Pedagogical Considerations, Practices and Strategies
What do community-engaged practitioners need to consider when facilitating participatory, community-engaged group processes online or remotely? How does one put their ethical commitments into practice? What are some helpful strategies when gathering online or remotely?
Our commitments as community-engaged practitioners motivate our facilitation practice. However, these values need to be put into practice. The following considerations, practices, and strategies, as shared by practitioners, may be helpful when thinking about how to adapt participatory, community-engaged projects or programs to online or remote settings. These considerations are shaped by: 1) COVID-19 and consequential health inequities, stress, and isolation, and 2) technology, which itself is contoured by larger power dynamics.
Adaptation might include meeting online or by phone. It could also mean distributing resources and inviting participation by mail or making decisions to reduce or increase the number of people working within a project. Sometimes it includes putting a project stage or element on hold.
Each consideration is a piece of the puzzle when thinking about how to adapt participatory, community-engaged processes to online or remote settings. Each puzzle piece interconnects with other pieces and requires careful reflection.
We invite you to read along and consider how the following puzzle pieces inform your online or remote facilitation practice.
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Space & Place
Where we gather, and how we gather is important. In our conversations with practitioners, we discussed physical, virtual, and relational space (e.g., ‘holding’ space or creating a ‘safer’ space). Many practitioners commented on how the shift to working online or remotely encouraged them to think about space, place, and collaboration differently.
People may now participate from anywhere. This has implications, for instance, when thinking through how to meaningfully offer land acknowledgements and follow treaty protocols, which are specific to place. When gathering in person, we can physically move into different rooms when working on a collaborative project and transform institutional spaces such as schools or organizations. Some felt this spatial quality was lost when working virtually. The division of public and private space is blurred and may pose unique ethical issues and labour challenges.
Technology is not neutral. Digital interfaces (e.g., Zoom) form new spaces, which influence how we communicate. When working online or by phone, practitioners shared that it was harder to ‘read the room’, which impacted their ability to create a safe(r) space, or to navigate personal disclosures. At the same time, the virtual environment can bring individuals and communities together across geographical distances, which might not otherwise be possible (or without significant cost).
Time is a multi-faceted consideration for facilitation. Programs or workshops can be designed synchronously (where everyone participates at the same time), or asynchronously (where people participate at different times). The impacts of COVID-19 also mean community-engaged practitioners often meet with communities at different hours.
Technology can create feelings of speed; for example, 100 participants can ‘breakout’ into rooms in seconds, or participants can message simultaneously on the chat, amassing many comments in seconds. On the other hand, it’s often not possible to do as much online as in person due to technical issues, added breaks, or technology lags. It also takes time to explain how the technology works. For accessibility or bandwidth reasons, zoom meetings may also need to be shorter than in-person meetings. More time and ‘heavy lifting’ is required on the back-end to prepare, re-prioritize, and continually adapt. The desire to slow down as part of one’s ethical practice is in sharp tension with labour considerations, especially when there is limited institutional or compensation supports for the extra demands required (e.g, new technological skills and extra preparation).
“Time is always elastic, as someone said, that like less is more but make sure you’re hitting all the things within your time.” - Y, Participatory Researcher
COVID-19 related stress, inequity, and isolation
Many communities are experiencing heightened isolation because of COVID-19, especially those who relied on community programs and workshops for socialization and support.
COVID-19 also exacerbates pre-existing social inequities. This ‘backdrop’ creates the conditions of what is possible when facilitating online and remotely. Community-engaged practitioners play an important role in creating supportive, caring and safer spaces for communities to process, and make sense of the impacts of COVID-19, and other local and global injustices.
Community and Group Dynamics
The settings in which we gather influence our communication and group dynamics. Technology (e.g., Whats app, phone, Zoom, Google Meets) shapes how we communicate and is also contoured by larger access, equity and power issues. We are still learning the implicit and explicit ‘rules’ of engagement. Protocols such as how to say hello, goodbye, when to step away from the screen or phone, are still emergent.
