Separated by a Pandemic, Communities Across the Country Have Sprung into Action Online
Neighbors are more than just the people you share fences or walls with—they’re the ones you borrow hoses from, the ones who watch your kids for a few minutes when you’re in a bind, and the ones who organize backyard barbecues. But this year, with a pandemic, worldwide protests against racism and police brutality, and an unemployment rate hovering around 20 percent, neighbors are also a lifeline—organizing grocery runs for immunocompromised folks, sheltering protestors to protect them from arrest, and providing entertainment and sourdough starters while everyone is temporarily stuck in the house. At a time when epidemiologists are telling us to stay home as much as possible to prevent the spread of coronavirus, much of this connection to our neighbors is happening in online spaces like Facebook groups.
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So, how are people staying connected to their neighbors in this uneasy era? I asked neighbors around the country how they were using the internet to be neighborly while traditional means of gathering like block parties and association meetings are off the table.
They’re pooling resources and information
Want to know where to find toilet paper or which one of your neighbors can pick up some flour for you? Neighbors have turned to online groups for help at unprecedented rates during the pandemic to get information, says Prakash Janakiraman, cofounder and chief architect of neighborhood platform Nextdoor.com.
“Since COVID-19, there has been a 262 percent increase in members talking about helping one another—offering to pick up groceries or medicine for the most vulnerable, or finding out where there were disinfecting wipes available. Needs are being met through this hive mind,” Janakiraman says.
Of course, this hive mind is not always sunshine and rainbows. Sites like Nextdoor and other online groups have long been criticized for providing a platform for racial stereotyping, and a story in The Verge this week points out, “black users on Nextdoor are being silenced by community moderators after participating in discussions about race.”
Imperfect as they may be, neighbors are gathering in these online spaces now more than ever. Loren Lopez, a moderator of the Facebook group “The Good Neighbors of Antelope, CA,” a small community near Sacramento that had a large spike of COVID-19 cases stemming from a church, says neighbors who were discovering grocery delivery for the first time taught quick online lessons to those who wanted a safer way to get food to their kitchens.
“Members were writing posts like, ‘I used Instacart for the first time. Here’s some screenshots.’ Or, ‘I have a $10 off coupon. PM me and I’ll send it to you through email,’” she says.
In addition to procuring the necessities, neighbors around the country are also informing each other about local businesses in need of support. On Nextdoor, officials discovered the mention of local businesses increased about 17 times more often than pre-pandemic rates—with users craving information on new hours and takeout availability for stores and local restaurants.
“Clearly when we are now restricted in our movements, we’re more reliant on local resources than ever before. The people and places around you matter,” says Janakiraman.
They’re spreading the word about protests and sharing anti-racist resources
Neighbors are turning to online platforms for more than just to ask if Costco has toilet paper in stock—they’re also using them to disseminate the most up-to-date information about local protests against the racist murder of George Floyd and city-imposed curfews, as well as to exchange resources on anti-racism, like reading lists and documentary recommendations.
Duane Joseph, one of the admins for the “Prospect Lefferts Gardens and Brooklyn Neighbors” Facebook group and a member of Brooklyn Community Board 14, says that while at first neighbors’ posts about protesting covered basic facts such as the time and location, now conversations in the group have morphed into a quasi public sphere, where posters are sharing resources and articles about white fragility and privilege. But the posts are also discussing what follow-up action needs to take place in the future for there to be clear, actionable change when it comes to police and Black community relations.
“We’ve been seeing a lot of follow-up posts [after the protests] about how to better engage—what still needs to be done as far as police accountability. What they feel as a community we need to see more of,” Joseph says. “People understand being engaged is not just ranting online.”
And some neighbors—like those in the “FLOW: For the Love of Wedgwood” Facebook group in Fort Worth, Texas—are using their online platforms not to find out more about peaceful protests, but to organize their own. Nicole Gilbert, a member of the group, has four children, and although she wanted to participate in the protests happening downtown, she was worried about losing one of them in the crowd.
“Another neighbor—she’s African-American and I’m African-American—asked our Wedgwood Moms Facebook group if anyone had taken their kids [to the protest]. I said ‘Let’s just do something here with us.’ And that’s how it started,” Gilbert says.
