Engaging marginalized communities in the wake of COVID-19
Identifying city residents who are at risk of exclusion in a remote world
This resource is a part of the Guide to Remote Community Engagement by What Works Cities, a collection of resources designed to support cities that wish to create and maintain strong, institutionalized practices of community engagement during periods of remote working and in an increasingly digital world.
COVID-19 has required cities around the country to reimagine public engagement within the context of social distancing. Cities have had to move the majority of city operations online, and in doing so, spaces for public engagement and participation have changed as well. Community spaces such as libraries, churches, schools, and community centers have been temporarily closed, leaving many residents cut off from traditional gathering places for people and government leaders. As cities are rapidly moving public engagement online, the question becomes how to ensure that those without immediate and consistent access to the internet are not further excluded from city government.
Residents in historically marginalized communities face mounting and disproportionate challenges as a result of critical social distancing practices. Through the transition period of reopening, local governments have taken strides to maintain public participation practices, but given significant budget strains and less capacity due to staff layoffs, many have fallen short. City leadership and those within City Hall responsible for community engagement must take the important steps of developing a nuanced understanding of who is most likely to be excluded from digital public engagement forums, acknowledge those difficulties, and work creatively to ensure all residents have equal access to public participation and are represented in City engagement efforts.
Who’s at risk of exclusion?
The degree to which certain communities are at risk for being excluded will vary from city to city, and cities should draw on the legwork they have already done to understand the different communities comprising their city and consider methods for effective engagement. We’ve created a number of resources designed to guide cities in understanding and responding to resident needs — and will explore specific ways to engage these residents in upcoming pieces.
Still, there are populations widely agreed to be disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and cities should make concerted efforts to ensure plans are in place to meet the engagement needs of the following oft-overlooked communities:
Low-income residents and families face significant barriers to accessing government services, including and especially during a pandemic like COVID-19. As businesses, schools, and governments move online, cities should be aware that low-income households may not have access to smartphones, other devices like laptops, or high-speed internet access. Indeed, a 2016 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found that poor families were five times less likely to have access to high-speed internet than their affluent counterparts. Additionally, many of these groups may have relied on public and/or free WiFi at libraries, coffee shops, or other locations that have since had to close or limit service due to the pandemic.
[You can read more about the impact of the digital divide in our forthcoming resource that will be published later this month.]
Non-English speaking communities
As cities and states work to quickly implement new regulations to stem the spread of COVID-19 and disseminate important public health information, there’s a chance that this information may not reach non-English speaking communities in a clear, timely or culturally relevant manner. For example, in Texas, where new coronavirus cases have been increasing at some of the highest rates in the country, more than a third of the population speaks a language other than English. This includes not just Spanish, but Vietnamese, Chinese languages, and Tagalog. The State’s translation services for a city’s diverse population may be lacking, leaving cities to implement processes to make sure all communities, regardless of their first languages, are reached. Cities and community organizations can find translated resources immediately available from the COVID-19 Health Literacy Project.
Senior residents are often highly civically active community members. But many neighborhood associations and community meetings have migrated online, and while seniors are using technology at increasing rates from years past, only about half of older adults with cell phones use some type of smartphone. Even those who do have one (or more) digital device(s) may struggle to use new technology and therefore are excluded from these web-based discussions. Senior communities have unique needs and are at elevated risk to contract COVID-19 and suffer far-reaching health consequences. Cities must account for their needs while remaining mindful of the importance of social distancing for seniors. Groups such as the AARP have been active in facilitating conversations with seniors and providing tools connecting seniors to resources during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color
Data has made clear that Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities have been disproportionately impacted by the health and economic consequences of COVID-19. In addition, people of color have historically had less access to government services and communications as they have moved online, with internet service providers continuing to systematically favor white communities over communities of color. Given this context, it is imperative that cities prioritize attention to address the equity issue at the core of this challenge.
Housing insecure & unhoused populations
Housing insecure and unhoused people are particularly vulnerable in times when people are ordered to stay in their homes. And without stable housing, or access to public spaces to access the internet or connect with the government for services, homeless individuals may be prevented from accessing much-needed resources. Cities should work with local nonprofits, shelters, and advocates to ensure the particular needs of housing insecure and homeless individuals are accounted for throughout COVID-19.
Stay tuned for our forthcoming resources addressing the digital divide and how cities can conduct non-internet based remote community engagement.
Becca Warner was the primary author of this installment.
The Guide to Remote Community Engagement is written and compiled by Charlotte Carr, Becca Warner, Greg Jordan-Detamore, and Owen O’Malley.
What Works Cities is a national initiative that partners with cities as they tackle pressing community challenges and improve residents’ lives through data-driven decision making. Learn more about the program and how to get access to support, here.