In this Q&A, the first in a series of conversations with Community Living Brant staff, we speak with community connector Tara Buchanan, and discuss the shifts that staff are seeing in community as we all begin to journey outside our homes and comfort zones amid lifting pandemic mandates.

This transcript was edited for readability. This interview is also available in audio format at the bottom of this post.
 

Q: What are the dynamics you’re noticing in community as we come out of mandates?

I have been noticing that people are being really respectful of one another. It’s really refreshing to see because there’s been, throughout the pandemic, such a dichotomy of opinions or this feeling of anxiety around how others are feeling. I’m noticing now that people are checking in with one another more. They’re checking in, and because it’s a choice people seem to be very respectful of this space and where they are. I’m noticing that in all sorts of settings.

I went skiing, and there were diverse ways that people were handling the lack of mandates. I thought that was really interesting. Even though we were outside some people were wearing masks, some people were wearing face coverings, that could be for the snow or for masks. I think people are getting creative.

I was worried that folks might feel pressured one way or the other but I haven’t seen that since mandates have been lifted, which I think is very refreshing. I also enjoy the fact that not everybody is rushing or pressuring themselves to get in situations they don’t feel comfortable in. For example, there have been many events happening in person. There was a drag show that the local university put on and it was fully in person; it was supposed to be outside but moved inside because the weather that day was very bad. Though they recommended that people wear masks, it was not mandatory. Seeing there, too, how some folks didn’t go to the event because it moved inside, that was their choice, and that’s fantastic. I like that they felt they could be open about that and share with me why they weren’t going. And then other folks who went, lots of people were wearing masks, and lots of people weren’t — people seemed to be keeping a little bit of distance but not too much.

I just really enjoy how everybody is taking it in their own way and not being apologetic about it. I’m hoping that means that people aren’t feeling as much anxiety about it. I know for me personally, and a lot of the people I talked to, there was a lot of anxiety around not wanting other people to feel uncomfortable, or making sure that you’re not putting somebody in a position where they feel compromised throughout the pandemic. That was causing people a lot of anxiety, ‘am I following the norms of the group that I’m coming to?’ Even if it’s a group you’d been a member of for years, even family get-togethers, right? Even if it was four people, there was all this anxiety about, ‘am I doing what everybody else wants to be doing?’ Outside, am I wearing a mask? Am I not wearing a mask? And now it’s all up to personal choice. So I don’t feel that people have the same sense of responsibility to others, because it is your personal choice.

Everybody seems to be thinking about alternatives for how people can gather and build community. That’s gonna have a huge impact on what community means and what it looks like, moving forward.

I think it’s really nice to see people excited about gathering in a way that feels good to them. I’m noticing that lots of places are now considering in-person gatherings, even though not everyone is comfortable with that, for people that are, it appears to have been really beneficial. It’s really exciting because everything is new. We don’t have to be bound by the restraints that we had before. Not everything has to be in person, which has been wonderful for folks that can’t access things in person. So folks with disabilities, elderly folks, people who have a lack of transportation — everybody seems to be thinking about alternatives for how people can gather and build community. That’s gonna have a huge impact on what community means and what it looks like, moving forward.

Q: What are you seeing that you’d like to see more of?

Well, this is more personal. I would like to see more gatherings in person. During the pandemic I wanted to be respectful of people, of health concerns and safety concerns, I really wanted to make sure that I was doing things in an appropriate way to keep myself, and especially marginalized folks around me, at low risk but I really missed seeing people in person.

Zoom is fantastic and I actually don’t mind virtual meetings. But I know that lots of people find that very anxiety producing. A whole bunch of social norms that we didn’t have time to learn the rules to were thrust upon us. Then we had to figure it out for ourselves and that can be quite challenging for people. So now, I think that’s happening again, when we meet in person, but I’m very optimistic about it. I like that spaces are giving people more choices.

I like that people are going outdoors. I’ve always loved nature. I’ve always loved being outside, even in the cold. There have been some events I’ve been participating in all winter this year that have all been outside. Even though, if it’s a blizzardy day, some people won’t come, there are still a group of folks that come whether it’s a blizzard or not and go for a lovely walk together and connect.

