By Erin Clossey
Emerson’s Engagement Lab is devoted to understanding how media and technology shape civic life. So when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, forcing people to turn to each other for help, the ELab was one of the places Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell turned.
Campbell and Professor Eric Gordon, director of the Engagement Lab, first connected through the Boston Civic Leaders Summit, a citywide initiative to connect community groups and citizens around leadership skills and best practices. When the coronavirus forced people to stay home and away from each other, her team reached out to Gordon again to help them better utilize the mutual aid networks that had cropped up to coordinate services and support.
“We continue brainstorming around problems we can solve together as a community,” Campbell said. “Eric has continued to be a partner in that. It’s just remarkable to have his expertise at the table.”
Creating Connection from Chaos
As the pandemic began upending lives, schools, and the economy, the needs of the community intensified.
Homebound seniors needed food and transportation to medical appointments. Some parents needed help juggling their own jobs, which had moved online, and their children’s schoolwork, also online and increasingly on the families to supervise. Some parents still had to report to jobs, and needed childcare. Many, many families were suddenly without jobs, and needed help navigating unemployment benefits or just getting the basics. And there were people who were also dealing with the disease itself, either personally or as caregivers.
Across the city, a web of social services agencies, community activists, and individual residents with skills or time or just a desire to help has formed. But with stay-at-home advisories, social distancing, and bans on large gatherings, coordination has to happen virtually.
“What’s interesting about what’s happening right now, when everyone is forced online, it’s motivating and necessitating a kind of creativity in digital connection,” Gordon said.
A hybrid form of civic engagement is emerging that uses both online tools, such as video conferencing (Zoom, FaceTime) and social media apps like WhatsApp, alongside old-school methods of organizing, such as phone trees that are able to reach elderly residents, and boots-on-the-ground support, such as delivering food.
Gathering the City
In the initial gathering of Neighbors Helping Neighbors, the name given to the group Campbell assembled on Zoom, there were representatives from hospitals and neighborhood health clinics, neighborhood organizations and arts organizations, and local activists working on their own. About 40 percent were from Campbell’s district, which includes parts of Dorchester, Mattapan, Jamaica Plain, and Roslindale, but the rest were from other parts of Boston.
The first call was one large meeting of over 100 people. For the second meeting, participants were broken out into separate “rooms” based on interest or need.
“Most people were there to learn from each other what strategies and tools different community groups were using to reach out to neighbors,” Campbell said of the first meeting. “A lot [of them] wanted to organize collective responses or create systems to respond to certain needs. A lot of people wanted to learn about opportunities to help or be of service.”
Chitra Anwar, a graduate student in the Engagement Lab’s Media Design program, helped out facilitating some Neighbors Helping Neighbors meetings.
She said two meetings in, she was surprised by how much people had taken it upon themselves to do to help their neighbors. In a breakout session, she was paired with a woman who had begun reaching out to elderly residents and delivering their groceries or finding them supplies. The woman wasn’t working on behalf of an organization, Anwar said, it was just her.
“It was really heartwarming and encouraging to see how people are leaping into action,” Anwar said. “[I realized] the need for that collective organizing, because it sounded like a lot of people wanting to fill the same needs, but they might not be connected, and perhaps the city or some level of government could help facilitate that.”
From the Engagement Lab’s perspective, Gordon is interested in answering the question, “How do we understand what all these emerging practices are, and how do we build up resources to connect them?”
The ELab has asked similar questions around the use of virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) to engage with populations and fuel empathy. For instance, Melissa Teng, MA ’18 looked at using virtual reality to help women soon-to-be or recently released from prison re-enter their communities.
“This is something we’ve been exploring for a long time. What are hybrid modes of interacting with … community support networks,” Gordon said.
“When cities call town hall meetings, can we not immediately default to physical presence for that connection to happen. Are there ways we can actually do better?”
Online civic engagement definitely has its challenges, Campbell said. People not familiar with the digital tools often need support just to join in. Large Zoom meetings don’t always allow everyone’s voice to be heard, and there’s no online substitute for the physical energy of a community meeting, or a hug from a neighbor, although Campbell said her team has been rethinking ways to use breakout sessions to compensate for the lack of intimacy.
But there also have been tremendous benefits.
“We’ve seen the participation, I think, expand, which is a beautiful thing,” Campbell said. Oftentimes busy residents or citizens with mobility or transportation challenges weren’t able to make it to live meetings.
“Now people are participating from their homes. This is expanding civic engagement participation, which is fantastic, and it’s also telling us we cannot go back to in-person meetings and do it the same way we did before. There will always have to be virtual component to every meeting,” she said.
Another positive outcome of the initiative is that residents from across neighborhoods, were able to “meet” each other and realize they all have the same issues and challenges, Campbell said. From the outset, the Neighbors Helping Neighbors group was racially, socioeconomically, and geographically diverse.
“Now it’s happening between sectors,” she said. “Eric’s in higher ed, I’m in government, [there are those in] the private sector, philanthropy. All these various sectors come together to make these conversations happen.”
Gordon said it’s important that colleges and universities play an active role in “capturing the creativity and energy” of people who are not just adapting to their circumstances, but thinking of ways to work together to transcend them.
“We do have the capacity to help harness some of this energy right now and learn from it,” Gordon said. “I feel our position in higher ed to be able to contribute to that seems meaningful.”