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Questions About Accessing Food, Paying Rent, Finding a Job During the Pandemic? Let’s Talk

A person walks along an empty Midtown street during the height of the coronavirus epidemic in the city, April 28, 2020.
A sign of the times
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

On April 30, The Open Newsroom — our effort with Brooklyn Public Library to make local news more collaborative — met for the first time on Zoom instead of a library branch due to the pandemic.

We had no idea what to expect. But once we opened the virtual door, one person joined, then another, then another — and it felt almost like we were all in a physical room together again.

“That hour and a half alone has made lock down a lot less alienating, and offered some tangibility to changes/events that have been occurring at mind-blowing speed,” one attendee wrote to us.

We’re back with another round, this time we’re holding three meetings — each focused on a different topic picked by Open Newsroom attendees — over the course of three days:

  • The week will kick off with a conversation about rent and tenants’ issues on Tuesday, July 14, at 6 p.m. Sign up here.
  • Then we’ll discuss working and unemployment on Wednesday, July 15 at 6 p.m. Sign up here.
  • Finally, we’ll dig into food access and security on Thursday, July 16 at 6 p.m. Sign up here.

What We Heard

The first step of an inclusive newsroom is listening. So we wanted to check in with folks to see how they were doing and what challenges they were facing during the coronavirus crisis. Of the 100 people who signed up for the first round, 40 from 25 different neighborhoods attended.

We broke off into small groups during the video chat and started the conversation by asking folks what good things they were experiencing and what was giving them hope.

A Virtual Open Newsroom held on May 14.
A Virtual Open Newsroom held on May 14.
Screengrab/Virtual Open Newsroom

Many spoke about their neighbors helping each other out by delivering groceries or checking in on seniors. Leaders of local organizations talked about figuring out new ways to share information and support their communities.

Karen Blondel, a past Open Newsroom attendee, mentioned participating in the Fifth Avenue Committee’s delivery of 20,000 pineapples to folks from Red Hook to New Rochelle in a sign of friendship. Another participant in the same group said she lived in one of the buildings Blondel delivered to.

“Those pineapples gave me hope and a chance to see how it made others happy. It was like putting a piece of sunshine in people’s hands during a really dark time,” Blondel said. “Just seeing that little sliver of happiness at the beginning of April really changed my dynamic.”

We also heard:

  • One participant helped set up a mutual aid group in Park Slope that connects seniors to young people who can do errands and deliveries for them.
  • A couple of our participants talked about their community organization in Red Hook that adapted how they reach out to residents by doing a postcard campaign to get out essential information.
  • Individual acts of kindness, like one participant’s boss who gave staffers a book of their choice from a local bookstore.

We created a list of all the organizations mentioned in the Virtual Open Newsroom, like the Fifth Avenue Committee. You can view that here.

How You Helped Us Set the Agenda

We also asked attendees to tell us about the challenges they were facing and their concerns and questions. This helped us shape the agenda we are following in the next round.

Some of the most common questions:

  • How can I stay connected with my neighbors safely?
  • What do I do if I can’t pay rent?
  • Are seniors getting updated about safety and services if they don’t use the internet?
  • Where can I get fresh food in my neighborhood?
  • What safeguards will be in place to keep students and teachers healthy in the fall?

We logged all responses — and there were a lot. But most seemed to fall into essentially eight main topics. We listed those topics online and asked everyone who has ever attended an Open Newsroom to tell us which were top of mind.

Topics for next week’s meetings are set, but fill out this list to let us know what we should focus on for future sessions. You can do that here.

We know this isn’t a comprehensive list. But this gave us a starting point.

It turns out the high-priority issues were similar to those cited by Open Newsroom attendees pre-COVID: rent and tenants’ issues, navigating jobs and unemployment, and food access and security.

What to Expect

We took the top three and built a series of meetings and conversations around them.

The second round of the Virtual Open Newsroom will ask attendees to dive deeper into these topics so we can understand concerns and issues and answer questions together.

We will play a word association game and then ask you to attach personal experiences to those words.

Sounds open-ended? Sure. But we hope it’ll be illuminating, compelling and, despite the heaviness of the topics, a little fun.

We’ll again break into smaller groups for these activities. A facilitator will guide each group to keep everyone on track and help identify common concerns and questions on that night’s topic.

The goal is to work with the community to help fill information needs and gaps — and to connect residents to either the primary source of that information or to develop journalism together.

While the exact output is unknown until we dive in, the intent is to listen, be responsive and open up the newsgathering process to the community.

We’re teaming with Local Voices Network (LVN) this time around, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to foster conversation in communities and in the media that improve the understanding of one another.

LVN trains reporters and community members to have conversations in person and over Zoom that focus on people’s local experiences.

Each conversation is recorded, transcribed and made searchable to reporters and community participants on a custom platform. This added level of interaction allows people to interact with each other’s stories — and to highlight topics and accounts that deserve more exploration and amplification.

What’s Next

In the following weeks, we’ll meet up again to talk about solutions. This meeting will be more of a panel setting for folks to ask questions about these three issues, and respond to fellow community members. Experts from around New York will join the conversation to talk about resources and help address specific concerns.

We’re creating a list of experts now. But if you have any ideas about who might be a good addition to these panel discussions on tenants’ issues, working and unemployment, and food access and security, please let us know. You can email us at opennewsroom@thecity.nyc.

We’ll let you know as soon as those dates and panelists are secured. But please don’t wait for those: Attend these first meetings to help us shape what comes next.

If you’ve missed any of the past meetings, or haven’t attended any, that’s not a problem. We design our sessions so that you don’t have to attend every one to know what’s going on.

Hope to see you there and feel free to send this link to a friend.

If you have any questions, you can email us at opennewsroom@thecity.nyc or call/text 646-389-9289‬.

Reminder:

  • Rent and tenants’ issues on Tuesday, July 14, at 6 p.m. Sign up here.
  • Employment and unemployment on Wednesday, July 15 at 6 p.m. Sign up here.
  • Food access and security on Thursday, July 16 at 6 p.m. Sign up here.

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