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[Y-SPACE] Insights on gathering people virtually amidst the pandemic

by Pepper Limpoco, RPm

The panic was palpable in the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. With worries rising, quarantines being set in place, and all possible public spaces restricted, many of us were struggling with a looming sense of uncertainty. Offline social interactions were abruptly prohibited, bringing disruption to the ways we function and synergize as a society. This made it seem impossible to continue work as a community builder.

The role of a community builder is to bring people together meaningfully, a task that often involves in-person gatherings. The very essence of community development is to foster moments of connection and belongingness, things that are heavily rooted in shared laughter, intentionally having meals together, and even, in smiling at one another. All of these common in-person moments were clearly impossible amidst the looming global health crisis, making our jobs additionally strenuous. However, many organizations and their respective community builders found an easier time transitioning everything online. With some of their rituals and platforms already having been set up before the pandemic, it was simply a case of making those digital systems stronger to accommodate the influx of community members online.

We at Makesense found ourselves both challenged and excited to make the shift. We had many in-person events planned during the season in which lockdowns were enforced, from networking functions, collective demos, and many other plans that involved meeting in person. The sudden urgency to transform all these initiatives into remote gatherings was hectic, but thankfully we were able to pull through thanks to the platforms that we had already been testing before the pandemic.

Clearly, the shift to virtual organizing brought both challenges and opportunities. While many of the elements in community mobilization that were unique to in-person engagements were limited, it also highlighted how much we can do in the virtual space.

I’ve listed below some of the key insights I’ve gathered as a result of gathering people virtually amidst the pandemic.

What “online” adds to the accustomed community organizing

Unsurprisingly, the role of technology in the community’s shared experience was amplified in the past year. The internet has brought some of the most innovative platforms that allow us to bring people together in many different ways. Beyond Zoom and Google Meet, we have spaces such as Airmeet and Discord that allow you to hop between virtual tables and rooms, much like you would in offline events. Other tools, such as Mural and Miro have been key in collaboration and brainstorming between groups, and Facebook Groups continue to thrive for the purpose of discussion and debate about common interests.

We’ve seen how these platforms allowed us to change the scale and reach of our community meet-ups, events, and collaboration sessions. We’ve also been able to better utilize our approach in recruiting more people to join the community online, focusing ever more on our website, social media platforms, and newsletters. Couple this with the fact that both our community builders and community members can skip the traffic when “meeting up.”

Still, it’s clear that online community engagement and management have challenged the intentionality of creating spaces and moments of interaction that usually happen more naturally in person. Whether that is in the form of organizing “virtual lunches” and the like, facilitating and replicating these moments remotely has become a major skill for community builders to develop.

Everyone has a role to play in radical collaboration

Remote organizing has also highlighted that everyone has a role to play in solving the many challenges we’re facing due to the pandemic. The ease of information exchange on the internet has solidified how interconnected we all are and how we rely on each other to function. You need others’ input and effort to tackle the challenges that continue to arise and we need to fill each other's gaps.

This realization has also given way to space for more radical collaboration to take root. For example, 2 weeks after we were instructed to go on our first of many lockdowns in Manila, Philippines, we launched a citizen-led Covid-response program. The first run, lean as it was was focused on supporting vulnerable populations with basic needs and mental health support that needed to be met. Within 15 days, our volunteers had contacted more than 200 individuals seeking bikes for medical and non-medical frontliners, had collected more than 50 kilograms of rice and vegetables for families, and had organized online mental-health check-ins.

What this meant was that they were working with a variety of social enterprises, individuals, companies, and institutions to get those needs to where they needed to be. We were even delighted to hear that our community had found ways to coordinate with the Philippine military in order to transport these goods to the families they were intended for. What would usually take a much longer planning and coordination between a variety of stakeholders happened in just 2 weeks.

This same fire for action and teamwork was utilized during last year’s typhoon Ulysses, when thousands of Filipinos were either stranded themselves or had missing loved ones, and needed mobile load in order to receive help. Within 24 hours, together with the community, we had set up a simple donation system that allowed us to centralize those who needed the load credits, those who were willing to donate any amount, and those who would verify the donations on both ends.

Centralizing the collective action

If there’s anything else that was palpable in the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was the mutual concern for the well-being of others. We saw an incredible influx of new volunteers joining our community, most of whom were volunteering for the first time, simply because they would “like to help in any way that they can.” There was so much being done and so much more that could be done on different fronts, it was just a matter of pooling it all together in one space.

We shifted one of our citizen programs into exactly that, transforming it into a centralized platform for everyone to jump into and take action in a clear and bite-sized manner. We decided to expand the thematics that we were tackling to cater to the many needs arising, and what followed was an endless record of stories from the community throughout their organizing.

One of our volunteer groups came up with an initiative wherein they would create digital art for interested donors, and 100% of the proceeds would be given to sponsoring meals for our medical frontliners. They called the initiative “FrontLine: Art for a Cause.” It was an incredible initiative, both directly supporting our tireless frontliners and also highlighting the power of art. When asked what led them to create this initiative, I was pleasantly surprised to know that after we had gathered them in a welcoming call, they realized that they all held a strong shared interest in making digital art. In the midst of discussing their enthusiasm for their craft, they realized there was a way to connect this interest to the objective of the program at hand.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continued throughout 2020 and now still in 2021, we’ve made it a point to transition these once spontaneous citizen-led actions into more structured and consistent initiatives.

Concretely, what did we learn from all this?

Firstly, we needed to purposefully make space for our community members. At the end of the day, people are looking for a sense of third place that we lost when the lockdowns limited us. These third places, spaces like the pantry in our coworking office where community members would stop to chat to one another while making some coffee, did not need much facilitation and intention. They simply exist on their own, being central in facilitating natural interactions between community members.

These places were necessary for a community to thrive. They were where we would share personal stories, talk about a milestone, and meet new people. With the limitation of the lockdowns across cities, we’ve had to focus on recreating these communal spaces online to maintain the groups’ cohesion. We often think about gathering our communities for the purpose of brainstorming, planning, and updating. We have come to realize that gathering people for the sake of gathering was a crucial avenue to be comfortable with one another outside of an agenda.

We needed to train and equip other community developers in our communities to mobilize themselves. In the past year, we found that a good recipe for mobilizing a big number of volunteers was to cluster them into groups of 10-15 individuals, and then assign a leader to support and guide them. This structure allowed us the capacity to manage our already growing group of 3,000 volunteers and still maintain bandwidth to accept more.

Even more than the capacity for new volunteers, it also gave us the opportunity to create more drivers for change. By re-empowering top volunteers to deepen their engagement by leading others, the snowball effect of social change is made more impactful. We identified some of the most committed and active volunteers and extended the invitation to be trained in community organizing, facilitation, and the use of community tools.

We’ve received much feedback from our group of leaders, many of whom have led more than thrice in the community at this point, about how they plan to deepen their engagement in the social impact ecosystem because of the experience. In a recent survey that we ran, more than 95% of our leaders also mentioned gaining a deeper understanding of the certain social issues that they tackled with their members, as well as gaining a better awareness of which institutions they should work with to solve these challenges.

We needed to remember the difference between audience and community. With the lines of engagement being blurred, we found that it is easy to forget the difference between your online audience and your actual community members. Surely the two groups can consist of both volunteers, partners, team members, and the like, but differences start to emerge when you look at the behavior and communication styles between the two.

While it has always been important for us to measure the increasing follower volume and a subscriber count of our audience on different channels, we also continued to prioritize the dynamic interactions happening within our community platforms.

We paid even closer attention to the different paths and unique journeys our members experienced in our communities and endeavored to track their key moments so that we could nurture them better. We had a separate strategy for approaching the two different groups, ensuring that we were continuously creating a conducive culture and environment for members to truly be recognized, celebrated, and supported.

All this is to say that communities and the approach to community building are an ever-changing landscape. There is no doubt that rapid change will come about even in the next few months and that we will find ourselves with new insights on gathering people for social change. What’s clear to me is that community participation and organization have been core to responding to this pandemic in countless ways.

If it wasn’t highlighted enough before the pandemic, it should now be evident that this energy for collective response is the same spirit we need for systemic issues that were simply highlighted during the pandemic. People need to be continuously brought together meaningfully, especially in a post-pandemic world, and for that, community builders will be leading.

Pepper is currently the Asia Community Director of Makesense and is also a National Youth Gender Activist at UN Women. Her role in Makesense focuses on leading the various citizen programs, supporting advocates, and helping organizations leverage collective action for social impact. She has run a variety of community programs in the Philippines and across Asia. Pepper has organized, spoken in, and facilitated more than 500 events and follows a no-nonsense approach to change-making. You can connect with her on Linkedin.

YSPACE is a platform open for young writers to contribute their worth-sharing thoughts and stories to the world. It is a space for young people and by the young people which aims to promote a strong sense of empowerment and inspiration to young Filipinos.

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