Building Community in the Age of COVID-19 Social Distancing
In March, the COVID-19 pandemic raced across the United States and Europe. Each day brought news of more family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors sick. Public health and civic leaders feared the worst.
In a courageous effort to save lives, millions of people participated in a coordinated isolation and quarantine program to stop the spread of the deadly virus.
Physical distancing changed the way we live. Houses of worship canceled services. Public schools and daycares closed. Colleges and universities sent students home. Organizations called off events (including Essential Partners) as families postponed weddings, bat mitzvahs, christenings, and reunions. Many companies began to work remotely. Many workers lost their incomes.
As these life-saving measures persisted, not without controversy, a question emerged. How do we stop social distancing from becoming social isolation? How do we maintain a sense of community and resilience, even while we are apart?
“These dialogues have helped me examine my thoughts and feelings around Covid-19. With national and international participation and many different views expressed, it helped me to realize that I am not alone—we are not alone! It was just what I needed to give me the strength to serve my family and my community.”
Responding to the COVID-19 Crisis
Essential Partners’ dialogue model was created to help people navigate difficult moments—times when people, hijacked by fear and uncertainty, find it impossible to harness their inner and collective resources that would normally help them address challenges.
Over the course of a few long days in mid-March, a team of Essential Partners experts designed an online dialogue series. The goal was to help people connect with each other, to reflect on the impact of this moment, and to access both the inner and collective resources we have to navigate this challenge together.
For an hour and a half each week over three weeks, EP convened hundreds of people online. Led by volunteer facilitators from EP’s global community of practice, participants broke out into small groups.
“It's amazing that in so short a time, and with complete strangers, one can experience connection and a soothing sense of togetherness,” said participant Lesley McTague, “It goes a long way to energizing the spirit. If people are willing and the right questions are being asked, it can be a short distance to reach the place of deep communion.”
“I’m going away feeling not so alone,” said one small group facilitator, “I’m more hopeful now and more aware of the possibilities.”
“I can't even begin to explain the gratitude and fulfillment I felt from participating in this dialogue,” said Sierra, a student from Newburyport High School. “I made connections with people from all across the United States during this dialogue, some that helped me better understand myself and what I hope to accomplish throughout this period of uncertainty. The value of these dialogues is unparalleled. I just wanted to thank you for encouraging me to take a step out of my comfort zone and immerse myself in this pool of comradery.”
Participants and facilitators alike were surprised by the potential for digital technology to allow such deep conversations, even with large groups.
“I’m so grateful to EP for constructing this zoom model,” said Brendan, from Connecticut. “You all are amazing! It was so wonderful to see people have some emotional release, to see them connecting with people they don't know but with whom they share a common humanity. It was beautiful and inspiring.”
One participant remarked on the effect of taking a breath between speakers. “It’s so powerful to create that space. I will use it when facilitating dialogues going forward, especially over Zoom, when technology is making folks feel anxious and isolated.”
These virtual dialogues allowed people to speak and be heard, to connect across distances about the challenges, responses, and resources we experience and need. People left feeling more connected to each other, more centered, and more confident in the ways they could both support others and be supported in this moment.
“These dialogues have helped me examine my thoughts and feelings around Covid-19,” said another participant, Martha. “With national and international participation and many different views expressed, it helped me to realize that I am not alone—we are not alone! It was just what I needed to give me the strength to serve my family and my community.”
“I didn't even realize how much I needed this. It was a great opportunity to connect with colleagues and to share concerns, challenges, and joys regarding Covid's impacts, both personal and professional.”
The Continuing Impact
“This experience helped me think about how I wanted to help others,” one participant reflected, “and what things I was capable of doing to help.”
Following the success of the dialogue series, EP assembled a package of materials—scripts, guides, and handouts—and distributed them to our network of program partners and alumni. EP’s COVID-19 dialogues have since supported difficult conversations in communities and institutions across the globe.
The Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA) in Cambridge, MA, launched a series of dialogues for front-line health care workers who have been treating COVID-19 patients.
“The sessions were so powerful, people share their stories, their burdens, their grief,” said Judy Fleishman, who adapted EP's public dialogues for the CHA program. “People were able to put words to their experiences. They felt connected, no longer so alone. At the three planned sessions, 100% of the participants wanted to continue meeting.”
Cary Academy, an independent school in North Carolina, has led eight online dialogues, all adapted from EP’s resource packet. Their focus was the social-emotional wellbeing of students, parents (especially the parents of students of color), Academy teachers and staff, and recent graduates currently in higher ed institutions.
“I didn't even realize how much I needed this,” one Cary Academy teacher remarked. “It was a great opportunity to connect with colleagues and to share concerns, challenges, and joys regarding Covid's impacts, both personal and professional.”
The Dayton International Peace Museum organized a virtual dialogue "to support constructive, engaging, and energizing online conversations during the COVID-19 pandemic and unrest sparked by the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery and the long history of violence against Black people in the United States."
EP's COVID-19 dialogues have also been adapted by The University of Scranton, Unite Boston, Southern Methodist University, the Clinton School of Public Service, the University of the South, Hands of Peace, University of Virginia, High School teachers in California and Massachusetts, and WAM Theatre Company, among many others.
What Lies Ahead: Conversations About Life and Risk
There’s no saying how long the COVID-19 crisis will last, or what the repercussions will be.
What will change permanently about how we learn, work, worship, and live together? What parts of our former lives will we leave behind—and what might we gain from this unique experience? How have our values changed in this time?
Every community, house of worship, school, and workplace will navigate these changes together. They’ll also face difficult, life-and-death conversations about how to return to life in person.
“I always say that community is an act of courage,” says EP co-Executive Director John Sarrouf. “That has never been truer than it is now. I am humbled by the courage of so many, both near and far, who have embarked on the hard work of community. It’s a privilege to support them.”
Essential Partners is committed to helping communities hold these conversations in ways that build trust, connection, and understanding. EP’s practitioners have already begun collaborating with colleges and secondary schools, faith institutions, and companies to navigate these waters.
If you need to have these conversations in your community or organization, contact us for a free consultation to get started.