Letters from Lockdown: developing literacy-based initiatives in the local community

12 May 2021

Abi, Shannon, Kirra and Leah from the University of Sussex explain how our Literacy Champions inspired them to think about using literacy as a tool for combating loneliness and addressing mental health in Brighton & Hove.

“I saw all the work that needed doing in the garden but sat all day in the chair feeling unmotivated and unable to do anything. Then I thought of the letters I could write. It’s so good to get a hand-written letter from a friend, especially when you live alone. So I began writing - letters, memoirs, poems, text messages...” – A touching insight from one of our letter writers

As part of our work on the University of Sussex’s new Championing Literacy module, we were supported in developing literacy-based initiatives in our local community. Inspired by the NLT’s Literacy Champions, we began to think about how we could use literacy as a tool for combating loneliness and addressing mental health in Brighton & Hove.

Our group decided to focus on the way reflective writing could bring people together and restrengthen their sense of community in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic. Due to Covid-19, more people than ever have been experiencing feelings of loneliness, with the majority of people either having to shield, self-isolate, or forced to pause social engagements and community-based activities. We wanted to use reflective writing as a means to capture, process, express and share the various emotions developed during this time. As reliance on technological methods of communication have increased, letter-writing allowed us to open our project up to those who may be unable to access such resources right now and may therefore be feeling especially estranged.

We divided our project up into two key areas. Firstly, in partnership with our local Citizen’s UK branch, who are currently running a campaign around mental health, we contacted two local church leaders and asked them to identify any members of their community who might enjoy taking part in a letter-writing and poetry exchange. In particular, we asked if anyone would be willing to write to us to share their reflections over the last year, providing a selection of simple questions to prompt responses such as, ‘How has the pandemic impacted your sense of community?’ and ‘What is one thing you have learned throughout this experience?’

We received a number of responses that each depicted diverse experiences of lockdown but with strong common themes, ranging between gratitude, guilt, and hope. Many people wrote about the infamous seagulls which are ever present at Brighton beach. This was an image familiar to most (if not all) participants and enabled them to find similarities with members of the community who they may otherwise be unlikely to connect with. We hope that our project was able to remind people that they remain connected through their shared experiences despite being physically apart.

Secondly, in collaboration with Brighton’s Jubilee Library, we held an online creative writing workshop where all activities and work produced was inspired by the emotional responses generated by these letters. Participants were invited from the network of library volunteers and the Network of International Women. As these groups of people would have been regularly involved in the library community had it not been limited by the pandemic, we thought it was important to provide an alternative opportunity for them to come together and share their passion for literacy. We had a broad range of participants of varying ages, genders, nationalities and skill levels.

Whilst this had the potential to be a little intimidating, we were conscious in our attempts to generate a relaxed environment in the hopes that everyone would feel able to get involved. Our positive feedback showed that this really paid off, with every workshop participant confirming that they felt safe and able to participate. The feedback also revealed that each participant felt a sense of connection to those who wrote the letters, that the letters caused them to think differently about their own experience of the pandemic, and that the workshop strengthened their overall sense of community.

To achieve this inclusive atmosphere, we wanted to utilise unrestricted forms of writing. For example, our free-writing activity encouraged people to be present and express themselves freely without fear of judgement. There was never any pressure to share work or ideas, although we were very pleased that the majority of participants opted to do so. The stream-of-consciousness style of writing generated by both the initial letter-writing project and the free-writing activity within the workshop allowed those involved to really get to know and understand one another, even though Covid-19 restrictions meant that we were unable to create an opportunity for everyone to meet face-to-face as we might have hoped.

Literacy is all around us, and we hope that through simple activities and interactions like this we can prove that literacy engagement does not have to be daunting. Rather, it can be an expressive way to develop and deepen connections - something we all need and appreciate now more than ever before.

Take a look at the anthology of letters and poetry generated as part of our project.