Act: Inspiration

In Tough times, Our Community Becomes Our Safety Net

March 20, 2020

Right now in America, anxiety is the new normal. And when you look at all that has changed over the past couple of weeks, it’s not hard to see why. The stock market is plunging, and once-thriving businesses are suffering. Hospitals are flooded with sick people. Airports are ghost towns. Events are canceled. “Panic buying” has caused certain store shelves (we all know which ones) to be perpetually empty.

Even more unnerving than what is happening is what might happen. It’s hard not to worry: Will I get the virus? Will someone I love get it? How low will the stock market drop? Will there be a recession? Will we have to lay people off? Will I lose my job? 

If all the bad news and uncertainty is wearing you out, here is a positive thought to focus on: Maybe those of us who so passionately believe in the power of community are about to be proven right. On a national level, it may look like we are falling apart, but we need to remember that our strength has always manifested on the local level. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it once more: Locally is where America is at its best.

My revitalization work has given me the great gift of getting to know leaders and citizens who make up communities of all shapes and sizes. And I’ve come to see that Americans are made of incredibly strong stuff.  We’re innovative and resourceful. We’re connected, caring, and compassionate. Even in the face of challenge, we’re optimists at heart. And that’s why I feel this is our time to shine.

Communities can be the saving grace in a nation wracked by the coronavirus and (more severely) the fear of the coronavirus. I believe this with everything in me. And in the same way people are catching the “panic” bug, can’t we also catch the “help each other” bug? I believe we can—and I believe it will happen on a community level.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

1. Remember that localism matters.

Locally is where leaders in all sectors can make the most difference. It’s where we need to concentrate our best thinking and our best efforts. People are getting the rugs pulled out from under them in every arena: business, work, financial, family, and personal life. We have to help create the safety nets inside our community. Think of this like an old-fashioned barn raising. We need to come together to provide help where and when it is needed. It’s up to us to create safety nets inside our communities.

Cristin Lind’s “care map.”

Cristin Lind’s “care map.”

2. Pull together a guiding coalition to map out a local plan.

Include the organizations that touch people’s lives including chamber, government officials, healthcare, small businesses, larger corporations, education, nonprofits, religious organizations, etc. These groups can help identify who is the most vulnerable and can help direct and funnel resources to the people who need it most. Meet regularly (virtually is probably best) and stay connected. Coordination will be key: Make sure the plan is clear to everyone, that services are managed wisely, and that no one falls through the cracks.

3. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

After you map out the plan, you’ll need to create a communication loop that makes sense for your community. Share where things are now and what’s coming next, not just once, but daily. Be calm, intentional, transparent, and brief. You can say only so much at a time, and people can hear and process only so much. But at times like these, people really need to hear from leaders. When they don’t hear anything, they assume and expect the worst.

Groups involved in the guiding coalition can get vital information to their members and help share it with the larger community. Elect a point person with good communication skills to ensure everyone is getting a unified message. Be available for questions.

In Janesville, Wisconsin, Forward Janesville is helping the business community by providing conference calls and Q&A sessions with local leaders who share information on various aspects of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. These local people have spent a great deal of time talking to county, state, and federal experts so they can share what they’ve learned with others in the business community. It’s the pyramid effect.

4. Look after vulnerable populations.

Organizations involved in creating the plan can help identify these groups and figure out ways to help. Think elderly, sick and housebound people, those who live in underprivileged areas, small children without access to food.

5. Consider taking it one community at a time to make sure no one falls through the cracks.

One neighborhood is now updating their “block-by-block” system and seeking volunteers to keep tabs on elderly people who may need help with vital tasks like having prescriptions picked up or groceries delivered. This is a great best practice that every community can adopt.

6. Support the small/local biz community. 

Right now, small businesses are really hurting. They are facing cash flow shortfalls, layoffs, and other serious issues. One of the first things you might do is create a clearinghouse of available resources and connect small businesspeople with the resources they need, such as SBA loans. The chamber can play a pivotal role here. Chamber leaders can urge members to come talk to them before it’s too late.

