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When community organizing goes virtual: NWSP continues efforts amid pandemic

Emma Brauer
7.09.2020

As a nonprofit working “to revitalize and sustain the Near West Side as a thriving business and residential corridor,” one of the pillars of the Near West Side Partners’ efforts is community engagement. While NWSP canceled public in-person meetings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, connecting with residents and businesses of the Milwaukee’s Near West Side remains a priority for the organization through virtual and creative methods.

“Community organizing is as important as ever as we combat this global health crisis working with our residents, businesses and partners,” NWSP Executive Director Keith Stanley wrote in a blog post. “So despite the limits that physical distancing presents, the Near West Side Partners is still here and we will continue our mission of making the Near West Side a safe and quality place for the people, who live, work and play in our community.”

“Community organizing is as important as ever as we combat this global health crisis working with our residents, businesses and partners"
— Keith Stanley, Executive Director of Near West Side Partners

In his blog post, Stanley detailed what the organization has been doing since the coronavirus pandemic shifted operations remotely. Through a combination of webinars, social media posts, YouTube videos and direct emails, Stanley said they have been able to inform and support their businesses and residents.

“Canceling public meetings and having staff work remotely has been difficult, however, we have been to overcome these challenges with planning, technology and ingenuity,” Stanley wrote.

However, expecting all residents to have reliable internet access, ease using Zoom and other online platforms, and jobs that have transitioned to remote work would mean they are only tailoring their community organizing effort to one demographic, which Stanley emphasized cannot be the case.

“There’s a large section of the population who don’t have an iPad or a laptop, their only source is a phone,” Stanley said. “So one thing we’ve done is flyers — that’s community organizing 101 — but we also have a texting system. Because if you only focus on one platform, you only focus on one group — and I would say in the world that we are living in now, we are realizing that it is very easy to have one segment of the population dominate the conversation. We want to make sure we’re connecting with everyone.”

NWSP received $10,000 of Housing and Urban Development funds through LISC to mobilize communication strategies with residents and businesses amid COVID-19.

Stanley said that because the wellbeing of the Near West Side residents are the organization’s utmost priority — especially given the virus affects urban communities and people of color at higher rates — NWSP teamed up with Advocate Aurora Health for a campaign called “Slow the Spread.” A YouTube video as part of the campaign is an example of the creative methods NWSP used to propagate their message. Stanley also took to YouTube to speak directly to landlords in the Near West Side about how to keep residents of their buildings safe.

Stanley said that because the wellbeing of the Near West Side residents are the organization's utmost priority 

“Urban centers like the Near West Side have higher population rates with underlying health considerations, multi-generational living and many hourly workers that supply our food, deliveries, banking services and are not able to work remotely,” Stanley wrote.

Elderly residents of public housing are also part of the population vulnerable to the virus, Stanley wrote, so NWSP has spent time collecting donations and supplies of essential items like face masks, hand sanitizer and laundry detergent for these individuals who may be unable to go out to the store themselves.

“NWSP staff have dedicated office hours at the Near West Side Waypoint, 1201Q N. 35th Street (on Harley-Davidson's campus), 9 a.m.-10 a.m., Tuesday and Thursday for those who would like to drop of the donations,” Stanley wrote. “We then work with Housing Authority Staff to safely deliver these donation to College Court and Merrill Park sites.”

In lieu of monthly public meetings, NWSP has shifted to weekly webinars. Stanley noted that while this may be a bit more organizing work, the consistency and frequency of contact with residents virtually is important during a time like this. He noted that the fact that anyone may view the webinars on NWSP’s YouTube channel — even after they air via Facebook Live each Friday — gives them the ability to potentially reach more residents. He said they also send out weekly emails to 150 Near West Side businesses highlighting resources and opportunities, and they post two blogs each week featuring resident stories, events and webinars.

To engage local businesses during this time, NWSP also began a YouTube series called “Made in the Near West Side.”

“Made in the Near West Side is a weekly cook-along social media series that highlights the chefs and restaurants that are unique to our neighborhood while also providing additional revenue to restaurants through the sale of meal kits,” wrote Lindsey St. Arnold Bell, Associate Director at NWSP, in a blog post.

Stanley said the engagement of NWSP is far from over, and they will continue to mobilize their efforts in all of the ways they are able while maintaining safety.

To donate to NWSP, visit nearwestsidemke.org/donate.