Making community engagement more inclusive – even when it’s virtual Making community engagement more inclusive – even when it’s virtual

How Working Places helped its teams adapt to a remote environment How Working Places helped its teams adapt to a remote environment

October 20, 2020

The shift to remote work didn’t change much about how the Working Places initiative did its job. They’d long learned to rely on virtual connections, because it was the only way to guide teams leading community development efforts in 12 cities spread across Southern New England.

But they found the teams themselves needed help figuring out how to engage local groups, if they didn’t already have established relationships. The approach Working Places managers settled on was to help the teams figure out ways virtual engagement could actually enable more people to participate and lead, including people often underrepresented during decision-making.

In short, they’ve tried to turn virtual access into an advantage, and they say it’s paying off.

“We’re challenging leaders to think about what it takes to be more representative and to take on strategies that make their economy more equitable,” said Ines Palmarin, senior community development analyst with Regional and Community Outreach and Working Places

Working Places teams focused on quick adaptation, learning from each other

When the coronavirus first shut things down, Working Places checked in with teams about their biggest issues and to see how they were adapting, said Colleen Dawicki, who manages the Working Cities Challenge, which joins the Working Communities Challenge under the Working Places umbrella.
It turned out the teams had a lot to learn from each other.

“We’ve actually been able to do a lot of meaningful cross-city and cross-state connecting and sort of match-making,” Dawicki said. “We can say, ‘Hey, city X is doing something really cool, maybe city Y should connect with them.’”

The teams also worked to quickly move past the disadvantages of virtual meetings and capitalize on their benefits. Colleen pointed to the Pittsfield team as an example. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, they hosted a weekly event titled “Working Cities Wednesdays,” where they would gather with food and drinks to discuss pressing community issues. After coronavirus shutdowns began, the team moved the recurring event to videoconference. They even added a Spanish language version of the event to better reach native Spanish speakers.

Working Cities Pittsfield Initiative Director Alisa Costa said attendance and coordination were easier because the event was virtual. Mayor Linda Tyer was even able to attend a few meetings, which hadn’t happened before.

Dawicki: Virtual events can draw people who are reluctant to attend in person

Dawicki said virtual events sometimes feel more accessible.

“You don’t have to show up to an unfamiliar setting, you don’t have to show your face if you don’t want to, and you can participate in a way that feels safe to you, on your own terms,” she said.

That increased accessibility has helped teams engage people that were previously reluctant to participate, such as lower-income communities who felt unwelcome in settings like a city hall, Colleen said. The option to log in from their own home gave more people a chance to attend and participate, she said.

Dawicki added Working Places leadership is urging the teams to both listen to underrepresented voices and identify ways to include them in decision-making. The Middletown, Conn., team, for instance, is encouraging members of their single parent support group to take on leadership roles during weekly single-parent-to-single-parent chats. Attendees ask each other questions about common problems they’re facing and find solutions.

Looking ahead, Dawicki and Palmarin are developing an initiative to foster more representative and inclusive leadership in their Working Cities. They say that will pay off, even after the impact of COVID-19 fades and virtual meetings are no longer required.

“Ultimately, we’re always trying to make sure our work ties back to the Fed’s mandate of making sure the economy works for everyone,” Palmarin said.

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