By: Rebekka Schaffer, Workforce Development and Conference Coordinator, Center for Innovation in Population Health

I don’t know about you, but every time I turn on my television, or check my email, or try to order something online, I’m reminded that we’re living in “unprecedented and uncertain times”. It’s a little ironic that the phrase itself has become one of the only predictable things about this season of life. As the communications lead for the TCOM team, I’ve been tempted to use that phrase myself (I actually might have already done it…please don’t go looking for emails I’ve sent in the last two months).

While the phrase may already sound like a cliche, I do think the general sentiment behind it is both well-meaning and necessary. We need to be reminded that this is, in fact, new territory–we’ve never been here before. It’s unprecedented, therefore it’s okay to be uncertain. It’s okay if you don’t know how to feel or react or cope in the midst of a global pandemic. I think we need to hear that.

More importantly, this phrase has pushed us to ask some really critical questions. If we are currently living in unprecedented and uncertain times, then what were we living in before COVID-19? And what will we be living in after? When will things go back to normal? Do we want things to go back to normal? What does a “new normal” look like?

Before going further, I want to be clear: I am not interested in romanticizing this moment in history as merely an opportunity to reset and grow and change. Because while I think all of that is true, it is equally true that this pandemic is highlighting ( and in many ways, expanding) the racial, educational, and socio-economic inequities in our communities, and I don’t take that lightly.

I live in Chicago and have spent the last six years volunteering at an after-school program in Englewood–one of Chicago’s most under-resourced (but rich in history and culture) neighborhoods. In my time there, I’ve begun to accept certain things as “normal” when they really shouldn’t be. It’s normal that there aren’t enough working computers for the students to do their homework. It’s normal for those same students to speedily try to get their work done at the program, because they don’t have wifi at home and won’t be able to complete their research paper. It’s normal to tape books back together because they were worn out by other students at the school that got the copies first.

In the midst of transitioning to online schooling due to COVID-19, however, it has become apparent that what is normal is also detrimental. At the end of April, nearly 115,000 Chicago students were still in need of computers, simply to keep up with their work and learn. Computer and internet access is just one small factor leading to inequity for my students and for other vulnerable populations. Communities of color are continuing to struggle with food insecurity, access to safe transportation, and access to medical care at disproportionately higher rates. We’ve become accustomed to facts like this. So it seems normal that a pandemic would be hitting low-income communities and communities of color harder than others.

And that is why we can’t go back to normal. Not all of it was bad, of course. But if going back to the things I miss about life before COVID-19 means returning to systems that create and perpetuate disparity, then I don’t want it. I can’t long to go back to “normal” when my own sense of normalcy was intrinsically tied to someone else’s inequity. I think we’re doing ourselves, the families we serve, and our greater communities a disservice if our goal is to simply go back to normal.

That is why, in the midst of all of this, I’m grateful to be a part of the TCOM team. TCOM has been challenging the norm since its inception. The very nature of TCOM, as outlined in the Core Principles below, is to transform and redefine the ways we work with youth and families.

  1. All assessments and interventions should be culturally responsive and respectful.
  2. People should have voice and choice with regard to participating in any assessments and interventions.
  3. All interventions should be personalized, respectful and have demonstrable value to the people they serve.
  4. Collaborative processes, inclusive of children and families, should be used for all decisions at all levels of the system.
  5. Consensus on action is the primary outcome of collaborative processes.
  6. Information about the people served and their personal change should always inform decision making at all levels of the system.

The TCOM approach helps to show us what should be normal in the work we do. It should be normal for families to be met with dignity and cultural responsiveness. It should be normal for us to create interventions and action plans based on collaboration and consensus from all parties involved. To implement TCOM is to implement a “new normal”–one that is rooted in equity and the desire to see lives transformed for the better.

I hope that’s the type of “new normal” we establish, collectively, as we emerge from this season. I hope we truly take the time to assess what was normal in our lives, in our work, and in our communities. I hope that we refuse to go back to the patterns and systems that didn’t lead to the best possible outcomes for the most vulnerable among us. Challenging the norm creates an opportunity for transformation–I hope we take that opportunity.

What are some new norms you’ve begun to establish in your work or in you family during this time that you hope to keep moving forward? We’d love to hear about it!

One Response

  1. Rebekka, Your article is powerful. The points you make are meaningful.

    I was very interested to read about your work with youth in the Chicago neighborhood of Englewood.
    That’s the same area that Dr. Edgar S. Cahn wrote about in Ch 12 of “No More Throw-Away People: The Co-Production Imperative”. The social justice example of the youth experience in Englewood in that book is what inspired me to develop Youth TimeBanking.

    I agree with you 100%, we must strive to break down the pre-COVID-19 structural and racial inequities. I am working in a very small way to do a tiny bit towards that immense vision on an unexpected project that has me connecting with 19 youth of color in a rural area in the northern part of Jamaica with limited access to technology and limited resources for learning.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: