There is no denying that 2020 has turned out to be a challenging year. Pandemic aside, the political climate has hampered everything from family unity to community engagement.
Nonetheless, this year, nearly everyone’s life became virtual overnight and it seems we are staying in this holding pattern for the foreseeable future. During this time we have been working from home, attending zoom meetings, consuming copious amounts of sourdough, but silently, a space has opened up for creative solutions to several social issues that existed pre-pandemic.
I grew up in a time where the library was the epicenter of my family’s after school/work life. I went to the library almost every day after school and would see all of my friends there. Similarly, my family would spend a considerable amount of time there. Needless to say, changes in technology have changed the role of the library in our communities, and libraries have sometimes struggled to define their role in a digital age. The truth of that was all the more apparent when the pandemic started for most libraries.
The West Linn Public Library in Oregon has been an exception to the rule. Library Director Doug Erickson used the pandemic as an opportunity to develop community connections. In a webinar with the Davenport Institute and Emerging Local Government Leaders, Erickson shared how his team made that happen. “We went from being considered a library that was innovative to a small movie studio, and eventually into a drive-thru curbside—like fast food, only its books and materials.” The pandemic opened up space for creative ideas like virtual cooking sessions with local police officers and interactive book readings with dogs.
Beyond just increasing library program offerings, the west Linn Public Library took on a broader role in response to the pandemic. Erickson’s library partnered with the local food pantry and faith based communities to provide support. The library soon became the new town square where community members gathered for entertainment as well as support.
The city of Palmdale, CA, also prioritized food distribution and has served over 1.8 million pounds of food through their innovative drive-thru model and partnerships with faith-based organizations. As Anne V. Ambrose, Director of Administrative Services, explained in the same webinar, the drive-thru model led to new engagement focused partnerships. “Some of our seniors—due to health issues—couldn’t come in to pick up their food, so we developed partnerships with one of our local churches who actually went and delivered boxes to our seniors that couldn’t even come to us to do the drive-thru.”
This creative partnership was one of many ways in Palmdale stepped up to ensure community engagement during the pandemic. Like cities across the nation, Palmdale increased its social media presence and digital communications. Knowing the demographic makeup of their own city, Palmdale made sure that content was available in both English and Spanish. Language is a key component of engagement, and Palmdale used the opportunities presented by the pandemic to connect with communities that were perhaps not as engaged as before.
Since March, engagement, on the community level and beyond, has surfaced as a vital aspect of emotional and mental health. This has proven especially significant for senior citizens in nursing homes and assisted living facilities who have been following stricter quarantine guidelines. In order to combat senior loneliness, Shreya and Saffron Patel started an organization dedicated to sending hand written letters to seniors- Letters Against Isolation. Shreya Patel joined Ambrose and Erickson in the webinar and spoke about her innovative project that has volunteers from all over the world writing letters to seniors. The organization has captured the attention of major news outlets and local news alike.
Speaking on community response, Patel said that “people have an incredible capacity and desire to do good. [When the lockdown started] there was a feeling of hopelessness and fear. And I think the beautiful thing is that so many people responded to that with a desire to help—a desire to do good and make an impact on their community.”
Patel has also prioritized building community within the volunteer network and ensuring they are equally as encouraged as a group. The organization hosts virtual events, sends bi-weekly newsletters, and emphasizes relationship building.
There are two ways to respond to the social conditions created by the pandemic: stay as you are or innovate. We at the Davenport Institute are very proud to work with local government officials and community oriented organizations who believe in the latter.
Pooja Bachani Di Giovanna is the assistant director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement & Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University