What we did. What we learned. What we will keep going forward.
As we head into what will be a very different holiday season, we have the opportunity to follow safe guidelines to maintain the health of our families and also reflect on our larger community, and what 2020 has certainly taken away. But, we also have the opportunity to think about what 2020 has also given us. It is emblematic that the recent NASA/SpaceX craft launched to the International Space Station is named ‘Resilience.’ While we have lost and been distanced from those we care about and love, we have also had new networks and relationships become even more important. While I personally look forward to not seeing my friends, colleagues, students and collaborators in a box on a screen, we would be remiss if we didn’t recognize that hybridity in meetings, teaching and outreach will be ongoing. It may feel very strange, if not problematic, to mention words like ‘innovation’ or ‘opportunity’ during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are lessons that have been learned in our collective responses and actions the last several months that we can possibly utilize as we go forward.
When the pandemic hit in March of 2020 the BTU team went into action. We quickly reached out to our partners to gauge their immediate needs and concerns. And, through a series of blogs we addressed guidelines for community engagement, local purchasing options to support small businesses, and created a webinar series addressing the responses of nonprofits and foundations in Baltimore. We were able to reallocate resources at the end of last fiscal year to respond to a growing loss of employment for TU undergraduates as reported by the Career Center. A call went out in May asking faculty if they were pivoting their research and engagement to respond to the pandemic and/or creating new project ideas. Within one week, we were able to support 13 faculty projects and employ 18 TU students. That employment mitigation has continued this academic year with an additional six faculty projects and seven students being supported. In the coming months, we will be blogging along with our faculty colleagues to show the TU and Baltimore community the innovative work that is being done. Towson University is well known for its emphasis on providing undergraduate students with direct applied research experience that translates to vocational opportunities and this employment mitigation takes that commitment even further. The word cloud below is made up of the titles of these projects and while anecdotal, it shows where we are and should be: focusing on the impact of COVID-19 on families and communities in Baltimore.
BTU is defined by collaboration both externally with our partners and internally with faculty, staff and students. We prioritize an equity lens in our work and a recognition of the knowledge that our community collaborators bring to us. The move to virtual platforms for communication and work have brought the socioeconomic inequities in our communities into sharp relief. While the digital divide is not the same today as it was years ago due to access to smartphones, we would be remiss to not acknowledge that the deeper conditions that are the foundation of the digital divide have become even more solidified. But, is there an opportunity to bridge that divide through the new hybrid spaces we work and communicate in?
During a webinar discussion with Van Brooks from the Safe Alternative for Education, we speculated on the equity that digital platforms are providing. For a dynamic nonprofit leader like Van who has to wear many hats, being able to meet with partners, potential funders and collaborators through video conferencing is a time saver. If properly resourced with infrastructure technology, could technology become a tool for equity work in communities? Maybe a hybrid notion of learning, working and presence will be a part of our lives going forward. Personally, I can’t wait to see my friends, students and collaborators in person as soon as possible, but I also know my Zoom, Webex, Microsoft Teams and Blackboard Collaborate game will have to be strong going forward as well. The pandemic has kept us from being in person, but perhaps the thing to keep is the capacity to keep working for digital equity and the opportunities for community engagement that arise from it.