Written by Fitsum Areguy, Centre Researcher, Centre for Community Based Research
The COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying public health measures forced the world to adapt and shelter in place. Many communities were also facing a multitude of other interconnected issues such the drug toxicity crisis, increased police and state violence, poverty, and food insecurity to name just a few. To reduce the spread of the virus, work necessarily shifted from being conducted in-person to online, presenting community-based researchers with new and unique challenges on how to meaningfully and ethically engage people and groups in research and evaluation.
To better understand this experience and the learnings that stemmed from the pandemic, I facilitated a discussion with CCBR staff and students during a hybrid (in-person/online) staff meeting. The first question I posed to the team was how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted on their community-based research practice.
After surviving two long years of the pandemic, Janna Martin, part-time Centre researcher, found it hard to remember what work was like before COVID-19:
“We had this telephone service. Remember that?” Janna reminisced. “We weren't using Zoom because we weren't aware of it yet. And then COVID happened, and everyone started to use Zoom and Teams.”
For some students and staff, they had begun their community-based research career during the pandemic. The only reality they knew was the current one.
Rich Janzen, Executive director of CCBR, highlighted two changes resulting from the pandemic. The first was, for better or worse, the increasing pull towards efficiency.
“When you're online, you have the ability to have more meetings,” Rich noted. “It really packs your day full of activity, which is good for efficiency and may not be good for wellness and health and for relationships.”
The second change Rich pointed to was budgeting. “Now we needed software (Zoom accounts, PDF viewers) and hardware (laptops). The cost for office supplies went way down.”
Building on Rich’s point, Sarah Switzer, Senior CCBR researcher, reflected on how technology both enables and constrains equitable participation.
“We can think about Zoom for example and access. Who is left behind?” She drew from her work within HIV and harm reduction communities. “A lot of the folks that I work with are not able to get on Zoom because they don't have access to technology. Or they may be experiencing a kind of precarity in their life which prevents them from getting online. But then on the inverse, technology can also be more accessible for some. For some folks in rural communities or disability communities, technology may open up the possibility for equitable participation.”
Ultimately, the pandemic opened and exposed pre-existing fault lines. It forced me and many other researchers to think about equity and participation in a more nuanced way. Indeed, many of CCBR’s projects over the last two years have focused on the outcomes of the pandemic; not only did the content of research change, but the dynamics, relationships, processes, and politics of community-engaged practice transformed CCBR researchers individually and collectively.
My second question for CCBR researchers was what key learnings from the pandemic they were carrying forward in their work. Overall, researchers spoke about learning to be much more sensitive to community’s needs by listening, being vulnerable, and deftly adapting plans as needed.
“During the pandemic there were times that the community said research was not a priority for them,” Janna pointed out. “As community-based researchers, we have to put the community’s interests first, and if research cannot be prioritized than we need to make time for them to focus on their real and immediate needs.”
Sarah engaged in a lot of research with community-engaged practitioners working with communities throughout the lockdowns. She found that being honest about all that was going on in the world was a crucial learning for her. “I think it pushed me to be more vulnerable in my interactions with people and just be real about how hard the pandemic was.” Sarah reflected on why resisting the urge to go back to ‘business-as-usual' was important. “COVID was a trip - it was really hard, and we're still in it. Many communities – in particular racialized and/or low-income communities are disproportionally experiencing the impact of covid-19. ... We might not know or realize for years the impact it has had on all of us.”
Rich’s key learning centred on how to adapt project planning. “Maybe that meant adding a research question about adaptation or changing your methods because you couldn't do focus groups in-person anymore,” Rich ventured. “In some ways, COVID was maybe an augmented truth of what we always have to do as community-based researchers, which is that when the community changes and is in flux, we need to be adapting to that.”
Fitsum Areguy is a Researcher at the Centre for Community Based Research, a non-profit organization on the University of Waterloo campus. firstname.lastname@example.org