Building Camaraderie in a Virtual Workspace

How one community development corporation's youth program flourished during the pandemic.

youth employment program: image shows zine produced by youth at Dorchester Bay EDC
A digital zine that discusses the impact of climate change and environmental racism in the Boston area is one of the projects young participants in Dorchester Bay Youth Force’s summer program worked on during the pandemic.

Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation, a community development corporation in Boston, has served highly diverse, low- to moderate-income residents in our service area since 1979. With more than 900 affordable apartment units in our portfolio, a small business program and loan fund, and an array of services to support seniors and citizens returning from incarceration, we play an important role in the community.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, we, like almost every other service agency, had to pivot in order to continue serving our community members, many of whom are particularly vulnerable to the virus. Dorchester Bay’s service area is distinguished by particularly high rates of COVID-19 infection, attributable in part to sizeable elderly populations, households in close proximity to each other, a high proportion of front-line workers dependent upon public transit, and irregular access to information owing to lack of internet and language issues. In many cases, we were able to utilize Zoom and other collaborative tools to make progress with relatively minimal impact on our operations. Construction progress meetings, stakeholder engagement, staff meetings and so forth went forward effectively.

But one area of both great importance to Dorchester Bay and our community is our Youth Force, a highly interactive, peer-driven youth employment program that brings together young people ages 15 to 19 to build leadership, advocacy, and community organizing skills. The program is very collaborative and depends upon personal interactions and relationship building at developmentally sensitive times in young people’s lives.

As the pandemic continued and schools remained closed, our challenge has been determining how to maintain contact with our young people, how to bring new youth into the program, how to engage them, and how to promote the kind of deep, trusting collaboration that has made the program so successful.

This presented curricular, logistical, personal, and technical challenges.

Youth Force members discover early on that when it comes to changing the world, as member Ky’Heim Coleman explains, “It’s better to band together. You can accomplish a lot more when you work together, rather than trying to tackle an issue by yourself.” So this past spring, Youth Force prepared for a summer session unlike any previous one—we adapted to virtual programming and community organizing, while making sure to retain all the core components of Youth Force.

Our outreach strategies transitioned pretty easily. For example, we have relationships with school career counselors, and they generally use email to “blast” opportunities to their students. We’ve been doing phone interviews for a while. The biggest change was not putting up physical flyers, but we’ve been skeptical for a while about whether flyers on walls generate much interest. We were able to hand out flyers in food distribution bags instead, and we increased our social media outreach. We had similar levels of response to previous years.

As in past summers, we hired and paid a full cohort of youth community organizers. Joining us were four returning members and six new members, who worked 25 hours a week for up to 8 weeks at $15 an hour.

However, unlike in past summers, Youth Force members worked entirely from home. The first challenge we had to tackle was access to technology and supplies to ensure that all youth could participate fully in the program. Before the session started, we sent out a technology needs assessment survey asking about access to computers, webcams, phones, and internet. As a result, we purchased and distributed three Chromebooks and two webcams.

We also provided each youth with a packet of supplies that they would normally have had access to in the office. This included pens and paper, craft supplies for skill-building activities, a copy of the book When We Fight, We Win, and a binder with readings, worksheets, quotes, and poems so that we could all take a break from looking at our screens.

Youth Force members met every day via Zoom. Just as we would have in “normal” times, we started with a team check-in, including a go-around and icebreaker activity. We adapted some old favorites to work virtually, often by utilizing Zoom breakout rooms to put people in pairs and small groups. We also used new tools like skribbl.io, which let us warm-up by playing online Pictionary with words related to social movement tactics.

After check-in, youth participated in a morning session—usually a team workshop or discussion—and an afternoon session, usually dedicated to group work time on the group’s action projects. On Thursdays, the youth joined virtually with the Massachusetts Voter Table to phone-bank for the Census and elections.

In addition to group sessions, youth were also assigned independent work. Their work schedule included recommended times for working on these assignments, but they had flexibility as long as the assignments were completed on time. This flexibility helped youth balance work with the new challenges presented by COVID and working from home, such as needing to care for siblings whose summer programs were canceled or to help family members who couldn’t safely leave their homes for groceries.

As always, our summer programming focused on building community, building knowledge and skills, and building hope. Our workshops remained interactive, hands-on, and skills-based, and we kept opportunities for youth decision making around content and projects. Some of the tools and strategies we used to interact, build relationships, and stay in touch include:

  • Zoom Breakout Rooms–We used breakout rooms multiple times a day, and they played a critical role in helping youth build community and friendships despite working remotely. Youth really liked using breakout rooms, especially for getting to know each other and practicing active listening one-on-one, and for having small-group discussions.
  • Zoom Screen Sharing–This let us watch videos together and let participants share their screens to present projects and lead discussions.
  • Zoom Whiteboard–This was our favorite tool for group brainstorms and mini-lectures. The virtual whiteboard acted just like our real-life whiteboard. We could all see and add to the board and content could be saved for future reference. For example, when we discussed how to identify the root causes of social issues, we were able to draw root-causes trees and write ideas right onto the whiteboard.
  • Google Docs and Slides–We used both to take group discussion notes that we could all see and add to simultaneously, and that were easily shareable after the session.
  • Google Classroom–Each morning we posted the Zoom link, any videos and readings we were using for discussion, instructions for assignments, and any news articles or current event updates. Each afternoon, we posted any discussion or activity notes from the day and recapped any new concepts or skills we learned.
  • Genially–A media creation platform we used to help design videos, a Zoom etiquette infographic, and an Interactive Social Change Wheel, that replaced the paper version we use in person.
  • Screencast-O-Matic–A video creation tool for recording videos and audio. We used it to create several orientation videos that youth watched independently during the first week of programming, allowing us to spend more of our group Zoom time on relationship- and team-building. One of our teens is also using Screencast-O-Matic to record the audio for her upcoming video on police violence.
  • Spotify–Each morning we listened to a different protest song or song related to social change from our Youth Force Spotify playlist. (Listen at: Youth Force: Songs for Liberation)

