COVID-19 Has Lit My Fire

user image 2020-03-26
By: April Doner
Posted in: Stories
COVID-19 Has Lit My Fire

I'm a young-ish working mother of a 2 year old who works in community development. I'm based in Indianapolis, IN but my job right now focuses on a national project and consists mostly of coaching others remotely around how to build community in their places.

Since my husband and I moved back here to Indianapolis about two years ago, one of my greatest frustrations and longings has been around a need for community in my own neighborhood -- because it's my passion and because, as a new parent, I am feeling first-hand the burden of our culture of isolation and yearn for more relationships of exchange and "mutual delight" in our and our daughter's life. But while I have made efforts to gradually get to know my neighbors and connect us all together, it's been incredibly slow since I find myself unable to find the time and energy -- between work, cooking dinner, cleaning house, caring for our child and keeping up with family -- to put the time into it that I know it needs. So, my sense of palpable isolation has remained.

But miraculously, over the last two weeks the growth of the COVID-19 viral threat has lit a fire under me. Despite new pressures like my husband and I needing to watch our daughter full time while also working (her daycare closed), the energy has just been there for me to get organizing. Below is my story so far... 

I began a couple of weeks ago by researching what other neighborhoods are doing and then reaching out to my neighbors to float the idea of creating some kind of mutual support network for each other to get through this together and especially to make sure our most vulnerable are taken care of. Everyone I talked to said it sounded great, but no one at first stepped up to say they'd help. I was a bit more direct with some Moms I've gotten to know, and they shared candidly that they just didn't have the time or headspace right now with the support their families needed... but two suggested their husbands may be interested. So I asked them. Another couple who recently moved in serves on the neighborhood association board... so I listened to my gut and asked the wife. All said yes!

So, we are currently in the "building" phase of this, but personally for me even this first coming together of energy around a more connected, mutually supportive neighborhood is a huge first step. The urgency, and perhaps the global nature of this pandemic has pushed me to make more direct asks to learn who among those folks I know share my passion, and to be bolder than I may have been otherwise in inviting them to join me to make something real together.

At this point, I've taken the time to speak with each on the phone -- first to check in and see how they're doing -- and then to brainstorm a bit about the idea. I've been mindful not to make this about me, or what kind of structure I think we should use... but to try and open up a space where their own experience and ideas are just as important as mine. I know I cannot and don't want to be "the leader" of this, since i do have a full-time job (and a young child), and it's not something I or anyone is getting paid for. Through these conversations, I've been delighted at the ideas and considerations each person has offered up. One was a suggestion that we split the neighborhood into quadrants and just take on our own quadrant for now so as to not overwhelm ourselves and make this effort more appealing for neighbors... turns out this is something the neighborhood association has already been thinking. 

So I guess I'd call this the "building of a core." We are planning to meet in the next few days on Zoom to brainstorm together and come up with a plan that sounds good to all. So far, each person has agreed we think of this as community building BEYOND the crisis... something we want to keep growing when we're on the other end of it. We also want to find a way of connecting us all that uses technology wisely -- i.e. a platform that most people can access (including our Elders) and that will allow people to talk with and perhaps form collaborations with each other easily while not overwhelming anyone's phone. 


As this small group has been gradually forming, I've simultaneously begun trying to create even smaller structures of communication and exchange with the neighbors MOST immediately around me via a text thread I sent the other day when my husband and I were headed to the grocery store. I was honestly quite nervous about doing it, but in the spirit of boldness and experimentation, I wrote the 5 most immediate neighbors around our house and asked if anyone would like anything from the store (explaining that I'd read this is a good strategy among neighbors so fewer of us need to get exposed to public places.) One neighbor asked to be taken off the thread but in a very nice way... and I thanked him for his honesty and began a new thread, asking everyone to use that one. Everyone thanked me, and one asked me to grab her some dried mango. This same neighbor then offered to do the same for any of us when she goest in to her job at a huge grocery store on Thursdays! This seemed to me like a great connection for us all to have... "someone on the inside!" Another neighbor on the thread who seems to have the gift of neighborhood protectiveness has since been communicating on the thread about things he notices around us that concern him, and as a group we've been troubleshooting each one. One such case was a U-Haul that had been parked just north of us on the street for several days -- an occurrence he noted seems to happen every few months. (I'm NOT much of a "neighborhood watch" type, so I was completely oblivious to this!) As a group, we shared knowledge about this and through this, one neighbor took action and we solved the case -- it had been reserved through U-Haul and never turned in, and the company would come and pick it up ASAP. I was able to update the neighbor who'd been asked to be taken off the list, and he was delighted as well.