I think it’s having people push their own boundaries, try new things and reconnecting. Finding ways to reconnect with one another in the physical is what I would really like to see more of but, of course, as people are feeling comfortable to do so.

The other thing I’d like to see more of, I talked about earlier, was checking in with people. It’s a nice way for us to show community care for one another, to just ask how people are feeling. And then also listening, not just asking, but listening and working together. If we can come out of the pandemic with that it’ll be a huge advancement. I think we can be respectful of one another, whether we agree or not, by just checking in and asking. There’s always a way to accommodate multiple points of view, whether it be using more space, changing a venue, or asking people to wear masks in certain situations and not others. There has always been a way to accommodate everyone in the group and it would be great to see moving forward.

Q: What do you think are some next steps that can be taken to move in that direction?

If we have some new social norms especially around any type of facilitated group, whether that be a service club, or a social group, or a hobby group, maybe just having that be part of the setup of the group: regular check-ins with everybody. Maybe having a space where people can share their thoughts and feelings and make it more of a norm, to check in with one another about how we’re feeling. That was sort of happening before the pandemic in certain circles, but maybe this would allow it to become a broader practice. Maybe the more people are doing it, the more normalized it will become and people will feel a little bit more comfortable to share how they’re feeling.

Q: What would it take for those steps to be as wonderfully successful as possible?

Just practicing it. When something is new, it always takes time to get used to it, or sometimes you forget, and that is all part of the process. It’s been a stressful two years for everyone on the planet, I am sure, I can only speak for myself but I feel like everyone has been feeling some extra pressure. If we can remind ourselves of that and be gentle with ourselves and everyone around us, knowing that we will make mistakes, but knowing that our intention is to include everyone and be mindful even if we disagree.

Taking a step back and looking at other people’s sides, with an open understanding, instead of making judgment would be very helpful. Now, that is not easy, but I think it is really important. Sometimes we forget that community is more than just the people that we agree with. Lots of times we can sort of circle ourselves with people that have common beliefs and common interests and we can forget that the rest of the folks are out there.

Actively seeking out connections with people we don’t know is really important to rebuild community and see what happens. I feel like, particularly in my work, that is very important. I’m very excited and looking forward to that portion of it. It’s challenging but it can be really rewarding too. I think being mindful and being grounded in ourselves is helpful in that process.

I’m feeling like we’re at the precipice of something really exciting, as a society. We have a great opportunity to reshape what already existed in a way that is more inclusive.

Q: If that were to happen, what do you feel would be possible? What’s the best thing that could happen?

The best thing that could happen would be that we would have these super strong communities that come together and support one another. I know that when people are the safest, healthiest, and feeling the best, is when they have connection to people around them, and when they’re feeling empowered and engaged.

The best solution would be that we would have very strong communities that would support one another, and help move forward in a way that’s mutually beneficial for everyone. I feel like I could start singing a John Lennon song or something. But really, it’s the same vision that many, many people have had for many, many years, is that folks come together, above their differences, and see what commonalities we have. And take strength in that and care for, love, and respect one another.

Q: What, if anything, have you not said yet that you’d like to add?

I’m feeling like we’re at the precipice of something really exciting, as a society. We have a great opportunity to reshape what already existed in a way that is more inclusive. Not just inclusive, but that helps people feel like they belong in our societies — helps people really feel like they are a part of. Because I think for too long, people have been feeling like they’re on the outside. I think that many people realized what that felt like, during the pandemic, people who maybe had never understood what that felt like before. Maybe now we can have some understanding of how that has felt for other folks that didn’t feel like they were included pre-pandemic. Maybe we can build better communities where we all feel a little bit more included and we all feel a little bit more like we belong.

Listen to an audio version of this interview here:

 

Lead photo cutline: A community group, pictured above, meets weekly for walks. The group is posing with Jane’s Walks glasses, as two members will be running their own Jane’s Walks this year.

 

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