Community and Collaboration in the Time of Social Distancing
By Taylor Zantingh
Two weekends ago, on a Sunday afternoon, I went to my grandparents’ 400-square-foot basement apartment for a farewell brunch. They were scheduled to depart on a cruise the following week. My whole family was there, nearly 40 people hugging, passing around my uncle Joe’s phone to marvel at his latest ice-fishing catch, and eating grandpa’s revered fried potatoes off each other’s plates. We laughed inches away from each other’s faces. We let the dog lick salt from our fingers as we fed her pieces of sausage under the table. My baby cousins tickled each other while sitting in the laps of four aunties squished onto a three-person sofa. It was warm, we were all sweating a little under our knitwear, but a cool breeze was coming in through the windows. Everyone was smiling.
This gathering came a few days after I received the opportunity to write this story. All weekend I’d been thinking about my experience with the TENT project and how I’ve integrated my newfound skills into my life. I developed an outline for a story about a girl who overcomes economic barriers, imposter syndrome, and cultural narratives about gender and class in order to conquer the problems facing her community. By Friday, however, the world was changing rapidly. Problems were erupting on the global stage that impacted every community I was a part of. Classes were suspended. My grandparents’ trip was cancelled. My band’s performances were postponed indefinitely. My second job was filling my schedule with shifts as my manager frantically tried to staff a department that was struggling to meet the needs of the panicking public.
When I realized how serious COVID-19 was, I went grocery shopping for my grandparents and, as I was delivering the bags to her porch, my grandma stood sadly behind the glass door.
“I hate this whole situation.” Her words were muffled by the barrier between us.
I forced a smile and promised to give her a big hug as soon as it was safe to do so again.
The situation we’re in right now is hard. We need to adapt our ways of living, to collaborate and solve problems creatively to protect the most vulnerable members of our communities. After a state of emergency was declared in the United States, I sat down to write up a new outline for my story. The world is changing—my story and our lives must change with it.
Six months ago, I was just beginning my third year in Sheridan’s Honours Bachelor of Creative Writing & Publishing. I’d spent the summer travelling around in a self-converted camper van and the lifestyle, though exciting, left me feeling as though I had my toes dipped in multiple communities, without immersing myself in any one of them in a meaningful way. For me, a wide breadth of life experience has always been a pathway to personal growth and fulfillment—I divide my time between work, school, family and friends, writing, editing, activism, travel, teaching, and music—but after my nomadic summer, I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself again. I longed for a community to contribute to and grow from, and I was eager to put in the work to finding or making one.
When the call for applications to be a Research Assistant with the TENT project was sent out, I was overwhelmed by internalized negativity and low self-worth. I come from a working-class family and I am the first of my siblings or parents to pursue a degree. Career paths that require higher education never seemed accessible to me. Until adulthood, I never knew any lawyers or scientists, engineers or professors. I didn’t know any doctors but the one I visited when I was sick. So, when I saw the call for applications, I told myself other students would be better suited for the role, that it was a waste of time for me. It was only because of my grandma, who encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone, that I finally decided to apply.
Creative Problem Solving
Before the first meeting, the same negative thoughts were still consuming me. I was excited, but I couldn’t stop wondering when people would discover the ‘truth’ about me. During the first creative problem solving (CPS) session, I was petrified to share my ideas. The CPS method required us to defer our judgements—of ourselves and each other—and prioritize quantity over quality in order to produce as many novel ideas as possible. The hardest hurdle to overcome was deferring my self-doubt. I was afraid that I would expose myself as a fraud and that my team would regret taking a chance on me in the first place. I had a wealth of experience in DIY community building and leadership, but I didn’t feel that it was enough. There are going to be real artists in this meeting, I told myself, successful academics and accomplished artrepreneurs from Fringe. What could I possibly bring to the table?
When I mustered up the courage to walk through the door, I was instantly met with many friendly faces. There were toys and stickers on the tables. I poured myself a coffee and sat down at a table where a few of my soon-to-be friends were laughing with each other. Professor Jennifer Phenix, with her friendly smile, lead our group with warmth and enthusiasm I’d not previous imagined to be possible. Within the first half hour, I’d completely forgotten my trepidation. The CPS method allowed me to escape my perfectionist tendencies and my imposter syndrome. I quickly realized that everyone in that room, no matter how successful, had been where I was at some point. I felt sure that we were all working together, contributing our unique skillsets to accomplish a common goal. Soon, waking up to catch the 5:43AM train from Oshawa to get to Square One for our 8AM meetings became the highlight of my week.
Solving Problems, Building Community
As I’m writing this today, on a Friday morning, it’s clear how much the world changed in such a short amount of time. Only a few months ago, I would have been on that Friday morning train, yawning under fluorescent lighting but excited to collaborate with a community of individuals who inspire me, but now, GO trains are nearly empty. Something that is usually critical for connecting people is, right now, a part of the problem. So, we’re all staying home. We are working together, apart. It’s different, but if my experience with the TENT project has taught me anything, it’s that we need different methods if we’re going to solve the complex problems facing us today.
Luckily, as the world changes, so do we. I’ve gained so much from my experience with the TENT project, including confidence in my ability to contribute something of value to my communities. These days, nothing could be more important than everyone feeling empowered to make positive change. Now, I’ve been applying the CPS problem solving method to the wide array of problems facing communities I am a part of. Musicians are moving many of our upcoming shows to digital streaming platforms. I’ve been talking to management at my job about developing a delivery system so that people can get what they need without putting others at risk. Yesterday, I called my grandparents on Skype and had lunch with them from the comfort of my couch. It wasn’t quite as comforting as grandpa’s potatoes, but hearing them laugh as I told them about my busy day at work made me feel almost as connected to them as I had when we were all happily crammed into their apartment only two weeks previously.
There are many things that can turn a gathering of people into a community. A good meal shared with loved ones. The sound of a children laughing. Music and bodies moving together on a dancefloor, or in their living rooms. Creative ways to strengthen our communities, communication, and connections are more vital now than ever. We must feel empowered to collaborate and support one another, so we can learn how to solve these problems together and protect what matters most.
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