How Do We Build Community When We Can’t Be Near Each Other? (with No Boundaries Coalition and Impact Hub Baltimore)

I realize that renaming this project “Interaction Baltimore” three weeks ago, just as interaction was about to become one of the most feared activities on the planet, might not have been the most timely decision. But as much of the city, and much of the world, is coming to a standstill in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, I do feel this project gives me an opportunity to shine a light on the work in our local communities that is still important in the face of a challenge like this.

My original plan for this week was to write about Strong City Baltimore‘s move to East Baltimore, and what that could mean for an underserved community. Then next week I was going to spotlight Baltimore Safe Haven‘s efforts to minimize the harm that routinely comes to some of the most marginalized people in our city. I’m shelving those stories for the moment. I’ll publish them when all of our minds aren’t focused on this global threat.

But as much as coronavirus is rightly demanding our attention, it also seems wrong to forget about the people working to make our city safer, stronger, healthier and more integrated. That work is still going on, even if it’s harder now, and I want people to know about it.

Always B-Mo small

I want to see how the coronavirus threat, and the social distancing that has become necessary because of it, is affecting local communities in Baltimore. I want to know how people are dealing with it, what lessons they’re learning and what they anticipate in the weeks and months ahead. So I’m reaching out to people all over the city and asking them, How do we build community when we can’t be near each other?

This is the beginning of a series. I don’t know how long it will last. At this time, there hasn’t been a reported case of coronavirus in Baltimore City (though there have been two in the county). The conversations I’ve had so far have reflected the fact that we are in the preventative stage right now, and not dealing with a local outbreak. I don’t know where they will go from here.

Yesterday I talked to Nabeehah Azeez and Ashiah Parker at No Boundaries Coalition and Michelle Geiss at Impact Hub Baltimore. Here’s what they said…

No Boundaries Coalition

No Boundaries Coalition, which was featured on this site last October, works in the 21217 zip code in Central West Baltimore. It began as a block party uniting neighbors on either side of Eutaw Place, which was a historical dividing line between white residents to the east and black residents to the west. Today No Boundaries does advocacy work around public safety, health and food justice, youth organizing and civic engagement. Staff and volunteers have been making a concerted effort to boost voter turnout and census awareness in their neighborhoods this year.

Nabeehah Azeez is the Operations Manager at No Boundaries, and Ashiah Parker is the CEO.

Both of them emphasized the advantage of the technology available today. That allows them to still hold meetings but live-stream them so people can attend remotely. And because the situation is changing constantly, Ashiah said, technology enables them to get a message out instantaneously if they need to.

There is one issue with that, though. Nabeehah added that this is a “perfect example of why we need to be doing the work to make sure we’re including everybody in our community digitally.”

As I wrote a few weeks ago, as many as 66,000 households in Baltimore don’t have broadband subscriptions. So even as the internet reduces the negative effects of social distancing, there are many people who don’t get that benefit. That illustrates some of the work that will need to continue, and maybe ramp up, after we get through the coronavirus threat.

Other than than, Nabeehah said the team at No Boundaries was taking the necessary precautions as they continue their work. Staff members who don’t feel well have been given grace to stay home. (Paid sick leave is “definitely an issue that some of the advocates in Baltimore City are concerned about,” she said.) They’ve been calling to check up on people in the neighborhood, and are prepared to make door drop-offs if they need to. And as they look ahead to upcoming events, they’re considering options other than live-streaming, such as outdoor activities that allow people to keep some distance between each other.

As Ashiah said, though, the situation is changing constantly. So it’s impossible to know where we’ll be tomorrow.

Impact Hub Baltimore

Impact Hub Baltimore, located on North Avenue, is part of a network of over 100 locations around the world offering space for work, collaboration and community events. It also provides support for startup ventures with a social mission. (Disclosure: Impact Hub is one of the planned locations for the Interaction Baltimore Café.)

When I spoke with Michelle Geiss, the Executive Director at Impact Hub Baltimore, she was still working out her thoughts about the balance between prioritizing our short-term individual health and the long-term health of our community. Both are important, she said, “and they feel at odds with each other right now.”

She was especially concerned about local entrepreneurs, freelancers, community organizers, and others who may not have the safety of a guaranteed salary and paid time off. They were already in a vulnerable position, and the precautions we’re taking as a society can hit them harder than others. Michelle wondered if some small businesses can make it through a prolonged period of social distancing. “I think things could close that we just worked really hard to get open in the city,” she said. And she worried that we could even lose community assets that have been around for a while and that we rely on.

Figuring out how to preserve those community assets while still protecting our health has been on her and her team’s minds a lot lately. But if there is a silver lining, Michelle said she thinks the distance we’re keeping between each other now will remind us how important interaction is to the human experience.

“I think we’re going to be remembering how much people need to be together,” she said. “It’ll be a really energizing experience to get back together after being apart for a month or two.”

Because online experiences, Michelle said, can be fine for sharing information. But they fall short for building and maintaining relationships. In-person contact, she said, is irreplaceable when it comes to developing the caring and trust necessary for the “really meaningful work” being done in this city. So our separation in the coming weeks may spark a return to community interaction in bigger numbers than before.

“And that’s what I hope,” she said.

To share your own thoughts about how we build community while keeping social distance, email interactionbaltimore@gmail.com.

Go to Part 2 of this series.