Community Persistence and Inventiveness in Learning Continuity in Situations of Emergencies & Protracted Crisis

January 30, 2023

Dr. Suzanne Smythe’s recent research project (in collaboration with Dr. Nathalie Sinclair, Amea Wilbur and Marcella Mancilla-Fuller) explored the experiences of community organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic and how frontline literacy and language outreach workers repaired gaps, fissures and inequalities in advice and technologies available to newcomer communities during that crisis.

Q: Tell us about this research project.  

A: This project looked at literacy information about COVID-19 during the pandemic and how that circulated in community-based organizations, particularly literacy outreach and newcomer and settlement organizations. We were interested in how COVID-19 advice and information were landing in communities that did not have ready access to the internet and computers and/or were not fluent in English. 

We found that, for the most part, information was communicated orally and on digital platforms in health jargon, mainly in English, with content that assumed privileged lifestyles that permitted social distancing. As the pandemic continued, we saw different community groups stepping in to address this, creating more contextualized, culturally relevant advice. Our research explored how community educators mobilized literacy and language practices to resist the “one size fits all” approach to health advice.   

Q: You also investigated how community organizations persisted in offering communities timely information and technology access when many other formal education programs had closed. What did that ecosystem look like, and what do you think is still missing and needed?

A: While we were all at home, K-12 schools, food hubs, shelters, immigration and settlement services, and faith organizations received “Essential Service” status, which allowed them to remain open. Universities, libraries, and government organizations were closed. These closures meant organizations with the most resources had to retreat from the community, while non-profit and community organizations, often lacking in core funding and resources, were moving closer into the community. These (mostly) small, grant-funded non-profits led the work of ensuring people had access to food, digital access to apply for the CERB and other income supports, access to accurate information and so on.  

The first six months of the pandemic revealed how many people lack access to high-speed internet and computers at home. One computer in a large family does not constitute internet connectivity, especially when sometimes family members need to compete for that one computer. Even schools and universities were surprised by how many students rely on the public internet. There is nothing to suggest this situation has changed.

The frontline outreach workers, those usually on the lowest rungs of their organizational hierarchies, led inventive strategies to keep families and communities connected and informed. Their plurilingual capacities and local knowledge, the trusting relations they had cultivated through their relational work, all the things usually undervalued and invisible, were suddenly vital.    

We learned about how they collaborated to figure out how to apply for CERB, navigate the programs and online forms, and teach people how to use them; they found and distributed computers, set up hotspot internet in parking lots, taught themselves and their constituents how to use Zoom, helped people get internet plans, developed COVID-19 information resources in different languages, more contextualized and appropriate for different audiences.  

This was a remarkable time, but we are concerned that organizations are too quick to return to their old hierarchies and that this powerful work may be forgotten.

Q: What did you learn about how community organizations provide learning continuity in times of crisis? What does this suggest for how we might rethink information ecosystems and digital access in the future?   

A: I am much more alert now to the role of community outreach workers, educators, and community organizations in providing learning continuity in times of crisis. We tend to think of a “crisis” as something unexpected that threatens lives and well-being and then passes on. In moments of crisis, people mobilize for a short time and embrace new ways to do things, but eventually, we go back to “normal.” But I wonder if crisis is now normalized.

We’re currently in a food security crisis, a climate crisis, a gender-based violence crisis, an overdose crisis, a cost-of-living and housing crisis, and a digital equity crisis, along with an information ecosystem filled with disinformation which leads to a crisis in social trust. How do we stop lurching from ‘one disaster to another’? And why are most folks doing this important frontline work in this time of perpetual crisis, racialized, underpaid and identify as women? What can be learned about local experiences and inventions to make our way out of these crises? We were paying attention to those questions during the pandemic, but now not so much.  

Q: What can educators do to support these communities and ensure continued learning and a more equitable and inclusive future for those communities' post-pandemic?    

A: It would be good to rethink the idea of “engaged universities.” For instance, it’s often the perception that information and knowledge must come from universities into communities, that ‘we’ help communities by mobilizing knowledge in their direction. How can we reframe the discourse to capture what I think most researchers are actually doing, which is more along the lines of collaborative problem-solving with different actors rather than the more transactional relationships of data extraction. Data (however we may want to define it) needs to stay close to the communities that generate it. 

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share? 

A: Our current research project focuses on automation and digital literacies. The team includes myself and Dr. Nathalie Sinclair, Dr. Sheree Rodney from the University of Western Ontario, Rajeeta Samala from the Burnaby Neighbourhood House, and Gwen Andre and Saba Ghezili, who are graduate students in the Faculty of Education. We are working within the insights and relationships we developed in the COVID-19 research, experimenting with collaborative methods to explore how algorithms and other kinds of automation are surfacing in people’s lives. The pandemic accelerated new forms of digital governance, with new possibilities for efficiency and learning, but also new forms of oppression. Outreach and literacy workers are once again leading inventions to open digital access and minimize harm. We want to understand how algorithms are changing literacies, how we teach, how we learn in these new humans-machines ecosystems.