I first connected with CHEER in February of this year; I submitted a brief volunteer application online. Some months before that I meet John Brill, CHEER’s Community Empowerment Coordinator. John seemed like a great (and genuine) person and CHEER seemed like an organization that was doing work that really mattered.
It turns out that CHEER, quite unsurprisingly, is doing work that really matters. One of the things that drew me to CHEER was the strong focus on community engagement and the prioritization of local knowledge. When I perused the website, I quickly got the feeling that this was an organization that understands the immense and irreplaceable value of listening, truly listening, to the people you are trying to help – and empowering people to be active makers and shapers of their future, both on individual and collective levels.
I have worked for NGOs in challenging countries, such as Guatemala and Sri Lanka. I’ve learned – through firsthand experience – how important it is to have local knowledge, to understand the context in which you are working and to never stop learning. It’s early days and yet it’s already so clear that the people at CHEER understand this. It’s encouraging to be around that sort of energy, that sort of mentality.
If you’re reading this piece you may already know that, since the coronavirus crisis hit, CHEER has been regularly checking in with community members. People are not just asked what they need or want, they are asked about how they are doing. These are serious and meaningful conversations that are taking place during a once-in-a-century pandemic.
This is important work. It’s how relationships are formed or maintained. It’s how trust is built or further solidified. It’s how you signal – subtly though unequivocally – that you are committed.
No one knows how or when this pandemic will end. It’s going to be a rough 2020 in a host of ways. And it could definitely be a rough 2021.
We could be dealing with the virus for years and there’s no guarantee that a vaccine will be created. COVID-19 is poised to forever change the way we live, work and think. It’s also obvious that the economically vulnerable are being further marginalized during this time.
Essentially, the policy implications of COVID-19 are extremely significant. Aside from the urgent imperative of trying to keep people as safe as possible and other health-related matters, there are obviously economic and financial issues to consider.
More broadly, we need to reconsider what we talk about when we talk about redistribution. Bruce Baker, CHEER’s Executive Director, has hit on this in his latest piece. “We have an opportunity to contemplate the gross inequalities and racial injustices and rethink what has been,” he writes.
It’s arguably never been more important for people doing community development work – for organizations like CHEER – to have their pulse on the grassroots; to really know what people are thinking and what’s happening with their lives; to have a nuanced understanding of their worries; to hear about their hopes and dreams; to diligently listen; to document; to keep documenting; to recognize that building resilient communities is hard and vital work; to play the long game.
Being an active, responsible citizen and fighting for what you believe in aren’t things you do from time to time, they’re lifestyle choices. As difficult as things are right now, it’s exciting and fun to be (virtually) around folks who share that vision.