After chatting through the logistics on Facebook Messenger, Gilbert and a few of her neighbors set up a time and location for their walk, which attracted 20 other participants. When they posted photos on the group page after the fact, those who missed out said they wished for another walk—and they’re planning on holding another one this weekend.
They’re providing local history lessons
Shonn Williams, a moderator on the “Neighbors of Snow Hill” Facebook group, calls himself something of an unofficial historian. Snow Hill, a small town of about 2,000 located on the Eastern shore of Maryland, is chock full of historic houses—and Williams decided to make a video of one that recently got demolished near his home to post to the group he helps moderate.
“It wasn’t a fancy house that was on the National Register of Historic Places, but it had the same family living there since the Great Depression era, if not before. The last family member moved in 2015 I believe, maybe 2016. That was 80-plus years of history and three generations of the same family in that home,” Williams says.
After posting several videos and photos of the home, Williams says neighbors on the Facebook group were curious to hear of the home’s history, especially those who were new in town, which sparked a lot of conversation on the post.
“I was surprised at all of the reactions. It gave me a good feeling,” he says.
Due to the success of his post and the interest of his neighbors, he says he is going to share more local history digitally as the opportunity presents itself.
They’re entertaining kids (and grown-ups) stuck at home
With schools closed and many adults hunkering down at their kitchen tables to work, kids and grown-ups alike are starved for entertainment beyond binging Netflix and doing puzzles. Online groups have helped ease the pandemic boredom in unique ways for families who are having to suddenly give up playdates, after-school activities, and visits to see grandparents.
In Toledo, Ohio, a neighbor in the “Old Orchard Neighborhood Association” Facebook group has taken the now-famous “bear hunt” and turned it into performance lawn art. The “Quarantine Bears,” three oversized stuffed bears, were posed daily throughout Ohio’s stay-at-home order by Alison Mihaly, who wanted to give the neighborhood kids a bit of extra cheer and create a walking destination for stir-crazy families. She posted the bears’ daily antics, which consisted of everything from playing badminton to attending a county fair, on Facebook and Instagram.
“I wanted to pose them in activities that families who live in Old Orchard would normally do, like soccer practice, or a father-daughter dance with mom at home, who had a spa night—stuff that families would see and see themselves in. One of the comments [on the photos] said, ‘I love that the bears are doing what we wish we could do,’” Mihaly says.
And in Lincolnshire, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, Samantha Lande created a digital scavenger hunt for the kids in her neighborhood—all organized via text chain. After reaching out to one of her well-connected neighbors, 35 families in the area were instructed via text to put items out on their lawn for kids to “discover” and check off the Google Docs checklist that Lande wrote.
“When this all started, our kids couldn’t see their friends and we were all stuck in our house. The weather was one day super nice and the next day snowing. We truly, until about a month ago, were pretty much in our houses. A walk around the neighborhood was all we could get,” she says.
And in the face of an unrelenting news cycle coupled with social distancing, neighbors are more connected than ever
According to a recent survey from Nextdoor, 84 percent of those surveyed said they feel like they have a neighbor they can rely on—and 49 percent of respondents said they believe their relationships with their neighbors will be stronger after this pandemic is over.
Temporarily separated from family and friends, whether it be the next town over or thousands of miles away, the physical presence of neighbors nearby has been a source of comfort. Forming deeper connections with them throughout this pandemic has become commonplace. In pre-pandemic times, neighbors may have just been the people you waved to on the sidewalk, or worse, those you ignored on the elevator ride down while you fiddled on your phone. Now, during violent responses from law enforcement over nationwide protests against racism and police brutality—coinciding with the worst public health crisis in over a century, no less—maintaining relationships with neighbors has once again become a priority.
“We’ve all gotten so into routine with work or commuting to the city for work. Our kids are overscheduled, and sure, we’d see each other in passing. But now you see people out on family walks. Kids will see each other and wave to each other on bikes,” Lande says. “It’s become simpler times when there’s so much that’s not simple. We’re really appreciating the very basics of human connection in our neighborhoods.”