Urban Wire Solidarity and Good Partnership amid the COVID-19 Pandemic
Elsa Falkenburger, Olivia Arena, Jessica Shakesprere
Display Date

Volunteers help prepare bags of food to aid those in need during the coronavirus outbreak at the Arlington Food Assistance Center, on April 28, 2020, in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate, and lack. We should not long to return my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.

Sonya Renee Taylor

It is no surprise which communities are most devastated by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Decades of structural racism and other systemic failures are creating disparities in rates of infection and mortality. It is not enough to simply note the sources of these disparities; all research and policy partnerships need to directly address the systems that have contributed to these perpetuating disparities.

How we mitigate the pandemic’s impacts and understand its long-term effects is key to ensuring we do not simply return to “normal” after social distancing ends and a vaccine is available. We must center the communities most affected—communities of color, workers with low incomes, residents of subsidized housing, aging populations, rural areas, immigrants, and people with disabilities—and work in partnership with the local leaders and groups on the front lines of social service provision.

Urban Institute staff frequently collaborate with local partners: resident groups, service providers, state and local governments, community-based organizations, data providers, and funders. Amid so much uncertainty and upheaval, we are considering what it means to be a good partner and providing recommendations for other changemakers.

How can we show up in a meaningful way for the communities we work in? How can we think creatively and strategically about how to leverage our platform, connections to other organizations, and resources to best support the response and recovery of our partners, collaborators, and their communities? How can we structure our work to build a more just and equitable society?

How we show up now matters

To strengthen relationships with the communities and partners we work with, we must continue to serve as thoughtful collaborators, recognize past harms, and foster consistency and honesty. If we disappear in a time of need, we risk damaging relationships we've developed and missing opportunities to make an immediate impact on relief efforts. 

Our partners are playing a variety of roles during the pandemic, from providing direct relief to heavily affected communities to crafting large-scale policy responses. As we support stronger, data-informed responses, resilience, and recovery, we are listening to partners, rather than assuming their needs, and respecting flexibility in timelines and requests.

Some strategies we’ve employed:

  1. Leveraging resources and skills beyond traditional roles. Following Washington, DC’s first stay-at-home order, an Urban research team from the Promoting Adolescent Sexual Health and Safety (PASS) project immediately reached out to grant officers to determine grant flexibility that would allow us to support our partners as they provide emergency relief and supports. Researchers also worked with community partners to source local grant opportunities and draft proposal narratives for emergency response assistance. Another approach is to serve as an evaluator of local mutual aid or direct service efforts that need access to reliable local data and support in tracking resources, tasks, and results.
  2. Finding virtual ways to collaborate with community partners through social media, virtual meeting platforms, and other online engagement tools. Urban’s Promise Neighborhoods team is offering grantees technical assistance through a virtual course on building equitable relationships between family and school partners. To address shifting needs, the team created a set of guiding questions and a platform to share how COVID-19 is affecting family and school dynamics. Partners across the nation are connecting on shared challenges, such as internet access and child care, and reimagining problem-focused models of family engagement to advocate for greater school-based resources and supports.
  3. Serving as connectors, sharing best practices from across our national networks. The National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership has been hosting weekly calls to share strategies for using local data to inform communities’ responses. Local data groups around the country jumped into action to identify areas of highest need, map available resources, communicate the effectiveness of stay-at-home orders, and adapt other cities’ ideas for their communities.
  4. Asking if and how we can help and providing suggestions or options. Offers of support shouldn’t create additional burdens. When we initially offered to help our PASS partners at Exodus Treatment Center and Brotha’s Huddle, they were at a loss, busy fielding calls 24/7 and helping community members meet basic needs. After we provided a few examples, they asked if we could compile a list of citywide resources with links and contact information, help write emergency funding requests, and find creative ways to keep research tasks moving forward in ways that would keep their staff employed and continue to engage with teens and ensure they are staying safe.
  5. Creating more responsive research. Many researchers are grappling with deciding when to stop research or continue with an adjusted approach or design. Researchers may need to pivot in their data collection plans to be not only flexible but also responsive. Researchers should center partner needs and limitations and prioritize work that can provide immediate support for rapid response and coordination. In continuing with research efforts, monitoring on-the-ground conditions in partner communities can ground research and policy efforts in local contexts, both during the process and in resulting products.

Our evolving role

How we show up for partners now will shape the future of our partnerships. A closer connection to what is happening on the ground will also inform our research and policy recommendations and ensure they accurately reflect need and context.

As the effects of COVID-19 unfold, roles and conditions will change and researchers and other changemakers must continue to evaluate the structure of relationships and be creative in the roles we play. Collaborative, innovative, and thoughtful adjustments to our research, technical assistance, and policy work will strengthen the response, resilience, and recovery of the communities most affected by COVID-19.


Tune in and subscribe today.

The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Tags COVID-19
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population
Research Methods Community Engagement Resource Center Research methods and data analytics