Groups with a shared history versus new groups may require different strategies for building trust and cohesion. While these same group dynamics exist in person, technology makes power dynamics more visible and opaque. For example, camera use may enhance feelings of group cohesion or support one’s ability to ‘read the room’. At the same time, many people may not want to or cannot turn their cameras on. Consequently, it can be harder to ‘hear’ or ‘read’ voices in the room.
Last, meeting virtually can increase the scale of an event or audience, which may make tailoring content or approach more challenging. A local workshop can suddenly have global reach. Collaborating across online or remote settings requires flexibility, openness, and humility from all.
“I just don’t feel as attuned to people as I did when we were in the same room. I’m learning to collectively and collaboratively read … each other in this new place, where perhaps there are some things that are amplified in the way we can communicate and then there’s some things that are more hidden.” – Jessica Bleuer, Community Facilitator
Equity and Power Dynamics
Practitioners spoke to the importance of taking an equity-informed approach that attends to intersectionality, positionality, and power dynamics in their facilitation practice. Impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbated by racial and class-based health inequities. Many communities are experiencing the impacts of multiple pandemics simultaneously (e.g., poverty, a rise in police violence against Black and Brown communities, the overdose epidemic).
Technology can simultaneously obscure and amplify these inequities. Isolation caused by the pandemic, poverty, language barriers and larger equity issues become a trifecta impacting participation. Technology access, bandwidth, and computer literacy propels the disconnection communities may experience. Some communities may be reticent to meet online due to fears of surveillance. While barriers exist, working online or by phone can increase equitable access for participation for some, including people with disabilities, those living in rural communities, or those with family responsibilities.
Connection and Care
Technology (i.e., Zoom, Whats-app, phone, Google) both limits and enhances the capacity for social intimacies, engagement, and collaboration. In-person gatherings involve unstructured time, including activities like eating or the interactions that occur while arriving or leaving a meeting. In lieu of this, practitioners and teams might consider building in ‘task-less’ time for relationship-building.
Embodied activities that require a shared movement or sound may invite feelings of connection, amidst isolation. However, creativity is required to identify activities or strategies that may foster connection and care without relying on video or computer access. Mailing objects or supplies, hosting verbal check-ins, or inviting selective and shared ‘timed’ unmuting or self-reflective activities done off-screen/phone accompanied by group sharing may create feelings of connection. New protocols and group agreements for safer online spaces are required.
“WhatsApp has become the space where we continue these conversations. Many of the women I work with are immigrant women, so WhatsApp has been their way of communicating to their families back home. But for us, it actually became this space where we just talk not just about the project, but anything … like people would talk about how they were feeling. Sometimes they would talk about what's going on in their day. So, it was a way for people to feel connected even only for a few minutes.” – Lori Chambers, participatory researcher
Accessibility is both an ethical commitment and key consideration for thinking about adapting participatory approaches to online or remote settings. Technology can both enhance and/or pose barriers for accessibility, depending on the community, location, and topic being discussed. Issues of accessibility must be considered alongside larger axes of class, ability, geography, race, gender and sexual identity, gender, language, Indigeneity, and citizenship. One setting may be more accessible to some, and less accessible to others.
Accessibility-related supports that were made available for in-person meetings (e.g., childcare, food) must be adapted. For example, budgets may be re-allocated towards honoraria for internet or phone minutes, food vouchers, or supply kits.
Virtual participation may require new supports, including closed-captioning (or live ASL), interpretation, image descriptions, and clear agendas sent out in advance that can help people make appropriate decisions about participation. Clear instructions, multiple participation options (including phone, low-tech and low-data options), the familiarity with platform, and flexible scheduling should be considered.
