Radio: How grassroots community-based initiatives changed due to COVID-19

Sarah Switzer, Andrea Vela Alarcón, Rubén Gaztambide-Fernandez, and Casey Burkholder all have long histories of involvement in a range of grassroots, community-based work, and they are also researchers in academic and professional settings. Scott Neigh interviews them about Beyond the Toolkit, a research project in which they worked with people involved in community facilitation, community arts, community-based participatory research, and related work to understand how they were adapting to the drastic changes imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and to develop tools to support them.

People do grassroots, community-based work with a lot of different ends in mind – organizing, research, arts, community development, education, and lots of other things. All of these involve bringing people together to do things collectively, whether that is about sharing ideas, making decisions, creating something, planning something, taking action, or something else. People who are not involved in grassroots activities, and unfortunately even lots of people who are, sometimes fail to recognize how much skilled, deliberate, people-focused labour is required to make it successful – it may or may not be done by someone in some sort of formal role, like a designated organizer or facilitator or educator, but it is always part of what happens. As you can imagine, this kind of work has its own challenges and obstacles at the best of times. But as with so much else, it suddenly had to be completely re-thought when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020 and gathering in person became too dangerous.

Sarah Switzer is currently a senior researcher with the Centre for Community Based Research, and at the time of the work discussed in today’s episode she was a postdoctoral fellow in the Youth Research Lab at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) in Toronto. At that point, Andrea Vela Alarcón was a grad student in the Youth Research Lab. Casey Burkholder is an associate professor at the University of New Brunswick. And Rubén Gaztambide-Fernandez is a professor at OISE and director of the Youth Research Lab.

Switzer started her postdoc at OISE just before the pandemic. Her plan had been to create a project that would bring together grassroots facilitators and other community-based practitioners to have nuanced conversations about their work and social justice. With the chaos caused by COVID, however, there were suddenly a whole host of newly urgent questions that people doing grassroots work were scrambling to answer. So Switzer changed gears, and she, the rest of today’s interview participants, and a number of other people created Beyond the Toolkit.

They brought together people doing a range of grassroots, community-focused work to talk about how they were adapting their practices to the circumstances of the pandemic in the context of having to do everything in online or remote ways. Though technically focus groups, according to Switzer, these gatherings “were really kind of like interactive workshops, which were equal measure discussion, troubleshooting, [and] sharing ideas.” People talked about both the challenges they were facing and what they had come up with to navigate them. The conversations ranged across the logistical, ethical, political, and pedagogical issues involved.

Then the project team transcribed the recordings of the sessions and analyzed them. They used the collective insight those conversations generated to produce resources that could in turn support grassroots work in these new and difficult circumstances.

A primary aim for the project team was making sure that their findings and the tools they created based on those findings would be useful to people actually doing grassroots work on the ground. That meant, for one thing, working quickly – community need was urgent in the early pandemic period, and there was not time to wait for the much slower pace at which academic work often happens. It meant making sure that the findings and tools were easily accessible. And it meant making sure they were framed in open ways, so it would be easy for people to take up, interpret, and adapt them to a wide range of circumstances. One way that they did this was by using visual elements as both a tool of analysis and a way of sharing their findings, in the form of illustrations done by Vela Alarcón. According to Gaztambide-Fernandez, they really want “to invite people to interact with the images and to make their own meaning” from them and the accompanying text.

Both the findings and the tools are available on the Beyond the Toolkit website.

Though the pandemic continues, circumstances have shifted from the abrupt changes and rigid restrictions of its early months. But today’s guests are clear that there is no going back – online and remote work will continue to play a much larger role in grassroots community settings than they did before COVID.

According to Gaztambide-Fernandez, “I don’t think that the end of the pandemic, if we arrive at that moment, is going to make these tools irrelevant. My sense from talking to people is that online interaction is here to stay.” Switzer agreed, saying, “The context has shifted so much, but I think the the considerations are absolutely still relevant.” And they hope that the findings and resources of Beyond the Toolkit will continue to be useful for years to come.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Image: Pixabay / Alexandra_Koch.

Theme music: “It Is the Hour (Get Up)” by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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