The same day in March that the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak as a global pandemic, my Gender at Work colleagues and I were in a meeting room in Hyderabad. Oblivious to this fact, we were diligently planning for what promised to be a busy year for the next phase of the Project funded by Oak Foundation. After successfully executing phase 1 of the project, our first larger collective planning session for the second phase was scheduled for April 2020. We drafted a broad agenda to be finalized after our discussion with Civil Society Academy (CSA), co-grantee in this project. Needless to say, things did not go as we had planned.
Since October 2018, when the project commenced, I have travelled to Ranchi, Jharkhand, almost every month. Some months as many as three times to organize workshops and meetings for this capacity building project ‘Empowering Civil Society for Social Change in Jharkhand’ with our partners: Samvad, Ekjut, Ibtida, JATN and Maitree. Between February 2019 – January 2020, it felt like I was spending more time in Ranchi than in Kolkata, my home. With time, stronger bonds were formed, friendships developed, and Ranchi became my second home: a city I now associate with this project, good food and good weather. Sitting in that meeting room in Hyderabad, little did I know that COVID-19 would take the shape of a prolonged global health crisis and change our realities completely.
Upon my return to Kolkata from Hyderabad, I got busy with other ongoing projects and waited patiently for things to unfold. Finally, in early April, all the partners in Jharkhand were informed that the meeting planned later in the month could not happen due to the pandemic related restrictions. Words like ‘unprecedented’, ‘reimagine’ and ‘resilience’ were popping up in the vocabulary of people, particularly in the development sector. Slowly, everybody started talking about how to do things online, through Zoom. Despite being a part of an organization that thrives on working virtually, I struggled to ‘reimagine’ this project in a virtual world. Part of my hesitation stemmed from the fact that as Gender at Work, we value learning methodologies which emphasize experiential learning. We encourage participants to work in groups, foster shared learning by creating spaces where everyone gets a chance to speak and share their thoughts.
Without the familiar laughter and hesitation of the participants, translating into dialogue, it was difficult to picture how change processes or organizational development could be addressed virtually. Having worked with these partners for over a year, I knew many of them were not technology savvy. I could see that a Zoom call would be a challenge for them; until recently, they never felt the need to befriend technology. For their work, they have mostly relied on face to face connections. Some of them still prefer to use feature phones instead of smartphones. Despite this, we were able to organize our first Zoom call with some partners towards the end of April and early May. Challenges of being unfamiliar with the platform were visible. Nevertheless, we all were in this together, and learning. Things were moving slowly, as was expected. When there is nothing much that I can do, I breathe ‘inhala, exhala’, remembering the soothing voice of a beloved TV character.
Inhala, exhala… Inhala, exhala…
With time, conducting online workshops, holding virtual meetings became the ‘new normal’, a term I detest. The reality was, we could not wait endlessly. To my amazement, with this new pandemic situation came new needs and opportunities for the project participants and we had to make some progress. This was the time when they needed our support the most.
A good starting point was to check how were they feeling? How were they grappling with this pandemic? How have their learning needs changed over time? What kind of capacities/resources may they require to deal with this?
Our partners had a lot to say and share. In such times, creating a space for empathy becomes necessary. Their struggles were, still are, manifold: from working with the community during COVID-19 to the plight of returning migrant workers as the mass migrant exodus in India continued. Although many of them were involved in COVID-19 relief work, it isn’t their core area of work, as these organizations are working towards creating a society that fosters equality, diversity, inclusion, social justice and communal harmony. But as the pandemic continued, our collective learning grew as well. The topic of differentiated impact of COVID-19 on men, women, non-binary people, children, young and elderly became one of the most discussed subjects on social media platforms, academic journals and in different meetings.
With unplanned lockdowns, social and physical distancing and erratic regulations, these grassroots organizations struggled to look at new ways of continuing their work with different stakeholders. To address these challenges, an online learning event ‘Building Organizational Resilience for CSOs: Reimagine the Future During Uncertain Times’ was organized jointly by CSA and G@W towards the end of August 2020. Even though we were all a bit anxious, the participation was encouraging. Nearly 15-16 participants from 5 partner organizations actively engaged. This was close, if not more, to participants attending our in-person workshops. Many of them, by now, were comfortable joining Zoom calls and for the most part, it went well.
I realized that conducting workshops online needed a lot of preparatory work, more than we require for workshops that are conducted in-person. Our workshops are based on emergent learning and feminist pedagogies. There is a need to innovate continuously. To successfully design these workshops, there is a need to question: Who are we working with? And who are these workshops meant for? Are we contextualizing? Who is deciding whether this is the right fit for them? In doing so, we are constantly questioning the power and privileges we hold as facilitators.
To begin with, we conducted a digital access survey to assess the situation with internet connection and infrastructure available with our partners. We found out that many of them had the adequate infrastructure to participate in an online learning event. Virtually, we often miss out on the non-verbal cues that play an essential role in telling us whether it is going well or if there is something concerning. Even though it is not easy to resolve them entirely, we started making those little efforts by shifting our approach. For example: calling some of the participants during and after the event to assist them with any challenge they might be facing. We also encourage the participants and facilitators to share their thoughts and feedback on the process and their experience.
Although their feedback was encouraging, we learnt many things on the go. Despite challenges like steady connectivity, low phone battery, power cuts for some who were joining from the remotest parts of Jharkhand, I was amazed to see their enthusiasm.
Some of the participants got disconnected as many as 5-6 times during one meeting. Yet they did not lose patience. Their sheer dedication and participation was amazing. Despite the added care-burden, women participants managed to make time for this workshop. One of them shared, “it was a great opportunity to meet everyone after such a long time and discuss some of these pressing issues”. Another participant shared, “it was so well organized that it did not feel we were not in a collocated space, breakout rooms were even better than in-person discussion”.
I admit that it was not easy for me to ‘reimagine’ the process, but I had to. The needs of the civil society and our communities were continually rising. It was the time to pause, to think, to innovate, to learn, to question, and to challenge. More importantly, it was time to continue.