Community Organizing with Zoom: Challenges, Opportunities, and Background Noise

Women sitting on a couch using her laptop, next to a child laying upside down on the couch.
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

Hey Kyle, good to see you! How are things?

Oh, Kyle, you’re on mute.

Sorry Rebecca, you’re breaking up.

Hey Jeff, I’m getting some feedback from your line. Can you go on mute?

I’m sorry my kids are being loud.

Hey guys can you hear me? My sound is being choppy. I’m going to turn my camera off.

That’s fine, Anthony. I’m going to leave my camera off, too, because I’m eating.

Okay, let’s get started and do introductions. Who wants to go first? (Silence).

…Okay, maybe we should skip introductions because we all know each other.

Now it’s time to review last month’s meeting minutes. Just give me a second while I pull them up. Okay, I’m sharing my screen. Can you see it?

If you guys have any comments about the minutes, just drop it in the chat.

Oh hey, I know we already started, but Is this meeting being recorded?

Look who came to visit! It’s my cat. Say hi, Jinx.

Community organizing with Zoom requires many things: Digital literacy, a good internet connection, patience, etiquette, confidence, and organization. Zoom-based community meetings are different from the meetings we attend at work. At work, leadership may set the agenda, or control the speaking order. Some managers require everyone to have their video on. Many companies provide elite laptops and high quality videoconferencing equipment.

The Zoom environment is much more organic when meeting in community settings. Members bring their individual technologies, skills, organizational habits, and motives. Zoom-based community organizing presents many new challenges. The human element is lost when meeting virtually. The technology removes the connection you feel when everyone sits in the same room. For example, you can’t see everyone’s body language. There’s a slight delay between audio and video. As the cliché goes, a camera only captures a 45 degree angle in a 360 degree world.

Isolation was already at an all-time high before COVID-19. Civic engagement has been declining for years. According to Jean Twenge’s book iGen, today’s young adults are less involved in politics and community engagement than Millennials, Gen X-ers, and Boomers. If folks weren’t already involved in their communities, it’s likely the pandemic added further distance. Historically, crises present opportunities. Zoom-based community organizing offers new methods for community engagement that wouldn’t have been possible before the pandemic. The most notable is scale. A zoom meeting can host more people in more locations. Another opportunity is convenience. It’s easier and quicker to join a Zoom meeting from home compared to an in-person meeting. I could have continued to speculate on the challenges and opportunities, but I wanted to share another first-hand perspective. So, I reached out to the leader of my neighborhood’s organization for her perspective.

I met with Jessica Focht-Perlberg, the Executive Director of the Southeast Como Improvement Association. I asked for her perspective on the challenges and opportunities of Zoom-based community organizing. She noted a few challenges. It is difficult to create new relationships with community members in the virtual environment. Relationship and coalition building are more difficult now, especially with people who are historically underrepresented in community organizations. In addition, the cultural aspects of gathering are harder to reproduce in virtual settings, such as sharing food and navigating conversation. Jessica also offered a few opportunities. Indeed, virtual meetings reduce barriers for some. Community members are more able to meet when they don’t have to worry about transportation, child care, or other time commitments. Jessica remarked, “It’s improved for some, but much is lost in terms of communal connections. And maybe we don’t realize what’s been enhanced until we go back to in person.”

Human connection is important for all ages. A recent study on isolation tested the social-emotional impact of a telephone program between medical students and older adults. Both age groups reported emotional benefits from the increased connection. I asked Jessica for her thoughts on how we can engage folks who are isolated during the pandemic. She provided several examples from her current initiatives. Southeast Seniors offers anti-loneliness programming that incorporates intergenerational initiatives. Before the pandemic, Southeast Seniors would match older and younger adults in a social visiting program. The program was forced to virtual, and it found ways to adapt by offering a pen-pal program, telephone calls, and Zoom meetings. Jessica also remarked on the increase in foot traffic in the neighborhood. “More people are out in the streets, walking around, and people are looking to connect. So, being outside and maintaining social distance is working well.” Low tech physical outreach is possible outdoors, and this can include yard signs, community gardens, and outside art projects. Jessica considers future opportunities, such as a historical walking tour of the neighborhood, as a way to create a collective connection.

The impact of physical place on community behavior is critical. Community organizing is place-based. We will continue to meet in virtual settings for a while, but we are all still connected by a shared physical geography. Although challenging, the work we do on Zoom will continue to impact our community. New opportunities will emerge and likely continue when we return to in-person meetings. Community organizers should offer hybrid meetings when it’s safe to gather in person. Members at the table should be more mindful about interrupting each other, after becoming accustomed to Zoom etiquette. The best way to predict the future is to make it yourself. We all must make a commitment to innovate community organizing for it to succeed in the post-pandemic world.

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