Moving forward in an uncertain era

NCI’s director Holly Madill shares her thoughts on moving forward during the novel coronavirus and changes in the ways we engage online.

People showing on screens during a zoom session.
Facilitators prepare for an online Listening Session.

The Way Things Were 

Recently, my husband and I were watching something on TV when an image of a large gathering appeared. He said wistfully, “ah, when we could gather in crowds.”  

I thought about my own work when we could gather in large groups to work through issues or create a vision for a community. I thought about how our culture has historically approached engagement. 

The adages of “online engagement should never take the place of in-person engagement” and “your online activities should always drive people to come to in-person activities” or “online engagement is a great add-on if you could afford it” are words of the past. 

In fact, the National Charrette Institute’s Charrette System certificate training introduces various online engagement tools, but in recent years, we’ve scaled that back to make room for other modules on public involvement and diversity, equity and inclusion.  

It was an easy change to justify because the content that replaced it is needed and there were so many online tools available that it was hard to keep up with them. 

And Then, COVID-19 

This is a phrase that I’ve heard echoed over and over since the beginning of the year. It reflects a way of life or activities that were interrupted by the novel coronavirus pandemic. No one was exempt from the tentacles of the pandemic’s reach into our professional, personal, or community lives.  

While many are eager to return to normal, we wonder what that new normal looks like and there are no easy answers. What is clear to me is that online engagement is here to stay and not to just to augment in-person engagement.  

In diversity, equity and inclusion training, we are encouraged to practice both/and thinking – to shed the either this OR that mentality and to hold multiple, potentially conflicting concepts in our thoughts. Never did I imagine that this would apply to engagement, although I should have known better. 

As we wait for in-person restrictions to ease, many of our projects and work cannot wait any longer, and we must find ways to move forward.  

I have heard of practitioners experimenting with all kinds of online engagements. I have heard of practitioners thinking about outdoor and socially distanced in-person engagements, adding hand sanitizer, social distancing signs, masks, etc. to their supply list. 

Things to Consider as We Move Forward 

As we ponder the old reality vs. the current reality, I think what we have before us is a great opportunity to break open our past thinking about how things operate and try new things. It is an opportunity to not accept whatever “new normal” evolves, but to forge an intentional “new normal. As we do that, here are some things that I am thinking about: 

  • We live in a culture where failure is bad and unacceptable, yet most of us learn most effectively through trial and error. While we can plan and practice, we should expect and accept some failure with those trials. In academic research, even a “failed” experiment provides valuable information for the next trial. We should learn to embrace this process and that will require grace grace for ourselves and grace extended to others.  
  • Speaking of grace, it is important to recognize that we are not just working from home (those who can), we are trying to work while in the middle of a pandemic and economic  and social crises, while we are taking care of our young, our elders, and our sick. All while we are trying to manage a semblance of our former lives. This is no small feat. Extend grace! 
  • While many practitioners have seen an uptick in participation in online engagements thanks to more frequent opportunity and potentially time freed up from cancelled activities and events (check out NCI and Form-Based Codes Institute virtual engagement webinar series), there are still people who are not included. We need to work hard to remove any barriers to participating, whether it is in-person or online. Now is the perfect time to push ourselves for more inclusion. And this brings me to my last point. 
  • We were rushed into online engagement by the pandemic and while a sense of urgency was created by the pandemic, it was perpetuated by white supremacy culture (Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun, Changework, 2001). If novel coronavirus is here to stay for a while, it is now time to slow things down and thoughtfully work through how to effectively engage our communities in meaningful ways. 

I don’t think we’ll return to a pre-COVID-19 era, and I hope we don’t. We’ve suffered too much to let the learnings that we’ve gained from this experience evaporate into yearnings for the past and not let them transform us or our processes for the better. 

You might be wondering how NCI is responding to these circumstances: 

  1. NCI will not be hosting any in-person trainings through at least Dec. 31, 2020.  
  2. In-house, in-person training requests will be handled on a case-by-case basis. 
  3. NCI will be hosting a pilot synchronous online course [details pending].  
  4. NCI has prepared a list of online community engagement tools.  
  5. Check out the Virtual Engagement Webinar Series mentioned above. 

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