Belonging and Civic Muscle During COVID-19

Photo by Sara Ivey

It’s probably not a surprise that social distancing and bouts of self-isolation are contributing to increasing anxiety and depression among many in an already stressful time. It’s one of those things that can be framed as a sacrifice we all have to make in order to keep ourselves and others safe. While such sacrifices in the past typically involved a draft card, one Twitter user deftly stated that our contribution to the cause was to stay at home and watch Netflix.

Despite the seemingly heroic implications behind social distancing and self-isolation, humans are wired for connection and social inclusion, and crave a sense of belonging and civic muscle, one of the Seven Vital Conditions for Well-BeingAlong with having a sense of pride in community and strong social networks, belonging and civic muscle refers to civic participation from diverse community members in problem solving activities, and taking collective responsibility for each other — things necessary to build strong communities and promote positive change. We need connection not only to survive, but to thrive — it contributes to our practical and emotional needs, enhances our mental well-being, helps us navigate the challenges of life and reinforces healthy behaviors — all of which are increasingly more difficult to promote in the age of social distancing.

The first few weeks and months of social distancing and community disconnect could be summed up with a series of Zoom meetings and jokes about “quarantinis,” but as the pandemic evolved, the narrative shifted to the exhaustion behind online meetings, a 55 percent, one-week increase in alcohol sales, and concerns about voter turnout. Not everything is Netflix, long walks, and sourdough starters, and communities across the country have taken notice and are actively working to rebuild connection and strengthen civic muscle.

Focus on Connection

Efforts to strengthen belonging and civic muscle in an era that demands periods of isolation and distance can feel daunting — however, creating a sense of belonging and power to influence the policies, practices, and programs is still possible. According to the American Friends Service Committee, “it is evident that structures in our society leading to inequality and systemic oppression create chaos and harm everyone […] but creating new structures of collective care can help us through this period.” 

Communities across the nation are creating scalable mutual aid networks to support the shared well-being of their communities. Weave and Cortico are working to spark virtual dialogue in meaningful ways. From letter writing campaigns to uplift the United States Postal Service and deliver joy to isolated seniors, to financial assistance and food distribution networks, individuals and communities have remained committed to creating a sense of belonging and connection through a sense of shared purpose.

Focus on Resilience 

In periods of prolonged crisis, COVID-19 or otherwise, at some point the human spirit shifts from survival mode to one of resilience, where the focus is on adapting to the current environment and defining a sense of what recovery and the future might look like. As author and change theorist, Margaret Wheatley once said, “There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.” Navigating isolation and disconnection in the era of COVID looks a lot like communities shifting from survival to resilience. Indigenous leaders across the country suggest that the ethos of collective living can be “instructive during the pandemic,” as well as provide guidance on how to be a resilient community. Communities are encouraged to find new and innovative ways to stay connected, protect the most vulnerable amongst them, find and share joy regularly, and to think long-term, as a key to resilience is persistence. 

Yes, we must acknowledge a future that will quite possibly be rife with periods of isolation and disconnection. But, there are reasons to be hopeful. As change-makers, we are in a unique position to lift up the stories of our communities as we navigate uncertain terrain. We have the ability to propose solutions – bandaid or systemic – that will allow our communities to connect, mobilize, and influence the policies, practices, and programs that shape the world.

Written by:

Andrea Waner, MPA. Andrea is a social equity and human rights policy educator located in Columbia, Missouri.  She is a contributing writer for Community Commons.

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