How we kept it real and got close in a virtual world

By Kelly Pope and Paru Desai, SV2 Get Proximate Co-Leads, SV2 Partners

This article is the seventh in a series about the principles and practice of getting proximate:

The term ‘social distance’ is likely tiring for many of us. A more accurate term could perhaps be ‘physical distance’. We know the challenges that different populations face in a virtual world from mental health crisis to equitable technology access and loss of learning for children. We are also aware of some of the unexpected blessings of Zoom, from the ability to access more events to reduced travel time. Technology and creativity have certainly helped us get through the pandemic by bridging the health need to maintain safe distances while supporting mental and social need to retain and build connections. We now see each other in various settings, sometimes with the movement of family members and pets in the background (or laps!).  We see glimpses of their homes and workspaces or their passions in what they choose for a background screen. These serve to show lives beyond this session and a humbling reminder that the focus of the meeting is just a piece of theirs, and ours, larger life puzzle.

We also had to re-think our Get Proximate in the physically distant world, and continue to facilitate understanding and relationship building in ways that couldn’t be done by sitting in our SV2 offices. Some questions we grappled with included: Would this format work on zoom?  Would the emotion and personal nature of these stories translate in a virtual setting?  Would we be viewed as supportive and empathetic listeners, when body language and facial expressions are difficult to gauge through a screen?  We, and our Community Partners, were willing to give it a try.  

In this article, we recap how it went and key takeaways. 

After a successful two year Get Proximate pilot (2018-2020), SV2 made a commitment to develop a 3 year relationship with our neighboring community, North Fair Oaks (NFO). T‌hrough the pandemic, we continued building relationships, developing empathy and trust by engaging with the NFO community amid challenging times. Together with the Lead Partners of our two NFO Community Partners, One Life Counseling Center (OLCC) and Upward Scholars, we approached the Executive Directors, Suzie Hughes and Linda Prieto to co-create mutually valuable Get Proximate experiences. This mutuality remains a key tenet of Get Proximate.

Suzie generously offered to duplicate a presentation that they had successfully given in pre-COVID times. It explained the ‌trauma immigrants experience in their countries of origin, why they seek to immigrate to the U.S, and how OLCC’s mission to provide mental health services to immigrants can be life-changing. 

In the first virtual Get Proximate event with One Life Counseling Center, Suzie shared an overview of the realities of newcomer immigrants, and she opened up to 3 young people to share their stories and experiences. In a very supportive Zoom environment, each told heartfelt, very personal stories about their immigrant journey and the lived trauma, both in country and migrating to the US. They described the impact that OLCC had in supporting them through counseling at critical times. In their stories, we heard their pain but also their resilience, successes, and aspirations. It was a powerful and moving experience for all who experienced this intense virtual space. 

After the event, one speaker shared:

Thank you for opening up this platform for people to learn more about the immigrant community. I am so passionate about working with these children and making a difference. We were all in their shoes at some point. Thank you all for showing us so much love virtually. Like I said earlier, I felt so loved even if it was not in person. We had such a great group of participants join. I hope that one day, we can do this again in person.”

Partners reflected on the authenticity of the immigrants, how brave it was for them to open up and tell their stories, many reliving their past trauma. They also encouraged more events in this format:  powerful data + storytelling, a combination that proved to be a great learning opportunity and also one that helped build empathy, opening the door for alternative narratives. 

One Partner said:

“The first person stories from the immigrants who demonstrated resilience and determination to make a life here. And now these same people are helping others; so inspiring!”

In the second virtual Get Proximate event with Upward Scholars we followed a similar format, and explicitly scheduled it on a Friday evening to accommodate the busy work/school/family schedules of the Scholars. Linda presented the organization and its mission of providing adult immigrants educational and career development support. We were introduced to 6 adult learners who told moving stories of the many challenges new immigrants face, highlighting the stigma attached to them when they don’t speak English, and how that made them feel. The Scholars also shared so much determination and accomplishments they were most proud of, like starting a business, providing for their families, and being conversational in English. We then went into two small groups and engaged in more intimate conversations with the Scholars.  From these conversations we learned that, while physical proximity is nice, many of the feelings and interactions that bring humans close can happen virtually.  

After the event, multiple Scholars shared how they overcame some initial nervousness and their increased confidence in speaking English. They were so proud of themselves. Linda also shared that SV2 Partners were super great about chat, reactions, and providing a safe, friendly, and comfortable setting. The timing also worked really well.

While a few commented that the breakout groups could have been smaller to facilitate deeper conversation, many Partners commented on their learnings:

“I have a better sense of the importance of education for adult immigrants.”

“I didn’t realize how deeply a language barrier can affect an immigrant’s ability to find employment or navigate their child’s school system.”

“I was most impacted by the scholars’ stories.”

One of the goals of our Get Proximate work at SV2 is to embed the principles in all of our work. It’s a tool in the philanthropic toolkit, much like being able to do diligence or learn the latest in equity centered practices. Getting proximate goes one step further in that practicing it means living it and adopting it as a way of being in all interactions.

Our North Fair Oaks Grant Round in 2020 was influenced by these concepts through the use of coffee chats and walking tours of the neighborhood as part of the diligence. Because deep learning and building trust-based relationships takes time, SV2 also committed to a three year Get Proximate commitment to NFO. Ongoing conversations with staff, Lead Partners and Grant Round leaders means that we are very conscious of bringing these values to different programming activities which in turn increases Partner learning.  There is great overlap between getting proximate and justice, diversity, equity and inclusion (JEDI) practices and as SV2 moves forward towards more equity centered practices, we are excited that this way of being will also permeate other aspects of Partners lives and actions.