Nearly 10 months into the global pandemic, it’s clear that COVID-19 and the related health protection measures and protocols have had an impact on every facet of our lives and may continue to do so for some time. And while the focus at this time is rightly on protecting the health and safety of the most vulnerable, a look toward the mid-to-longer term pandemic recovery plans with their primary focus on healthcare and the economy, reveals the potential to also think intentionally about other areas that also need to recover and adapt from this pandemic including our education systems, political systems, workplaces and also, perhaps most critically, the environment.
There’s a lot of talk about “building back better” from this pandemic. While we can wait to see what governments, business leaders and philanthropists might pitch and propose to do that, we should also pay attention to lessons and insights from those who are experiencing the effects of the pandemic first-hand, and not just to prepare for another pandemic. Amidst all of the uncertainty and upheaval, there are examples of adaptation and resilience which we could learn from.
For us here at the Lawson Foundation, this includes our partners and grantees who are engaged in vital work supporting the healthy development of children and youth in communities across the country. In this post, we share some insights and lessons learned in response to the COVID-19 pandemic from members of our inaugural Youth Action & Environment Cohort.
Lesson 1: Set aside the project game plan
The onset of the pandemic hit nearly at the mid-way point of our inaugural Youth Action + Environment Cohort program – a three-year initiative that is supporting and enabling youth leadership development and environmental action – resulting in some significant shifts, unexpected challenges, and unique opportunities for the projects, communities and young leaders that are part of it.
One of the first things that we did back in March in response to the pandemic was to remove restrictions on existing funding agreements for all of its grantees, including the 10 projects that make up the cohort, to provide them with the flexibility to be able to shift and respond during a period of significant uncertainty. All grant-related reporting requirements were also suspended.
For many of the projects, the pandemic and related health protection measures and protocols meant a complete rethink of how activities – both those that were planned and those that were already underway – would unfold. The ability to adapt and not be tied to pre-pandemic commitments and deliverables provided an opportunity to set aside the game plan and in some cases the flexibility to respond to direct community needs that arose as a result of the pandemic.
For the Misipawistik Cree Nation Youth Guardians, a project that focuses on engaging youth through land-based teachings, patrolling on the land, and other team-building activities, the ongoing pandemic means they constantly have to reassess activities based on the public health measures and protocols that are in place. Luckily there were very few cases in the region up until October and they were able to hold the planned Medicine and Plant Teaching for the youth guardians, however non-local training and plans to have youth act as ambassadors at gatherings and exchanges did not occur due to travel restrictions. One way that this project adapted was to have youth guardians who were originally going out on moose monitoring patrols seconded to work at the community COVID-19 checkpoint – helping to keep their community safe by screening incoming visitors and community members for COVID-19 symptoms.
Lesson 2: Find authentic ways to engage with communities and the environment
Virtually all of the projects in the cohort are bringing together young people in person in nature for learning and relationship building – all of which became more difficult as a result of the pandemic and related health protection measures and protocols. Rather than hit pause, many of the projects adapted to find creative ways to engage with communities and the environment.
In Vancouver, the Environmental Youth Alliance, a civic ecology and citizen science project, took their Land Guardians program virtual and developed a new online curriculum to keep youth involved and engaged with nature. The virtual program included interactive weekly video calls and independent activities designed to safely get youth outside into nature in their own neighbourhood, including “Plant of the Week” where youth were tasked to go out and find a native plant in their neighbourhood, a fun “Mad Libs” game guiding youth to build the story of a plant’s life cycle and the relations it meets along the way, and a “Bee or Not a Bee” guessing game where youth deciphered how to tell bees from their common look alikes.
For the Students on Ice Climate Action Cohorts, the pandemic reminded the project leads about the importance of transparency and vulnerability during periods of uncertainty. This is especially true as participants collectively face the interconnected crises of health, climate, nature, and human rights. Because of this, the team has adopted a meet-you-where-you’re-at mentality. Flexibility of rules, expectations, deliverables, and understanding has never been more important. With plans for in-person travel (including the opportunity for participants to attend the COP26 global climate conference) on ice, engagement with each participant and the cohort as a whole has become increasingly transparent. In the project’s webinar series and participant check ins, there is a lot of honesty shared about how everyone is doing and challenges they are facing as individuals. This vulnerability has helped to break down barriers and allows both project leads and participants to bring their authentic selves when they gather together and connect.
Lesson 3: Build relationships and connect as a cohort
In addition to impacting the way that the projects are evolving in each community, the pandemic has also meant a shift in strategy and approach in how we are engaging with the projects as a cohort.
Recognizing that many of the young leaders and program leads were dealing with added stress and uncertainty with their projects and in their communities, we decided to take a break over the summer, suspending our scheduled virtual convenings and pushing the potential of an in-person gathering into 2021.
Rather than lament the missed opportunity of an in-person gathering and trying to achieve the same goals and objectives that we originally anticipated, we reframed our engagement approach to adapt to the realities of a 100% virtual experience for the foreseeable future. This includes a more intentional focus on reflective practices and collective check-ins, as well as finding ways to bring nature in our virtual gatherings. We also recognize that video-conference fatigue is a real thing, and are experimenting with alternative ways for members of the cohort to stay connected and engaged, including using Slack for collaboration and resource sharing and encouraging participants to connect one-on-one with each other for a “walk and talk” in nature.
In addition, we’re using this opportunity to move forward on an idea that was brought forward by youth participants at our first in-person gathering last year, to co-create an evaluation toolkit with the support of our evaluation partners that will not only help with developmental evaluation and learning across the projects, but also be published as a resource for other youth-led environmental initiatives.
Lesson 4: Don’t forget the environment as we build back better
If there’s anything that we can learn from the experience of the both the young leaders and the projects that make up our Youth Action & The Environment cohort as they continue to adapt to the ongoing uncertainty during this pandemic – it is that we must not forget the environment as we make plans to build back better. These remarkable young leaders are on the front lines in their communities – both in terms of the pandemic response and also in terms of the critical climate action work they are advancing. For them it isn’t a matter of choosing one or the other – but a stark reminder to not forget the planet as we begin to recover from the pandemic.
It should be the same for us.