Finding words for what our world and sector are facing right now isn’t easy. We’re confronting challenges on many fronts—from economic uncertainty, work upheaval and social isolation, to keeping our loved ones safe and caring for our sick, to witnessing a global assault on our civil liberties. The effects of COVID-19 will be felt for generations.
This pandemic requires us to come together and work differently than we may be used to. As our very own Lucy Bernholz writes:
Our responses to the pandemic, as individuals and communities, include a return to long-held traditions of mutual aid and direct giving. We should view these responses as signs of the times—new digital versions of associational and giving practices—and use the opportunity to inform public policies that protect these vital parts of what makes democracies work.
Of course, mutual aid and direct giving in themselves are nothing new. Indigenous people and communities of color have always practiced these forms of giving. But this time it’s different. Our digital technologies and the social behaviors they support are suddenly visible to us in ways we might earlier have ignored. Workplaces are taking their operations online—many for the first time. And a slew of conference cancellations across the social sector, many of them crucial to advancing environmental and human rights, has left a vacuum, both in terms of the conversations that aren’t being had, and the potential for losing organizations crippled by sudden financial loss.
Considering the digital dimensions in which the pandemic struck is helpful. We’re seeing how the choices we make about our social technologies—why and how we use them and who we put into power with them—have consequences in the real world. At the same time, we’re coming to terms with our deficiencies, namely a lack of capacity to build sustainable digital infrastructures.
Looking closer, we see how differences in lived experience, even in our local communities, can serve to warn us of the perils of social upheaval. As York University’s Caroline Shenaz Hossein writes, most of the world (i.e. minorities who, in fact, constitute the “Global majority”) doesn’t consider this moment as a “return to tradition” because it reflects the way they give now and have done so for generations. The differences don’t end there: “‘[M]inorities’ in the Americas—Black and Brown people—have always had to practice some form of mutual aid, and adding yet another current trend in COVID-19 times, physical distancing.” Hossein recalls her childhood in 1970s Canada: “The way we managed racism as children was to hide, to stay at home to be safe.”
As we reel from the psychological toll of quarantines and lockdowns, it’s worth asking how we might use this moment to improve on our past practices, not simply try to replicate them online. Testing this assumption, Digital Impact and the Digital Civil Society Lab are wondering how we might weave new relationships across the communities that would have connected at all those canceled in-person gatherings. In particular, building off the Digital Civil Society Lab’s 2020 report on Integrated Advocacy, can we cross-pollinate expertise on digital rights, civic space, and community context—now that all these community gatherings are happening online? Alliance magazine recently asked its global editorial advisory board (Bernholz is a member) to consider what philanthropy can do to mitigate the negative effects of the crisis. Bernholz responds:
We’re in touch with several other groups—mostly civil society and digital rights organizations—about possibilities of using our built infrastructure of webinars, blogs, chats, and video conferencing to weave networks among groups and individuals that are typically siloed by time, space, institution and budget.
In this moment, we owe it to ourselves and each other to consider the digital dimensions of this pandemic—to look inside ourselves, to be mindful of our differences, to use our technologies toward a common goal. This still new and perhaps contentious state of being “alone together” (to borrow a term popularized by MIT’s Sherry Turkle) brings back into view how connected we really are. How will we use this moment to reshape civil society to serve us now, in our digitally dependent—for better and worse—times?