How one youth media organization persisted in the face of an earthquake, a pandemic, and a broken microphone
Convergence Design Lab set out to conduct a rapid response case study on how Spy Hop, a youth media organization in Salt Lake City responded during COVID-19. What we learned is both inspiring and cautionary for the field and reveals a lot about the essential need for organizational resilience.
Most folks agree; COVID-19 hit like a shock wave to our collective system in America. For Spy Hop, a youth media organization in Salt Lake City and one of our long-term client-partners, the pandemic struck at the same time that an earthquake and series of aftershocks rocked Utahns in the wee hours of the morning, a sequence of events that oddly mirrored the new sense of instability brought on by COVID-19. Yet, even during these extraordinary circumstances, when the stress and uncertainty was at its most palpable, Spy Hop galvanized its forces, dug in and renewed its sense of purpose with collective resiliency and determination.
Matt Mateus, Spy Hop’s Deputy Director, recalls the messaging that went out to mentors on day one of the stay-at-home orders, “Rally the troops…we are Spy Hop.”
Matt’s clarion call to counter paralysis with experimental action intrigued all of us at Convergence Design Lab. On April 23rd, a Zoom call with the leadership left us awestruck upon learning how Spy Hop generated and marketed a whole slate of virtual programming in the span of days —programs that generated authentic engagement with youth, even though the organization had never delivered online or remote classes prior to COVID-19. As my co-researcher Jacob Watson and I listened, we wondered, ‘what is it about Spy Hop’s organization’s culture and its inner workings that prepares them to mobilize resources and launch imaginative and youth-centered new programs so swiftly and thoroughly’.
We proposed to Kasandra VerBruggen, Spy Hop’s executive director that we at Convergence Design Lab conduct a journalistic ethnographic study that could not only help Spy Hop better capture what is happening organizationally in the moment, but could also be used to share out learnings and insights across the broader field.
The result is We are Spy Hop: Showing up During COVID-19, a 16 page chronicle that vividly describes the challenges and decision-making process that occurred at Spy Hop between late March and early June 2020.
Through video interviews with eight Spy Hop staff and mentors conducted via Zoom, we assess the factors that contributed to Spy Hop’s ability to succeed in this challenging moment. We identify three key insights and takeaways related to Spy Hop’s online learning programs during the COVID-19 crisis. Broadly speaking, we believe that Spy Hop succeeded as a direct result of its facility with three particular organizational behaviors and that these behaviors show us what collective resilience can look like in action. We observed Spy Hop:
- Inventing authentic, youth-driven responses
- Pivoting to meet evolving needs; and
- Learning on the fly in a new medium.
We hope the factors we identify here and elaborate on in our report might serve as a guidepost for other youth-focused organizations and provide an organizational roadmap for coping with the disruptive nature of this moment.
Organizational resilience is not something that is manufactured overnight. It results from years of intentional effort to cultivate a powerful learning community, to invest in human capital, and to build a culture of continuous learning and improvement. As Spy Hop’s external evaluation partners, Convergence Design Lab has studied its impact on youth learning since 2017.
In fact, we had just completed our two-year evaluation report on Spy Hop’s programs, The Work Speaks for Itself: Understanding the Impact of Youth Media at the same moment that COVID-19 hit.
Each of these studies contributes to a larger narrative of how Spy Hop effectively models creative community-building, iterative learning and collective resilience for its emerging youth artists as a matter of routine.
And youth are watching, observing and learning from the behavior and actions of their adult allies and mentors. As organizations work to support youth through this era of disruption and help them build individual resilience, Spy Hop showed up, sending the message to youth that we are a community and we are “all in this together.” We believe these insights also provide a note of caution that youth-serving organizations need to be as mindful as ever of the importance of strengthening institutional resilience and investing in infrastructure so they can better persevere through unknown future challenges. Our youth are relying on us now more than ever.
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