I live in London. On July 19, 2021, so-called ‘Freedom Day’, any remaining restrictions were which were in place due to the Covid-19 pandemic were lifted by the government. Just because restrictions were lifted doesn’t mean that Covid has gone away. I want to share with you why you shouldn’t kill or abandon your online meetings for your community groups.
I’m not here to have discussions with anti-vaxxers about how restrictions took liberties away. I’m speaking from my point of view as someone who started running and coordinating online events during Covid for a community group. As Chair of the London Irish LGBT Network, we decided last year to have our AGM online. Subsequently, I ran monthly online meet-ups with members. There are a few things I learned from this.
Adapt To Your Audience or Community Group
With all the respect in the world, your community group may be the centre of your world, but for others, it may just be a casual meeting or engagement. You can’t force anything on anyone. Each person will go to an event if they want to or won’t if they don’t. Simples. But expecting people to go to a meeting on a cold January night at 7 or 8pm is asking a lot. I mean, a duvet and hot chocolate sound better than traipsing across London in the cold rain or snow.
As lockdowns have shown us, it is not always possible to physically be involved with a community group or organisation and this can be for a number of reasons and not always a lack of interest or will. To ensure that our community groups remain relevant and attract relevant participants, we must adapt.
People have jobs. Work shifts can often inhibit their ability to attend in-person meetings. Physical meetings can clash with your evening or night shift or even your sleep and family time. Online meetings can enable these community members to still be involved and attend your meeting.
One of the many things that Covid taught us is that we already had communication tools but never used them to their full potential. Skype, Google Meeting and Zoom all existed before Covid. They were just sitting there, on our phones, on our computers. We already had the tools, we just didn’t bother utilising them for what they were made for.
Is Physical Location Important?
Despite being a local community group, there’s absolutely nothing to say that your event or group won’t attract interest from people in far-flung corners, whether it be down to a shared interest in a topic or like ours, part of the global Irish diaspora. We’ve had people from all over the world join us for our meet-ups. We never would have had the potential to reach so many people with similar interests, outlooks, and life experiences if we had held physical meetings.
Not only is it great for the group to say that we have an audience around the world, but it’s also good for other members of the group. At the start of each meet-up, I act as host and welcome people to the event. We encourage interaction and I always thank people for joining us and ask how their day was or what they’re up to in their part of the world. Introducing a little bit of chat or banter beforehand gives a glimpse of people’s personalities, interests etc. leading to a possibility of new connections and friendships
With online meeting apps, we all have the ability to have our names displayed. This gives us the opportunity to present ourselves as we wish. We can show our names, pseudonyms, and pronouns. For shyer folk, they also have the option of joining in and finding out what’s going on, without having to reveal themselves on camera.
Creating a Safe Space
Also, we never know what a person’s home life is like. Your community group may be the only place where they feel safe enough to be themselves. It may be an escape
People At Higher Risk
Throughout the pandemic, since March 2020, we’ve been told to keep our distance, avoid being stuck indoors with others, keep a room well ventilated. Since then we’ve been extremely lucky to have science bring us vaccinations to reduce the effect of Covid on us if we are unlucky enough to catch the virus.
Since July, many people here in London have abandoned masks, even if mandatory on public transport, social distancing is a thing of the past and to many, it seems that the past eighteen months never happened. But, for a section of society, that is not the case. Those of our community who are immunocompromised are still susceptible to Covid and at higher risk of complications.
For these people, meeting indoors with a group of unmasked people in a room with potentially little ventilation is a no-no and still not worth gambling with their health. Other people, though, have heart, lung, or blood conditions, may be undergoing cancer treatment or have other autoimmune conditions.
These people are still valued members of our groups. Their needs cannot be overlooked. Just because some of our group are now happy to abandon their masks and take their chances, doesn’t mean that that is an option for other members of the community group.
Final Takeaway Points
In March 2020, many vulnerable people were advised to isolate to protect themselves from the unknown Covid. We all went online, chatting talking catching up with friends. But now, as always, it is up to us to ensure that the vulnerable members of our community groups aren’t cast aside and forgotten like they so often are in the real world.
I know there’s nothing like actual face-to-face human interaction. We’ve all come to value it and we need it for our mental health. But, before you get to abandon your online meetings, ask those in your group if physical meetings are really what they want, especially coming into winter. Online might just be safer for those more vulnerable or those who are unable to leave their homes, for whatever reason.
During lockdowns, we reassessed how we do things. Many of those changes should have been implemented before Covid was even a thing. Just remember, your community group exists because your members have an interest in what you are doing, the events online and in-person that you run and because it gives a sense of belonging. Ask them what they want, ask them what they prefer to do. Your group is nothing without them.