On March 11, we were thrust into a global health crisis that has so profoundly affected our way of life.

Over the last three months, the coronavirus pandemic has leveled unprecedented personal, societal, organizational and economic challenges against us, and it has exposed longstanding needs and inequities like rocks revealed in the receding tide.

For the social sector, the journey over the last 93 days has been particularly long, hard, and out of necessity, largely spent on reacting to the immediate fallout experienced by the most vulnerable among us: illness and loss of life, skyrocketing unemployment, food insecurity and lack of access to quality healthcare. We are all racing down the road at breakneck speed – fixing flat tires, pulling people from pile-ups and filling empty gas tanks as we go.

But there is a second road we can choose to take on this journey. Here we pull over at the scenic overlook, together, to take in the bigger picture. We can see on the horizon that, yes, there are obstacles, but there are also many possibilities that lay ahead.

To define and explore those possibilities, last month ECCF hosted a virtual Community Think Lab — our proverbial scenic overlook — where nearly 70 cross-sector leaders paused briefly from their critical work on the current crisis to examine the challenges, share their unique perspectives and discuss creative, collaborative solutions that will help lead us on the road to recovery and prepare for a better future.

Community leaders and leaders in business, education and state, federal and municipal government, the nonprofit sector and funders and philanthropists participated.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us many things right now, and among those lessons is this vital one for community leaders: No one can go it alone,” said Northern Essex Community College President Lane Glenn, who participated in one of two Think Lab sessions.

The Think Lab is a product of ECCF’s long-held belief that to solve regional challenges, we must bring people together to determine their root causes and then implement changes in the systems where those challenges live and thrive. The goal is to establish the place and space for cross-sector leaders to have these conversations, find common ground and build strong partnerships that will lead to innovative solutions.

The result of last month’s event was a series of engaging and inspirational discussions that revealed vital information for moving Essex County’s social sector forward as we continue to navigate COVID-19 and plan for the future. Broad themes from these conversations emerged.

Everyone – including residents, nonprofits, for profits, government and the healthcare and education sectors — has a role to play in the journey.

Observations from the field indicate the adverse effects of the pandemic – exposed inequities, significant economic challenges and a burgeoning mental health crisis, just to name a few – and several positive effect as well, like community collaboration and environmental improvements.

Equity, resiliency, transparency, equality, innovation and creativity, systems thinking, a holistic approach and a focus on the long-term were among the many values and mindsets that participants discussed as being critical to solutions.

A new vision for the social sector includes the implementation of big ideas like creating partnerships, investing in future preparedness and collaborative workforce development, rethinking the education system, and community building.

More than 100 experiments were brainstormed. These include piloting free Wi-Fi access for vulnerable populations, creating educational opportunities and capacity building programs for nonprofits; and performing a countywide digital baseline study.

“This event provided a unique opportunity to brainstorm ideas and prioritize needs that will hopefully help us plan for the future to further improve our communities,” said Vilma Martnez-Dominguez, community development director for the city of Lawrence.

And this is exactly the point; we need to consciously think about the long term, especially in the midst of a crisis that has exposed our needs so blatantly.

There is opportunity in crisis, and we need to seize this chance to reflect on our challenges, meet them with collective solutions and move forward – strategically and effectively – together. We are fortunate that in Essex County, we have the people, the passion and the power to do this.

In the weeks following the Think Lab, this hope has already been set into motion. ECCF is helping to foster ways for community leaders to continue their conversations and strengthen the human infrastructure needed to create change. We are identifying partners to convene sector-specific Think Labs on food insecurity, education, healthcare and more. We are collaborating to kick off some of the experiments brainstormed last month, starting with a countywide analysis on the digital divide – one of the leading inequities so starkly exposed and exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Efforts to understand the capacity-building needs of nonprofit organizations and collaborate with other groups to provide vital virtual programming is also in the works.

“Our commitment to continue to advocate for Essex County, bring people together, and create space for discussion and future thinking has never been stronger,” said ECCF President and CEO Beth Francis. “We are deeply committed to a long-term, collaborative and systems-based approach that includes all communities and residents.”

ECCF is acutely aware that this will be a continuous learning journey, and we pledge to improve, evolve and intentionally seek out diverse voices from across the community as we learn. Our hope is that you will join us as we travel this road toward a brighter tomorrow for Essex County.

Stratton Lloyd is ECCF’s COO and vice president for community leadership. Michelle Xiarhos Curran is the foundation’s communications writer. 

 

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