'This is a Time of Relationships': Strengthening Community

Swearer Center staff, pictured above, celebrate partners, students, staff, and community 

In this time, it is crucial to be socially close, even while we are physically distant! Now, more than ever, community engagement requires us to reevaluate existing relationships and double down on cultivating them further. Your program, no matter where or how you work with the community, can deepen connections and plan alongside others in this period of uncertainty. 

This is an opportunity to take important steps: 

  1. Foster community both with like-minded partners and within your organization 
  2. Dig deep into the wicked challenges and social justice issues behind the work you do in the community through advocacy and public policy
  3. Listen to a variety of voices, working together to find creative solutions and sharing these findings with peers and affiliates 

The relationships that you build now, and the ones that thrive even in these deeply challenging circumstances, are the ones that will be strongest on the other side. In this post, we share how our partners at the Swearer Center at Brown University are building on and working toward the ongoing strength and success of their community, and share our takeaways to help you do so as well as you work in or alongside community organizations. 

Cultivate relationships with like-minded partners 

Associate Dean and Interim Director of the Swearer Center Betsy Shimberg recalls the Swearer Center’s first Community Partner meeting after Rhode Island went into lockdown. “We thought three community partners would show up,” she says. “Over twenty showed up. We were thrilled to be in that role. The vision we had for the network is finally being realized.”

Now more than ever, communities are looking for spaces to ask questions and offer support. Consider how your organization, business, or campus can foster these community connections. Perhaps, like the Swearer Center, you can serve in a convening role. Maybe you can offer space, web conferencing tools, and other resources for community meetings, or create an informational network where volunteers and partners can share their successes and learnings from these times. In addition, you can work with partners to develop safe in-person engagement opportunities and virtual alternatives, as well as to evaluate program readiness to create virtual or safe in-person opportunities. 

Strong partnerships and affiliations will help communities to thrive, together — and the relationships that are fostered in these times will be vital after the pandemic. #StrongerTogether

Create and engage community within your program 

This community must be internal as well as outward-facing. Whether you are a business connecting to employees, an organization maintaining volunteer engagement, or a campus supporting students, you are likely figuring out how to foster a strong community with little or no in-person connection. 

This is certainly true at the Swearer Center. For many students at Brown, Shimberg says, the Swearer Center “functions as their community on campus. It’s their social life; it’s their cohort.” Because of this, it is crucial that they work to maintain this sense of engaged and active community. To do so, the Swearer Center is developing new virtual workshops, meetings, and Zoom orientations for the fall 2020 semester. “Now, more than ever, people want to be connected,” says Shimberg. “It’s just figuring out how to do it in a way that’s best for the students.” 

This is an opportunity to ensure that your community is accessible after the pandemic. The communities that are able to strengthen now will be able to maintain accessibility and connectedness moving forward. At Swearer, Shimberg recalls that community partners would often be unable to contribute to trainings and orientations for students due to the time it took to reach campus; now, she says, these partners can contribute pre-recorded video footage in order to facilitate reflection. Offering video options in addition to or as an alternative to in-person workshops and orientation makes opportunities more accessible to students and volunteers. 

Because this accessibility is so widely beneficial, Shimberg says that the Center is planning to keep these alternatives even after the pandemic. Changes you make now can improve accessibility and retention moving forward. For example, creating regular video content with information from community partners and offering smaller group in-person or remote reflection opportunities provides both greater input from the partners whose voices must be amplified and greater opportunities for students and volunteers to connect. Make sure that these efforts occur at regular intervals that all of your community can benefit from. 

Focus on project-based opportunities centered on advocacy, policy and social innovation

“Direct service is really important, but there are a lot of other tools in our social justice toolbelt that we want students to learn about,” says Shimberg. “We’ve been asking ourselves, okay, how might we pivot and go beyond direct service? That’s the innovation you see lots of places doing in this time around COVID.” 

Shimberg notes that virtual options such as advocacy and public policy are areas where student and volunteer voices can make immense change, particularly in an election year. These opportunities can “get to the root cause of social justice,” Shimberg says, adding, “we think it’s important that people donate a can of food for the food drive, but can the Swearer Center be a place where we ask, ‘Why are other people hungry?’” Advocacy and policy are tools to address these underlying systemic issues.  

Both virtual and in-person engagement can incorporate advocacy and public policy work, such as writing legislative briefs and researching best-practices for partner organizations to move the needle. In this way, these project-based opportunities are transformative and accessible tools in our social justice toolbelt. 

These can also be opportunities where skills-based and pro bono volunteering are effective.  There are many areas – legal research, marketing and social media, fundraising, insurance, and more – where businesses and individuals might be able to offer expertise pro bono. In other cases, organizations or universities can support training in these fields, shifting their volunteer bases and students to focus on these imperatives. 

All of these options will remain equally important after the pandemic is over. The planning and transitioning that you work on now can create new, crucial facets of your community engagement program after the pandemic, helping to alleviate the many social justice concerns endemic in our country. 

Listen to a diverse set of voices

To work through these uncertainties, it is crucial to make space (physically and virtually) for the community to share their needs — and to act on what people share. 

At the Swearer Center, a lot of the most critical innovation is coming from students and community partners collaboratively. From creating English as a Second Language lessons to help communities order takeout and drive-through, to compiling lists of how volunteers can be involved in assisting people experiencing homelessness, students have been “leading the way.” Kate Porter, Swearer Center Assistant Director of Communications and Public Engagement, says, “If we’re able to follow their lead and help implement their ideas, that’s huge.” Swearer has made space for these collaborations by virtually sharing ideas, feedback, and resources.

Your organization and community can facilitate the important and innovative conversations that will allow for creative changes to happen. This is the most crucial aspect of successful community engagement in these changing times: make sure that you have actively sought out the input of your communities in order to understand what “successful” means to them. 

Innovation, pivots, changes during these times are a good thing! We see people of all backgrounds come together to help one another. Whether or not you have settled on a plan for the upcoming months, starting a dialogue and working on the fundamentals of sustaining your community will lay the foundation for real and ongoing change. 

To learn more about how your institution or organization can strengthen relationships with partners, schedule a call with a member of our success team.