Zoom was essential for building a successful remote program, but it also posed potential challenges. We took both proactive and ongoing steps to ensure the security of our Zoom sessions, including discussing Zoom safety and expectations during orientation, requiring a password to join the session, and waiting to email the Zoom link for each day until shortly before the session started, to reduce the likelihood of the link reaching anyone outside of Youth Force. When we used breakout rooms, adult facilitators would move in and out of the different rooms to both provide support and ensure the continued safety of participants.

We also took efforts to reduce Zoom fatigue. We limited Zoom to about three hours per day and kept each individual workshop around an hour and a half. We assigned independent work that helped youth prepare for group sessions, such as watching original videos introducing them to core principles of community organizing. This advance preparation allowed us to use group Zoom time for interaction, discussion, and team building. Independent work also often gave youth an opportunity to step away from their screens. They had hard copies of all readings and worksheets in their binders, and they always had the option to use paper and pen for reflections and solo brainstorms. Most importantly, we checked in regularly with our youth to see how they were feeling about Zoom, and we made changes when needed to prevent burnout.

We developed our Zoom camera policy based on best practices guidance for educators and youth workers. Cameras were usually optional but encouraged. At the start of the session, we showed youth how to set Zoom backgrounds and to hide their self-view. Throughout the session, we communicated when cameras were most useful so that youth could choose to put their cameras on for a bit, knowing that at other times during the day they could turn them off.

Since there were fewer community events for youth to attend this summer, we worked hard to bring in more guest facilitators and community members. Thirteen guest facilitators led nine different workshops on topics including storytelling for activists, introduction to disability and inclusion, and climate justice. These workshops gave youth the opportunity to meet and connect with more adults and helped to keep things fresh and engaging.

As ways to get the youth off Zoom meetings, we added two new projects this summer that we will definitely continue even after the pandemic. For the first, youth interviewed local community organizers to better understand what community organizing is and what organizers do each day.

From the asset-mapping project: “This marketplace is a community asset. It has really fresh food, including fruit you can come and eat right in the store, and the prices are good. The man who owns the marketplace knows the photographer and her mom and greets them with nicknames. He also gave neighborhood kids fireworks on July 4.” Photo by Kizziyah Caliste

For the second project, the youth conducted a photo asset-mapping project. While we have done community asset mapping before, but not as a photo project. The photo project was a new opportunity for youth who felt safe doing so to leave their computers and walk around their neighborhood, taking photos of the resources they saw. We talk a lot at the start of the program about how we define and understand “community.” So in mapping neighborhoods, we don’t focus on arbitrary boundaries, but instead more on community cohesion, relational bonds, and feelings of connectedness.

Youth then presented their photos and the stories behind them to their peers. As member Mykayla DeSouza explained, “Most of the time we really focus on the negative, but now I can see the positivity in my community.”

In addition to switching to digital programming, our Youth Community Organizers also adapted to and learned new digital organizing strategies. At the start of the summer, many of the youth were unsure what their community organizing and action projects would look like when they couldn’t host in-person events, attend rallies and lobby days, or even see friends face-to-face to inspire them to participate in a Youth Force action or event. Free, on-demand trainings from Social Movement Technologies offered new ideas for how to organize digitally. Youth learned about successful social media and hashtag campaigns, how to hold a virtual rally, and the value of the phone banking they did for the Census and Get Out the Vote. Social Movement Technologies’ trainings also helped adult staff build skills in using social media to promote youth projects. Youth Force didn’t try out every strategy this summer, but we have grown our toolbox of tactics. Digital organizing strategies will continue alongside in-person strategies even after the pandemic.

All of these strategies help a lot, and they were the difference between having no program, just having a program, and actually being able to have a good, effective program that was a meaningful learning experience. But it’s certainly not the same, in the same way that all interpersonal interaction isn’t the same right now. No matter how helpful Zoom is, you lose a lot of body language and facial expressions. And there are some activities that we really love that just don’t translate to Zoom, such as StarPower, a fantastic simulation game that explores social stratification and inequity and relies on having a lot of people moving around a room able to trade cards with one another.

The summer team ultimately completed three projects, including a digital zine discussing the impact of climate change and environmental racism in the Boston area; a video on police violence; and a slide deck with information and discussion questions on topics related to racism, police violence, colorism, and misogynoir, which were used to facilitate over two hours of peer-led discussion.

Creativity and technology, along with an outstanding cohort of young people, allowed us to continue the program and provide needed stability and a sustainable methodology in a time of uncertainty. While all of us at Dorchester Bay long to return to a more normal way of life and of doing our work, we are inspired and encouraged by the ways in which by adapting and working together we have been able to continue to make great impact.

And that, after all, is what our Youth Force—and Dorchester Bay—is all about.

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