Community Engagement During COVID-19

By Betsy Gardner • SEPTEMBER 29, 2020

“The first time the community hears from you can’t be you asking for something from them,” says Estefania Zavala, Long Beach, California’s Digital Innovation Program Manager. Community engagement can be challenging at the best of times; when communities are reeling from a pandemic, protesting racism, and facing economic uncertainty, engagement and communication are even more crucial — yet even more challenging. In a recent webinar, What Works Cities (WWC) hosted representatives from Boulder, Colorado, Long Beach, California, and Los Angeles, California who offered guidance on how to engage priority communities, such as English-language learners and immigrants.

As Zavala points out, establishing regular touchpoints and reciprocal relationships with these communities is crucial. Engagement cannot be a one-way street, nor should it be exploitative, especially since many of those priority communities have higher rates of COVID-19 and are experiencing the brunt of the pandemic’s economic impact. Quality, trustworthy engagement can help connect these communities with health and financial resources, and it is imperative that local governments utilize community engagement best practices to do so. The following recommendations are based on the webinar and follow-up conversations with Zavala and other panelists from the WWC webinar.

Cities should... with trusted community members.

Since 2018, the city of Boulder, Colorado has engaged individuals who have deep community relationships and social connections as official Community Connectors. These residents directly deliver important information from the city to their neighborhoods, and bring area concerns back to the local government. Ana Casas Ibarra is one of the city’s official Community Connectors; she came to the United States from Mexico as a child, and is a Connector for the Latinx community in Boulder. Through the program, Ibarra has been able to voice the concerns and needs of her community directly to the city government. This serves multiple purposes: Ibarra is able to bring messages from both non-English speakers and undocumented members of the community, and is able to communicate back the government messages in a relatable and secure way.

Having a trusted local constituent act as a conduit amplifies the messages of those who might be afraid to communicate themselves, and helps the local government provide needed services. It can also help allay very real privacy concerns. According to Ibarra, the Connector program has been well-received; “We feel very fortunate to have this in place because we now are feeling like the city is caring more about the community.” communities where they are comfortable.

Right now, “meeting” looks pretty different than it used to, and cities have had to adapt quickly to new engagement technologies. In some cases, that meant going back to older technologies; city officials in Palmdale, California, discovered that radio messaging was very effective in reaching the local Spanish-speaking community. But for many other cities, digital meetings are the new norm, and some online tools are more comfortable for English-language learners. For example, officials in Long Beach hosted a community meeting on the WebEx platform, but since it was less well-known, residents were more hesitant to download and use the app for a government meeting. Zavala shared that the city has since switched to using Zoom for community engagement specifically, a platform which the community is more comfortable with and which also is able to support live translations. Other cities have learned that smartphones can be more common for residents to own than computers and that mobile messaging is consistently preferred over emails.

These trends are partially due to the digital divide, which emphasizes not just the importance of having access to the internet but also digital literacy and understanding how to use online tools. Another part of the challenge is due to language accessibility, which is easier to provide on some apps and platforms over others.

...reconsider barriers at the systems level.

Zavala spends a lot of her time considering how challenges to participation in local government for immigrant and English-language learning communities are baked into civic processes. “Have we created systems that make our residents trust us?” she asks, “How do we do that? And how do we build this expectation that they’ll have a good experience interacting with the government?” Language accessibility and translations are foundational to this; everyone in the webinar discussed how critical it is to not simply default to English-only, if cities want to reach all of their residents.

In Long Beach, this means having a policy that everything is put out in multiple languages. Officials make sure that the translations are not just poor copy-paste jobs, and are instead tailored to the nuances and idiosyncrasies of each language, by working with community-based translators. There are similar considerations in Los Angeles; 26 percent of the population is categorized as “limited English proficiency” and the city uses twelve different languages for communications. Bilingual employees, including Mayor Eric Garcetti, help translate the city’s messages, with many working on the internal language access working group. Using data on language access gathered pre-pandemic, LA is now making sure that all residents are getting updates and accurate information about COVID-19.

For Zavala, language access is both a professional and personal concern; she had to find an appointment and schedule a COVID-19 test for her mom, who lives outside of Long Beach and whose city didn’t provide a Spanish-language COVID portal. Thankfully, her mother didn’t have the novel coronavirus, but for Zavala it just reiterated the importance of her systems thinking. And that episode points to one of the most salient systemic barriers; a lack of representation in local government. If city officials aren’t representative of these priority communities, then it is that much harder to engage, build trust, and serve.


The earlier these recommendations are implemented, the better, so cities should heed the advice and guidance in this article to best serve priority populations during this challenging time. For further reference, please check out the following resources:

About the Author

Betsy Gardner

Betsy Gardner is the editor of Data-Smart City Solutions and the producer of the Data-Smart City Pod. Prior to joining the Ash Center, Betsy worked in a variety of roles in higher education, focusing on deconstructing racial and gender inequality through research, writing, and facilitation. She also researched government spending and transparency at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Betsy holds a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Policy from Northeastern University, a bachelor’s degree in Art History from Boston University, and a graduate certificate in Digital Storytelling from the Harvard Extension School.