I’m writing this today, more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, from my kitchen table. Otherwise known as my office. Otherwise known as my son’s school desk. Within an arm’s reach are notes from a recent meeting, Legos, and a mostly finished bowl of cereal. No wonder I’m easily distracted.
This is not an uncommon scene for many these days, but it still does not feel normal. Nor should it. We are wired to be social. As Risa Wilkerson, Healthy Places by Design’s Executive Director, shares in a recent blog that highlights the new Socially Connected Communities report, strong social connections and networks can boost a person’s lifespan by 50 percent. At the same time, we continue to hear about our neighbors of color whose lives are cut short, or assaulted or harassed due to systemic racism and longstanding inequities.
We feel called to do something – anything – because we cannot be comfortable with these atrocities.
One paradox of the pandemic is this: We know that doing the right thing at the population level, through social distancing and limiting connections, is challenging our mental and physical well-being at the individual level. How can we rebuild our physical and social infrastructure, post-pandemic, in a way that allows for more spontaneous meetings, connections, and positive social collisions?
This is a starter list, and I’m writing for me as much as I am for you. Let’s see how many of these we can work toward as the weather turns warmer and the world slowly reopens.
- First and foremost, take care of yourself and the people you are responsible for. Burnout is real. If you’re like me, you might have been “should-ing on yourself” a lot over the past year. Recognize that time equity and one’s capacity to take on new things right now vary greatly. Prioritize self-care as a first step toward doing what is best for your community. I now start Zoom meetings by asking “What do we need to know to help you be most present?” This small acknowledgment of our shared struggle gives people permission to share where they are at and offers grace if they are distracted. After all, community change starts at relationship building.
- We know we do not want to go back to “normal” if we are to solve racial inequality. And while generally we are programmed to default to status quo (aka inaction), we can all deepen our own understanding of the issues as one action step. This might include starting or getting involved in local groups that advance racial equity; asking and working with local government agencies and schools around what policies and practices they are changing to address inequities; or donating money, time, or other resources to local racial equity or anti-racism groups. Taking the time and space needed for discussions, deepening our own awareness, and considering how to implement what we learn is a prerequisite for taking the correct course of action. And these actions can’t wait.
- Volunteer your time in an area that matches your interests or expertise. This can range from being a part of a government advisory board to being a Big Brother/Sister to joining a master gardener program. Even walking through your community with friends or joining a regular game of pick-up soccer may help you identify ways to be more engaged and involved in civic life.
- Advocate for a health (and equity) in all policies framework in your community. This is an approach that “is a change in the systems that determine how decisions are made and implemented by…government to ensure that policy decisions have neutral or beneficial impacts on the determinants of health.” (NACCHO) Or consider a social in all policies framework, as mentioned in the Socially Connected Communities “By consistently weaving social well-being into policy priority areas, local leaders can strengthen the social fabric of their communities.”
We cannot expect any of these actions to change systems overnight. But imagine what could happen if each of us did a small part in changing our own community systems to be more just, accessible, and connected? All of us, individually and collectively, can benefit from a more socially connected community. These are a few steps that can get us closer to achieving that outcome. I hope you give some thought to some fresh starts that are right for you, and I’ll do the same while I stare at some soggy Raisin Bran.