Also, small business owners can come up with creative ways to help each other. If you’re a property owner, could you accept late rent payments? Is there a way to join forces with another small business to create a mutually beneficial partnership? Restaurants, bars, and coffee shops are really struggling. You might help by promoting them as a great source for takeout lunches (as dining rooms close) or urge citizens to purchase gift cards for later use.

7. Expend all your social capital.

Think, Who do I know who needs help…and who else do I know who might be able to assist them? Put them in touch with each other. This can be an incredibly valuable service.

8. How can businesses and organizations help those impacted by the coronavirus?

Some pharmacies are waiving home delivery fees for prescriptions for the elderly and others at high risk. Some cable companies are offering free access to Wi-Fi for 60 days to certain students who need to move to online learning, and one moving truck company is offering to store students’ belongings for free (as they rush to vacate dorms). Some restaurants are delivering meals to high-risk people. Many school systems are providing meals to students at designated drop-off points, and some are putting people to work delivering food to students’ homes. Think creatively. Helping others builds goodwill and makes everyone feel better.

9. Support your local healthcare workers.

These people are incredibly stressed. They put themselves at risk every day. And yet they find the courage and compassion to get up every morning and go in to work to care for others. They do this every day, all year long, but in times of crisis we’re especially grateful. These men and women are heroes. Find ways to celebrate them and to make their lives easier. Correct misinformation when you hear it.

10. Model “helping” behaviors at every turn.

Lead by example. Every time you go shopping for an elderly person, provide financial grace to someone who owes you, share supplies with someone who doesn’t have them, calm someone’s fears, etc. you are showing others how to live in truly unprecedented times.

11. Harvest ideas from other communities. 

Many of the people on your guiding coalition will belong to organizations that have local, state, and national organizations (i.e., the chamber). They are all sharing information and cascading it through their organizations. You can often find out what other communities are doing through these channels. Can you tailor what they’re doing to work in your community? Relate; don’t compare.

12. Collect inspiring stories of neighbors helping neighbors. 

Open meetings with these stories. Share them on social media. Positive stories are incredibly powerful. These are the “bright spots” that make us feel better and put us in a better frame of mind so we can get real work done. Plus, they inspire others to jump in and help.

13. Find ways to create vibrancy where you can.

In his book The Social Animal, David Brooks writes about “the urge to merge.” Social isolation will take its toll. We need to engage with others and to feel that we belong to the human family. People and communities are putting their Christmas lights back up in a show of hope in these dark times (and you can enjoy them from your car)! In Italy people are singing from open windows, and in Spain, fitness instructors are leading group workouts from their balconies. Get creative about ways you can bring people together virtually even when they can’t be together physically.

14. Keep health concerns in mind always.

You might think it goes without saying to wash your hands, practice social distancing, and follow all the CDC guidelines, but I feel it can never be repeated too many times. Be vigilant. Follow the rules. Nothing is more important than keeping people safe. This is part of leading by example.

15. Activate the “can-do” attitude in your community. 

Celebrate small wins. Make a big deal out of them. People really need something positive to think and talk about right now. With enough small wins, you’ll start to create momentum. Also, focus on resilience. Assure people that as bad as things are right now, they are strong enough to get through this crisis.

Above all, remember that the hard times won’t last forever. When we get intentional about doing what we can to strengthen and build up our communities now, we’re doing more than surviving. We’re setting the stage for renewed growth and revitalization once this pandemic dies down (and it will). One day in the not-too-distant future, we will find we made it through the tough times and came out on the other side stronger, better, and closer than ever.

Quint Studer

Quint Studer is author of Building a Vibrant Community: How Citizen-Powered Change Is Reshaping America and Wall Street Journal bestseller The Busy Leader’s Handbook: How to Lead People and Places That ThriveHe is founder of Pensacola’s Studer Community Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on improving the community’s quality of life, and Vibrant Community Partners, which coaches communities in building out a blueprint for achieving growth and excellence. Quint speaks and works with communities across the country, helping them execute on their strategic plans, create a better quality of life, and attract and retain talent and investment. He is a businessman, a visionary, an entrepreneur, and a mentor to many. He currently serves as Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the University of West Florida, Executive-in-Residence at George Washington University, and Lecturer at Cornell University.

Tags: building resilient communities, coronavirus, new economy