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Pivoting Community Engagement during COVID-19

The Urban Institute is focusing its efforts to support effective responses, resilience, and recovery for those most negatively affected by COVID-19. We can do that through lifting up lessons from past health crises or natural disasters, producing tools to analyze which geographic regions or sectors will be hardest hit, and suggesting policies to protect and support vulnerable populations.

As we emphasize the need to acknowledge structural racism in tackling the racial disparities apparent in COVID-19 cases and deaths, we can also begin to address the lack of certain voices in the discussions, analyses, and proposals to mitigate COVID-19’s effects. Incorporating community voices and shifting the power dynamics in developing and designing responses to the health crisis is key to ensuring we do not repeat history and exacerbate existing disparities.

Engaging communities will help ensure our work is relevant and effective.

Amid all the challenges presented by COVID-19, social distancing is limiting how we engage with communities and requiring innovation and creative thinking to continue to reach affected populations. As we consider what it takes to be a good partner during this time and whatever comes next, we are employing three key strategies that can also be replicated by organizations working with affected communities:

· assess and reframe all work in the context of COVID-19

· employ new methods and modes of engagement

· develop a plan and refine as you go

Assess and reframe

Although there is a lot we can do to engage residents during the pandemic, we have found that an important first step is assessing how responsive the work is to current community needs:

· Are the events you want to host and questions you want to ask reflective of the current situation? Do they acknowledge what is going on and allow respondents a chance to talk about how they’re doing during the pandemic?

· Is it critical that you collect this information right now? How will postponing engagements impact long-term project goals?

· How will potential respondents receive your request? Will they be accommodating, frustrated, or bothered?

· Do you have mechanisms in place to mitigate overburdening community members with requests for information? Answering this question will also require awareness of what other community groups are doing in terms of their outreach and community engagement.

· Can your proposed work incorporate a response to immediate needs or planning for the mid- to long-term impacts of COVID-19?

As part of our technical assistance work with the Garfield Park Wellness Collaborative — an initiative to promote positive health outcomes among community members living and working in Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood — we worked through the Center for Community Investment’s Strategy Triage Tool to prioritize what they can and should do now to advance their community engagement work and what activities should be delayed until social distancing guidelines are relaxed and people feel safe to gather. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, they were preparing to field a survey to learn about community health needs, but doing so in the current context obviously requires a different approach, content, and even a shift in their end goals.

In situations where our regular community engagement or information-gathering responsibilities must move forward, we have attempted to broaden our work to include checking in on affected community members or connecting people with resources. As part of Urban’s Promoting Adolescent Sexual Health and Safety (PASS) project, we spoke with our direct service partners who had been fielding a survey with teens in various Washington, DC, public housing communities to determine if they could move forward with this work. They were all interested in using the survey as a tool for staying connected to teens but needed to focus their attention on ensuring families’ basic needs were met first. Urban checked to see if our funding could help pay for grocery delivery and sent food, hygiene and cleaning products through Instacart to support our partners. We also ensured young people received a gift card for taking the survey, plus an additional one to cover the meal they would normally enjoy during survey events usually fielded in the community center. While reaching out to teens about the survey, our partners were also able to take stock of how each was faring and whether they needed any other support.

One of the basic rules of community engagement is to “meet people where they are.” In this case, being strategic about using these brief moments of human interaction to share information, ask questions, and brainstorm about how policies or programs could be improved yielded very valuable insights.

Employ new methods and modes of engagement

Because community needs and organizational priorities may be shifting, new methods of engagement that position community members to view and interpret new data and collaborate to develop solutions can be useful for overcoming outreach and engagement challenges. For example, organizations might consider hosting a Data Walk, a method of engagement in which program participants, community residents, and service providers jointly review data presentations in small groups, interpret what the data mean, and collaborate to use their individual expertise to improve policies, programs, and other factors of community change. Although Data Walks have traditionally been done in person, one team at Urban working with an engagement award from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute is breaking their Data Walk into pieces and posting it on Instagram to foster an ongoing conversation around sexual health and safety.

Although maintaining engagement without in-person contact may seem like a daunting task, there are a lot of free or low-cost, easy-to-use tools to maintain contact with affected populations, including social media, web meetings, survey tools, and collaborative content programs. After the PASS project canceled our in-person Data Walk in mid-March, we pivoted to create an Instagram account so we could post data and facilitate a discussion online.

We are now determining whether we can receive internal review board approval to post polls or have people respond in greater detail through direct messages. To generate some content, Urban staff and our community partners have found it helpful to collaborate through Canva, an easy-to-use graphic design software.

Plan and refine

Much uncertainty remains about where we go from here. Although it can be hard to keep up with the ever-changing realities on the ground, it is important to center the voices of those most affected by the pandemic in your work and do the best you can to ensure you’re being responsive to community needs now. As you develop a plan to move forward with your community engagement work, these are a few things to keep in mind:

· Develop a plan for engagement that balances past work plans and priorities with the current context and needs presented by the pandemic, including things as simple as ensuring partners and individuals do not feel abandoned amidst social distancing precautions.

· Carefully consider who won’t be able to participate or will be hard to reach, including the elderly, people with limited or no internet access, those with low computer literacy, non-English speaking populations, and those who have taken on additional caretaker or schooling responsibilities. Consider alternative ways to engage these groups through more traditional outreach methods, like mail and phone calls.

· Consider compensating community members for their participation and plan for this in your budget and funding requests. Participating in community engagement activities takes time and energy. Paying people to participate or offering gift cards as incentives shows you value people for their ideas and their time, and understand that they may have other needs that need to be met.

· Report back. You don’t want your interactions to be extractive. After an engagement, follow up with the people you spoke to and share how the insights and ideas you’ve gathered are being put to use.

Where do we go from here?

New information and guidelines around COVID-19 are unfolding each day. Our approaches to community engagement must reflect this constant need for innovation and refinement of existing plans. A silver lining is that social distancing is pushing many researchers, policymakers, and direct service providers to be creative and develop new strategies and tools to engage with people. As many of us search for effective responses to the challenges and effects of COVID-19, these innovative approaches to community engagement will help ensure the proposed solutions accurately reflect the priorities, needs, and preferences of those most directly affected.

-Martha Fedorowicz

-Elsa Falkenburger

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