We've also been making efforts to hold informal conversations with neighbors as so many of us are out and about these days since our state just passed a "shelter at home" mandate, and many of us were already working from home anyway. It's amazing how many neighbors are walking the streets now! Through our walks and trying to talk to these neighbors we run into, we've been learning a lot and strengthening relationships.

Just yesterday, several of us were out and started chatting about how we are all coping with the situation and what's going on with us. We all stood far apart from each other but were still able to feel connected! We learned that one neighbor just got laid off (he is a contractor for airlines)...  so we promised to keep an ear out and also shared what we've heard about the new government relief package including support for contract workers (since we are both contractors too). We were also able to introduce the couple who lives two doors down with our neighbor David who has lived here for 50+ years, and actually once lived in the house the couple now owns!

Our daughter loves dogs, so when the dog from our other next door neighbor came out to roam their gigantic yard, she insisted that we go say hello to it. I obliged, which took me away from the group conversation... but then led me to see the neighbor who owns that property. We began chatting and sharing all kinds of updates about the virus, including her insights about the local situation since her husband works in the ER. Toward the end of the conversation, this neighbor kindly offered us to come into their large yard anytime we want to let our daughter run around. We told her how amazing that would be, since she loves dogs so much but we don't (yet) have one of our own! We left this conversation moved by her generosity and this delightful new resource we can use as we try to keep our little girl entertained while we watch her full-time (with no access to playgrounds that have been deemed unsafe.)

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Finally, as mostly new arrivals in a community that is racially and economically mixed (and gentrifying), one of my priorities -- which the core of connectors each agreed should be our shared priority -- is that any larger effort should be respectful of and in good relationship with those neighbors who have been here for many years and may already be actively connected to one another. None of us knows the best way to do this but it's a question we want to explore together. In my own sense of urgency around this question, I sought out a colleague of mine last week who has been a long-time community builder working for many years alongside the neighbors here, mostly in the southern part of the neighborhood and many of them lower income folks of color. He is an expert at avoiding the many false and harmful assumptions in our country and our community around people of color, and he is a brilliant innovator in and actively challenging these assumptions by focusing his work on shining a light on and finding ways to support and invest in folks' capacities, gifts and contributions to their neighbors' lives. 

Having seen a lot of "white do-gooder" efforts targeting the neighborhood as well as white-led neighborhood groups in action, he encouraged me to simply seek to see and notice how those with fewer means are responding to this crisis and helping each other out. He also named some connectors he knows who are doing this actively each day in this neighborhood. So as I work with the neighbors it's been easiest for me to join forces with in my immediate surrounding, I also plan to reach out to these connectors and learn from them, while trying to find openings and opportunities for us to perhaps bridge these "two neighborhoods" through simple relationship-building, seeing and sharing gifts, and hopefully some wonderful in-person parties, meals and projects once we are on the other side of this pandemic.

For the first time in a long time, I am feeling like a whole person. This crisis has fully activated my passion and need for immediate neighborhood connectedness and to be actively building it around me -- not just "for others" or some theoretical idea of "building community," but also because my life cries out for it every single day. And as the scary, sad and horrific news articles pour in, I feel like in a way I've been vaccinated and am safe from the feelings of powerlessness this kind of news often provokes in one's mind and soul. I see the willingness to do, care and share emerging around me from within my neighbors and I know that, no matter how much any of us may struggle or suffer, we will find a way forward together.



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April Doner