“One of the good things that I see coming out of so much going online is that for lots of folks, you know, and it has its challenges too, but for some folks with disabilities.... it’s become very accessible to be able to join things and participate in things, not having to travel, being able to blackout your screen to mute yourself.” - Z, Community Facilitator
Working online/remotely has changed the conditions of labour for many community-engaged practitioners who may be institutionally ill-equipped and/or under-supported.
Community-engaged practitioners are now required to multi-task much more: managing technology, facilitation, and outreach simultaneously. Feelings of constant availability, blurred boundaries between work and home, and mounting workloads may compound feelings of burn-out. Many community-engaged facilitators are also gig workers. In some cases, pay rates from organizations have been reduced, while the knowledge, skills and preparation required for a single workshop has increased. More facilitators may also be required for a single session.
For those working within post-secondary institutions, job precarity is a significant issue. Creating ‘engaging’ spaces takes time, labour, energy, skills, and favourable structural conditions that are not always recognized. Considering these labour issues is pivotal to ensuring that community-engaged practitioners are supported in their work.
“A lot of our team experienced burnout quite heavily ... You know, a shift in an environment that we didn’t really understand until it was right in front of us.” – Kellum Jaymes, Participatory Researcher
When we gather in-person, we share many things: conversation, food, art supplies, or other shared objects. These shared objects or tangible activities may create a sense of connection and decrease barriers to participation.
Practitioners must think creatively about how to get supplies into people’s hands, and how to build relationships without a shared frame of reference (e.g., the shared act of eating the same meal). Inviting participants to bring objects from their home or delivering or mailing materials or food are possible strategies. Here, the materials stay with the participants, compared to community programming or participatory research where workshop materials often stay with the program/facilitator. This can be a form of wealth re-distribution.
“To be like a Robin Hood, and I think that that’s something that we’ve been able to do because of COVID …. to physically get visual materials into people’s hands, into their homes, in a way that would have been very different if our original project design where people came to a university site for a weekend workshop and made visuals in that space” – Casey Burkholder, Participatory Visual Methods Practitioner
“I think the tactile sense is, we need a lot more of …. touching things, and you know hugging ourselves ….. For me, as something grounding related to the land, and how we move … you can easily give a rock, you can paint a rock, you can do lots of things with it, and most of all, you can really hold it and it just feels good” – C. Lurch – Community Artist
Enhanced screen time can lead to many feeling emotionally and physiologically drained. Too much screen time is also an access issue. Practitioners should consider pairing the appropriate task with the appropriate technology. Not every conversation or meeting needs to be held online. When choosing to run an online meeting or workshop, scheduled breaks are vital for both practitioners and participants. As a facilitator, this means ensuring you build in time to step away from the screen.
Practitioners might also consider crafting activities which invite people to temporarily leave the screen, and return after a set amount of time so that they can rest their eyes, and take care of their bodies.
Other Strategies to Consider:
Consider the land and territories you are zooming in from and invite participants to do the same on chat or verbally.
Provide multiple options for participation that do rely on camera use
Consider low-tech options if using external programs to zoom.
Trial run all technology and practice
Integrate the body where you can – including when inviting participation via phone.
Plan for less ‘delivery’ time, and more preparation time
Check in often, and be prepared to adapt regularly
Slow down where possible
Consult with community members before meetings to assess technology access.
Invite participants to leave the screen by providing short ‘off-screen’ activities that involve moving about a space, or even going outside
If working online, use the zoom screen (or other platforms) creatively. Include videos, music, the chat, the "pin" feature (Zoom) or easy-to-use collaborative brainstorming programs.
Provide extra clear instructions – write them down ahead of time, post them onto power point slides, and/or post in chat before sending people to breakout rooms. They will move into the room with participants.
Utilize food vouchers or send gift cards for food in advance
Drop off or mail supplies where possible to create a shared sense of connection
Use breakout groups to bring in a ‘spatial dynamic’ or more intimacy in the collaborative process
Create and adapt new safety protocols for use with your group.