While the COVID-19 pandemic brought daunting challenges for communities around the United States, it was also a time that united people and showed the power of cooperation, creativity, and resiliency. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, community-based organizations (CBOs) in the Boston area pivoted almost overnight to provide emergency response and mobilized to meet the needs of vulnerable groups, including lower-income households, people of color, and immigrants.
In the summer of 2021, we brought together 8 Boston area CBOs in a community action research project funded by AmeriCorps to assess how these groups had adapted their community organizing and engagement approaches in this difficult time of change and uncertainty. We are happy to release our final report, Grounded and Interconnected in the Pandemic. This report explores the challenges and opportunities faced by these organizations and makes recommendations for other similarly situated groups, governments, funders, and social service providers. It is based on two group convenings, interviews with staff, and data compiled from each organization. Download the report here in English and Spanish.
We found that while CBOs faced significant challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, they played a critical role as first responders and drew on their deep networks and connections to coordinate collaborative responses that were literally saving lives. They became a vital bridge between the most vulnerable and government, funders, and larger social service agencies. Because they already had deep networks and relationships of trust in their neighborhoods, they could take a grounded and intersectional approach to solutions. They turned their buildings into food pantries and organized mutual aid networks that helped meet the needs of more than 10,000 families weekly. They supported thousands of people to access housing assistance, employment opportunities, money for workers who lost income, and Covid testing and vaccines. They provided language services to overcome the barriers in existing service systems. They created new relief funds for constituencies not eligible for public aid.
The groups had to be creative and innovate new ways to engage their communities during the pandemic. While they built capacity to do remote engagement, they also conducted wellness checks over the phone and used social media to counter disinformation about COVID and vaccines. They began to integrate provision of much-needed resources with engaging people to help one another and engage in collective action — shifting a culture of one-way charity towards a solidarity, mutuality, and reciprocity.
A key learning from this report is that “a lot of the solutions are already in the community,” in the words of one CBO leader. The pandemic may have entered another phase, but its impacts are still being felt. CBOs in the Boston area do not want to go back to business as usual. Rather, they are building back better by strengthening infrastructures of community care and engagement.