“I’ve been thinking how there are two sides to the pandemic,” says Rosanna Barbero, CEO for the Addison Road Community Organisation in Marrickville.
“I know everyone is really scared this time. I’m actually a bit nervous, too. This bloody Delta strain is so contagious. Because of what we did last year during the first wave of COVID-19, setting up our Food Relief Hub and working with all these charities and civil society groups, we are more prepared than a lot of organisations to act quickly now. But there is still this fatigue from fearing an unknown entity.”
“So that is one side of it,” Rosanna admits. “All is this fear and anxiety and dread that has been induced in all of us. That has actually been there for quite a while when you think about it. We were already living under this, feeling things were getting worse: that we were failing our world – from a recognition of growing inequality in our society to how we were destroying planet, this constant drumbeat was there. The pandemic has heightened that feeling. It’s something that can make us feel dark and lonely. That’s the cloud,” she says, her hands shaping the air in front of her. “I don’t pretend it’s not there.”
“But at the same time, our reality on the ground here at Addi Road, amid all this anxiety and confusion, is one of hope. Strong hope. We feel and we see a growing desire to help each other, a growing desire to be together and not alone.”
Around us as we speak it’s a perfect winter’s day in Marrickville, warm sunlight pouring down after a gloomy week of rain. Rosanna identifies Addi Road as both an organisation and a place where hope and action converge: “Our hopeful feeling today has been brought out by how we have been responding to the pandemic. But we can apply it to how we have been responding to social injustice and the climate crisis too. It involves this power – this power of people coming together – that I am talking about.”
There is a sense of power in people coming together here. And it’s visible everywhere if you really look.
“Just before the lockdown was about to start, all these people streamed in out of nowhere offering to help. We joked that the crisis team had reassembled. Not even a text had been sent out. It was people who had volunteered at our Food Relief Hub the first time there was a lockdown back in 2020; people who understood what we do. This time, many of those same people had come again – and they were ready.”
“At the same time, more and more people are coming here for food. All kinds of organisations are reaching out to us for help. They talk to us while they are here – about their work, their lives, their needs and what is happening out there. They see Addi Road a safe place, physically and spiritually. It’s really special to feel it. Because it’s not just about the need. The international students that we helped last year have organised themselves. They have learnt how to support one another.”
“We’ve had teenagers, retired people, pilots, cleaners, people who have only been in the country a few years, refugees, the international students … Last year many of them were recipients. Now they are volunteering and asking us if we need help. Volunteers from all walks of life: sports people, writers, musicians, artist, lawyers, doctors welders, plumbers electricians, company CEOS and unemployed locals all working together for us.”
“We don’t just talk about COVID-19 and food when people come. We talk about the crisis of inequality. How racism hurts our nation. Two women wearing hijabs came here the other day. They’d been spat on and were scared to come out because the racism they experienced was so strong.” Rosanna shakes her head. “We really do the see the best and worst of what is happening.”
“We work very hard to offer a rights-based approach to development. People will say words like ‘empowerment’, but they don’t always understand what that means. If you only you see yourself as helping people in need, you have fallen into creating a hierarchy. We don’t just give food; we engage with people. We give support and we give solidarity. We are the community and we are part of the community, that’s the key. It’s part of people’s rights to have access – not just to the resources but to the action. So they’re not just passive recipients.”
Our kids are suffering but I think they will come out of it stronger. They will learn new ways to live and see the power of humanity at a time like this.
“The urgency of things makes it difficult. But it also shows how we can’t wait for others to draw a map of what society might look like in the future. We have to do it ourselves. The pandemic has exposed the inequality and the anti-people policies and systems. We clap for our health care workers – but we see that that they are underpaid, overworked and under-resourced.”
“So, if I do feel a heavy burden, it’s for the ones who are taking the bulk of the harm, the impact of the virus. Like someone who has to clean at RPA at 4.30 every morning: this woman came here for food. She can’t be there to make breakfast for her kids. She has barely enough money to cover her rent and expenses. The pandemic has made life even harder and more stressful.
“There is very little recognition for those people out there. If I counted the number of times I hear business leaders in the media talking about the economy and jobs compared to anyone representing a worker, it would be a 100 to one.”
“You only have to look around Addi Road at the volunteers and our staff to see we all come from diverse backgrounds … different ethnicities, classes, ages, experience. I think that’s why the things we do are so effective. It’s about a lot more than just saying thank you for a box of food. People who come here know we are here for them, not as a benefactor or patron, but as a friend,” Rosanna says.
“There is a sense of power in people coming together here. And it’s visible everywhere if you really look. Another level of connectedness. A rejuvenation of people’s awareness of the importance of community and social cohesion. Being forced into social isolation is challenging us as social animals, undoubtedly. But it’s highlighted our need for relationships and contact with one another.”
“The creative ways people have come up with to address that need for connectedness have been very inspiring. People singing from their balconies. Or doing a dance in the street. Or coming out and drumming in the street for everyone. You see people going that extra mile during COVID that they would never have done before. And it goes from those kinds of individual actions to alcohol companies making sanitiser and businesses donating food.
“Our kids are suffering but I think they will come out of it stronger. They will learn new ways to live and see the power of humanity at a time like this. Even the power of the positive environmental impact, the clear skies and nature returning, healing itself. Just knowing the world can come together and produce a vaccine in a year when it might have normally taken a decade or more. We have to ask why we haven’t done it before.
“I think people have tasted a sense of power, a right to be part of the decision-making processes. A right to imagine the kind of society they prefer. And they know it’s not going to come from politicians. It’s going to come from the community and our ability to organise and support one another and make collective change.
“There’s a word in Khmer – saw-saw-trong. It means the central pillar that holds us together. It also means a place where you gather. I’m glad Addi Road can offer that to the community.”
You can support Addi Road’s food justice program with a donation here.