With in-person school suspended for the rest of the academic year and shelter-in-place ordered for the state of Illinois, at least through the end of May, our team at Communities In Schools (CIS) of Chicago has had to pivot to continue supporting Chicago students and families.
Planned organizational transformation is not an easy process under normal circumstances. Transformation in less than a month’s time, in response to a global pandemic, is a different thing entirely. And yet… we’ve managed to do just that. And a big reason for our success is because we’ve built such strong relationships with a variety of stakeholders. We’ve turned to them in this time of crisis, and they’ve responded heroically to help support our students in new and dynamic ways.
Our network of community partners is just one group of stakeholders, in addition to principals, parents, and our board of directors, that has rallied to meet the needs of our students. Since mid-March, the Partnership Team here at CIS of Chicago has convened more than a dozen virtual meetups for our community partners. These partners provide programming in areas like the arts, college/career preparation, and mental and physical health and are now facing the challenge of shifting in-person programming to meet the standards of remote learning.
By hosting virtual meetups, our Partnership Team has been able to help community partners understand how to provide remote learning in accordance with CPS guidelines; share best practices for adapting their programming to Zoom and other online platforms; and, perhaps most importantly, serve as through-lines of connectivity and collegiality during this time of heightened social isolation.
One recent virtual convening exemplified the power of positive relationships. The Partnership Team wanted to create a space to help community partners re-envision and adapt their work so that it remained relevant for remote learning. Our team also wanted the meetup to be partner-led. On a very short notice, we sent requests to three partners who had successfully adapted their programming to the ‘new normal.’ Each of the organizations agreed to participate in the training, based on the strength of our relationship with them.
Naturally, each of the partners delivered a fantastic, collaborative Zoom training that bolstered the confidence of other community partners in attendance. Partners left the training feeling like they could indeed shift their programming so that teachers and families could continue to benefit, while at home.
Without the strong, cohesive relationships we’ve built with our partners, there’s no way this training, or any of the other virtual meetings we’ve hosted the past six weeks, would have been nearly as successful. The feeling of connection — and mutual accountability — has helped us all rise to the occasion and accomplish things we might not have thought possible.
In the same way that our community partners have answered the call to adapt and deepen their relationships with schools and students, we’ve witnessed our colleagues from across the organization stay connected and help one another during these uncertain times. Their flexibility and innovation allow us to continue carrying out the organization’s mission and vision.
What do strong relationships look like within the organization? It starts with responsiveness. In a moment’s notice, colleagues from across the organization are willing to pitch in as needed to help get important work done. Requests for assistance fly over Google Hangouts, email, and conference calls. Invariably, the response to those requests is some variation of “Yes, I can help!”
Our STEMpathy Initiative Manager, Kara, for example, usually teaches robotics in schools. Since we’ve gone to shelter-in-place, though, she’s willingly and ably stepped in to play the role of tech moderator for the Partnership Team’s virtual meetups. In a similar fashion, when the Partnership Team asked our School-Based Team to lend an expert voice to a virtual gathering for school counselors, we had no shortage of volunteers — even though members of our School-Based Team are leading very full days providing virtual support to students and families.
Finally, as our organization has shifted how we typically support students, families, and community partners, we’ve constantly pushed each other to adapt and try new things. Conversations are peppered with “What about…” and “Have you thought of…” and even sometimes “I respectfully disagree.” Not all workplaces feature this level of trust and open dialogue, but it is powerful. And it’s hard to achieve, unless you have strong, underlying relationships to ground those kinds of exchanges.
The founder of Communities In Schools, Bill Milliken, has a famous saying that a member of any CIS affiliate can recite: Programs don’t change kids. Positive relationships do. Bill coined that phrase long before schools across the nation were closed, students and families were quarantined at home, and service providers like CIS were compelled to adapt their work. But more than ever, the power of our relationships matter, and they’re a key part of #WhatWeAreMadeOf.