Research, 2020, community organisations in our sector urgently needed funding to survive. We would meet at the end of long days, undertaking most of this work after our day jobs. We could not abandon our own substantive roles and the ever-expanding workloads generated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
I am recounting the story because, although seemingly a lifetime ago, it is important that we document our own history. The story does not end there, as with continued support from the same former Lottery colleague and his team, we now have The Phoenix Way (TPW), an unprecedented £50m, 5-year NLCF investment for Black and racially minoritised communities across England which was announced earlier this year. Youth Endowment Fund (YEF) have also agreed to invest £10m over 3 years and other potential funders have also expressed interest in our work.
Building on learning from the Phoenix Fund, TPW is to be delivered via a partnership of grant-makers and leaders from Black and racially minoritised communities through six regional equity networks with grant-making panels, capacity building support, leadership development, learning partnerships and space for innovation. In addition to its fund-making and other priorities, TPW has a clear and challenging systems-change agenda for the NLCF, YEF and other funders who want to partner with us. We want to ensure that funders’ commitments to achieving more equitable outcomes longer-term are enacted and, to this end, The Booska Paper, 2021, published nine important Calls to Action for funders. However, we need to co-design real opportunities for action whilst creating spaces for our own sector to continue to have a collective voice and influence. More about that in 2022!
As Lead National Convenor, I have had the privilege of continuing to help shape The Phoenix Way in collaboration with an extraordinary group of leaders. Leaders who, with humility and at times pure grit, continue to overcome obstacles and forge ahead. We have now met in person on two occasions, something which has sometimes resulted in surprise as assumptions formed about each other online were dispelled! A tour of all six regions across England allowed me to deepen relationships and learn about their communities.
I perceive The Phoenix Way as a once-in-my-lifetime opportunity. I am not naive about the nature and extent of the challenging journey ahead, however I continue to be excited about collaborating with this very special group of people to achieve transformational change for our future generations.