Recently, Alicia Chalmers, Manager of Donor Engagement from Manatee Community Foundation and Hannah Saeger Karnei, Inaugural TPF Fellow, facilitated four virtual community conversations. Shaped in the style of The Harwood Institute's community conversations, each group of about ten was guided through a series of questions to offer their aspirations, concerns, and perceptions about the community.

Focus Areas
Despite the different hats each person brought to the community conversations, three key themes emerged as focus areas.

Connecting. Why? COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of intentionally connecting in both personal and professional settings. One positive to come from the stay-at-home order is many people have been exposed to new technology or ways to connect, and nonprofits and businesses have found innovative ways to provide necessary services. Many people shared that in uncertain times, connecting intentionally allowed them to build trust and deepen relationships in ways they would not have taken the time for previously.

Keeping our local community thriving. Why? COVID-19 revealed the fragility of our local economy, and it is impacting businesses and nonprofits alike. The heavy influence of tourism and service jobs has created widespread difficulties for those who live and work in our community. Some organizations can adapt and thrive with new tele-services or online ordering. Even when organizations can retain employees, the transition to online school and closure of childcare facilities means a greater need for flexibility. We are a community rich in resources, but the COVID-19 crisis has put many people who have never accessed services before in the confusing situation of trying to learn the who, what, when, why, and where of available assistance.

Equity of access. Why? Current events have brought to the forefront inequities in our communities and how they adversely affect our children, working families, and older adults. The mental and emotional impact of isolation, delayed or reduced exposure to learning opportunities, and even safe living environments, will only grow. How can we ensure the right services are getting to the right people? Additionally, digital access is directly connected to our ability to stay engaged at every age. However, it is especially critical for our students and older adults in facilities that are still closed to visitors.

More equitable access to services will result in stronger people who can power a stronger economy and ultimately create a stronger community.

How are people feeling?
Despite the very real difficulty of how uncertain the future is, the participants in community conversations were optimistic. The fear that can come from not being sure of what steps to take when, is balanced by the positive impact of being more connected. A unique outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it gives all humans a shared experience.
What actions can be taken?
1) Identify who you trust
Change happens at the speed of trust. There's a lot of information coming at us these days. To help us identify and act on reliable information, develop relationships, and tune into people you trust.

2) Have conversations
We can learn a lot from each other. When we interact, listen to understand and have empathy. New possibilities will emerge.

3) Ask: What's possible and who else cares?
The optimism in these community conversations shows us that more people are thinking in terms of "what's possible," then "this is the end." Whether or not your values exactly align, when you find others with the mindset of asking what's possible, you find common aspirations aren't very far away.

These community conversations are not the beginning or the end. Thoughtful work continues to happen in all sectors and dimensions of our neighborhoods. These interactions offer a check in to allow our community an opportunity to share and be affirmed that out of great turmoil, comes great opportunity. As people discover their shared aspirations, opportunities for deeper engagement may emerge.

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