How Do We Build Community When We Can’t Be Near Each Other? (with No One Left Unhelped and Baltimore Community Mediation Center)

This is the fifth part of a series. Go to Part 1, Part 2Part 3 or Part 4.

It’s been six weeks since I first launched this series. At that time I think some people thought we might be back to normal by now, or close to it. Now it seems the future is more uncertain than ever.

That leaves many of us with no choice but to focus on the present, doing whatever we can to make the best of today. But to the extent that we dare to look toward the future, we may find ourselves imagining something radically different than what we knew before. The idea of “back to normal” is quickly vanishing from many of our minds.

BCMC mural

There will be a toll, for sure. The world is closing in on 200,000 deaths from coronavirus, a figure that’s already difficult to process and is still rising. Economically, the U.S. unemployment rate is over 20 percent. Closer to home, Maryland’s largest employer is beginning pay cuts and layoffs as it expects to lose $375 million this fiscal year. No matter how or when the COVID-19 pandemic ends, it’s not going to be easy to recover from the blows we are taking as a society.

At the same time, moments like this do give us a chance to reassess our priorities. Issues in the community that have had difficulty gaining traction – like homelessness, mobility, digital access, mass incarceration and others – suddenly seem to be getting much more attention. Maybe it shouldn’t have taken a global pandemic, but I do find myself feeling hopeful that we as a society will come out of this experience with a healthier set of priorities than we had before, and a newfound will to put those priorities into action.

Meanwhile, there are still dedicated people in the present working to make Baltimore the best it can be. I talked to Lisa Molock of No One Left Unhelped and the team at Baltimore Community Mediation Center, asking them how we build community when we can’t be near each other. Here’s what they said…

No One Left Unhelped

Based in Sandtown-Winchester, No One Left Unhelped was founded in 2016 to provide support for low-income families, particularly those that have been impacted by gun violence. Programming has typically included youth support groups, family services and youth-led community cleanup efforts.

With a freeze on many of the organization’s funding sources, founder Lisa Molock has had to quickly adapt to find ways to serve residents. She moved meetings with the program’s young people online, which was a challenge because not everyone had devices to access the internet. That led Lisa to petition the city council to address the digital divide. And on April 13 the council passed legislation introduced by Zeke Cohen that will make sure Baltimore City Schools students have access to computers and the internet. Importantly, Councilmember Cohen has said this is not a temporary measure. The policy will continue even after students return to the classroom.

Another immediate challenge Lisa has faced is emphasizing the importance of social distancing to Baltimore’s young people. Her “Stop the Spread” campaign at No One Left Unhelped has included Instagram Live events featuring influential voices like Felicia “Snoop” Pearson from The Wire to get the message out about safety during the pandemic. And the organization’s youth ambassadors even put a video together themselves to communicate with their peers.

As we all learn to cope with distancing, Lisa emphasizes that it’s “physical” distancing, not really “social” distancing, that’s important. “We want you to still communicate with people,” she said, but to do so in ways that follow public safety guidelines.

She said this moment can be an opportunity to come out of this better than before, at least in terms of the digital divide. Now is the time to get everybody trained and up to speed on digital communication tools. “We need to make sure we’re having that conversation with people who are not tech savvy,” she said, as well as those who lack the means to obtain digital devices and the internet.

For now, Lisa and her organization keep pushing to make an impact in the community, whatever challenges may come.

Baltimore Community Mediation Center

Baltimore Community Mediation Center, based in Waverly, offers dispute resolution services for anyone who lives and works in Baltimore City. In addition to mediation for the general community, BCMC also provides mediation in situations of misdemeanor crime, prisoner re-entry and conflict in schools.

(Disclosure: I have recently signed up to volunteer with BCMC.)

Like No One Left Unhelped, BCMC has been finding ways to shift its services online, including volunteer training sessions or yoga and mindfulness sessions on Zoom. It is also one of the organizations behind the Baltimore Neighbors Network mutual aid effort to help us all get through this difficult time.

Here is the statement from the BCMC team, followed by a personal statement from Volunteer Coordinator Samantha Baker-Carr.

Building community and supporting Baltimoreans through mediation are at the heart of BCMC’s (Baltimore Community Mediation Center’s) work. Having the word “community” in the name expresses just how fundamental this is in guiding and grounding our work. At BCMC, we offer services and programming to facilitate dialogue and help everyone’s voice be heard.

Since 1995, we have been offering free mediation services and teaching conflict resolution skills all across Baltimore. We provide non-judgmental processes to help individuals and groups be heard and understood, make decisions, and change their lives and communities peacefully. Our vision is a peaceful Baltimore, where all community members have the skills to manage and transform conflict and have access to and use community-based conflict resolution programs.

Even during this time of having to physically distance ourselves from each other, community engagement does not have to stop. It is crucial, especially during this stressful and uncertain time, that we as a community work together to support one each other and those who are most vulnerable.

At BCMC, we are in the process of developing and implementing new and virtual ways for community members to have difficult conversations. Through virtual peacemaking, we can serve the community while maintaining safe social distancing.

We are currently offering a host of virtual programming provided by Community Mediation Maryland (CMM) to support our mediators in keeping their skills strong. We are delivering community-building events and virtual inclusive listening trainings in partnership with community members and CMM. All our virtual community programming is free and open to everyone, not just mediators or volunteers. Information about our upcoming events, including Zoom access instructions, is available at https://www.communitymediation.org/events.

BCMC is also one of the lead organizations developing the Baltimore Neighbors Network (BNN), http://www.baltimoreneighborsnetwork.org/, an innovative program that seeks to build connections between neighbors in Baltimore and help them access needed resources while they are physically and socially isolated by the coronavirus pandemic. This effort is being spearheaded by community members, Baltimore City Council members Zeke Cohen (District 1) and Kristerfer Burnett (District 8), and other partners.

The Baltimore Neighbors Network deploys a virtual community of volunteers and clinicians to help build hope and social solidarity by making phone calls to check in on isolated or older members of their own communities. BNN will also provide free clinical assistance for those who need it most, as identified and elevated through a network of volunteer neighbors and organizations.

And here is Samantha’s statement:

On a personal note, I have learned the value and import of technology at such a difficult time. Even though we cannot be physically near each other, we can all stay connected and be there for one another through a variety of technological platforms. While no video call will ever be able to replace seeing someone in-person, the ability to see someone’s face in real time comes close to actually being in the presence of someone. I think as community members, we can all be reaching out to one another in some way shape or form. Other forms of communication such as mail, email, texts, and phone calls are all ways that we can be checking-in on one another at this tough time. It need not be long nor fancy in order for it to be meaningful.

I have also learned to appreciate the little things. Whether it’s going for a walk or run around the block, or practicing virtual yoga or mindfulness, I have learned to be present for and savor each moment. I have also re-learned the power of both humor and music to transform our emotional states.

I hope that whenever this ends, people continue to reach out to and support one another in the ways they have throughout this pandemic. Even after the crisis is over, we still need to be there for one another. We are stronger together.

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