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To build social cohesion in isolation we need local (government) arts workers

I have just heard that some local governments are standing down their arts workers as “non-essential”. But we have never needed arts workers more. They can do much to alleviate household stress, and create ways to maintain social cohesion and solidarity, while we are in isolation.

Research tells us two types of networks are important for our, and our community’s, well-being.

The first is the close networks of family and friends (“people like us”) that give us the support and resources vital for our mental and physical health. They are essential in lock down as quarantine is reported as having serious impacts on households around the globe, the least of which are becoming restless, irritable and bored.

The second is our network of broader community connections (“weak ties”) created through our participation in work, education and public life (sport, community groups, etc). Broader networks give us a sense of belonging, help control negative behaviours, and foster solidarity and a willingness to do things that may not benefit us, but benefit others, like paying tax or self-distancing. These are also the networks that spread information and reduce controversy over decisions – both vital in a pandemic.

Strengthening our close connections is essential, but it is not our only challenge.

Closed close networks have risks: trapping some in unsafe situations (such as domestic violence), and more broadly fostering “us” and “them” thinking that erodes cohesion and works against collective solutions. In Australia this has resulted in cases of violence towards health workers and overseas students, and more broadly, in some acceptance of regressive public policy ideas like the de-funding of an international organisation who’s help is directed at “others” and not our concern. Erosion of community solidarity is difficult to turn back.

Communities have mounted a massive creative effort to keep us amused and participating in interesting ways. Examples include the popular local “bear hunt”, a participatory chalk art trail in Parkes, community choirs (e.g. PubSing), the projections of thanks to essential workers on the Alfred Hospital, collective street pantries, etc.

These activities are working. A recent Essential Report has shown that at this stage most of us are going OK with isolation. But 12% of people were not doing anything to increase connection and were struggling. And it has been reported elsewhere that some populations, such as overseas students alone in Australia, may be extremely isolated.

The challenge is to reach these groups, and stop them growing over time, while continuing to find ways to connect people broadly.

Local government arts workers can take community initiatives to the next level, and can reach into and include different populations, to maintain and build our sense of community and purpose.

They can help us be alone, together.

Don’t stand down local arts workers. Charge them with the vital task of building social cohesion, and get them to do what they do best: use their imaginations to create worlds that intrigue us, connect us, and generate the joy and social benefits of collective achievement.

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