Recreating Opportunities for Community Virtually
An Interview with Emily Schosid, Sustainability Program Coordinator in the DU Center for Sustainability
How has your work changed, adapted, and shifted in this virtual world?
My work has changed significantly since having to move to virtual. The work I do has always focused on creating opportunities for people to come together (usually physically) to create a sense of community strong enough to allow people to make the (sometimes challenging) choices that lead to a more just and sustainable world. We love to gather groups together to complete volunteer projects - like our Earth Day of DUing in previous years, which brought out hundreds of folks in the DU community to complete community service projects with partners all across the City of Denver. Since the start of the pandemic, we have had to stop being together physically, and focus on the good people can do alone. A lot of our work has also focused on finding ways to share and reuse things - everything from sharing public transportation or carpooling to reusing items like coffee mugs and to-go containers. Now people are scared to do those things, so we've had to try and think through how to reduce environmental impacts while staying safe according to pandemic rules. These two things are often at odds with one another.
What ways are you and your department/team are trying to build community, connections, and a deeper sense of belonging virtually?
We know that one of our primary functions is to engage with the DU community to teach them how to make smarter choices that help increase the quality of life (for everyone) and builds a more just and sustainable campus and city. Our students have gotten really creative about craft boxes that students can take home and do on a zoom call with others, or on their own. We have partnered with several local, sustainable, and woman -, alumni- or BIPOC-owned companies to source the materials for these boxes, which continues to connect us to our local community and stimulate our local economy. During our staff meetings, we try to keep things fun and conversational and start every meeting with a small-group check-in/get-to-know-you conversation. Whenever possible, I try to have one-on-one meetings with students in person and outdoors so that I can continue to build relationships with them while giving them a staff member that can help anchor them to the Center for Sustainability and their role on campus. We try to talk about things beyond what is strictly work-related so that we can get to know one another on a more personal note. I have tried to make myself as available as possible for phone and zoom calls, either to check in on a project, to talk about an issue, or to simply talk about life. Now that things are a bit more open, this has been happening more frequently, and I think we are all feeling a much-needed sense of community starting to grow among our staff and our "fans."
What are some of the biggest successes you’ve seen as the world has shifted to a virtual experience?
I think the enthusiasm to be creative and face this challenge head-on that my students have shown has been the biggest success. To be honest, I am a highly collaborative person who loves to be in the community (and who does NOT feel that sense of community through virtual means), and I was not very excited for an entire school year to continue the way the spring did last academic year. But my students were ready to face the challenge head-on, to come up with fun and creative ways to engage their peers in meaningful activities, learning, and engagement, and this really brought me out of my funk. We have been able to take on some new projects with the spare time we have from other programs getting shut down and tick several items off our punch-list of projects. Also, because of everything being virtual, we were able to plan the Sustainability Conference to have more speakers and attendees than any in the past, which both surprised and delighted me. As the Community Commons has opened and brought people back to campus, I feel there is a renewed sense of energy and excitement to get to work here on campus again, and I have a renewed vigor and excitement for my work and my community.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve seen as the world has shifted to a virtual experience?
To be completely honest, this last year has been mostly challenging. Not being able to work physically together has been incredibly isolating for all of us. I have students working in my office that I have never met in person. The greatest joy I get from my job is to connect with and form strong relationships with my students, and it has been tough to do that when we are only meeting in giant zoom meetings.
We've had to fully shut-down several of our programs - Zero Waste Sports (because sports with spectators haven't been happening), Renter Efficiency Program for Students (REPS, because it involves going into the homes of off-campus students, not safe), the Gear Garage (we couldn't find a reasonable and safe way to disinfect shared camping supplies), and others - or completely restructure them - the DU Food Pantry (now does pre-packed bags that have proved to be less desirable than our previous model), our quarterly events (which used to bring groups together for highly engaged activities and which are now largely virtual and less attended), and others. This has been tough for our students, who sometimes feel like they are failing or that their work has less meaning than before.
Also: THE ZOOM FATIGUE. We keep planning virtual events, but people are tired of engaging in this way. That has been tough to find the balance between safety and "oh god, ANOTHER zoom thing? Really?"
If you could say one thing to the DU Community right now, what would you say?
Don't be afraid to reach out to folks! Ask someone to go for a walk or a chat outside. It can feel a little weird to just reach out and ask someone to spend time with you, but I am so relieved anytime someone asks me to spend time with them - it is SO NEEDED right now, even in the midst of a very busy time of the school year.
To learn more about The Center of Sustainability, visit: https://www.du.edu/sustainability