Community conversations help illuminate a path out of the pandemic

As COVID-19 continues to pose a threat to public health and the economy, we’re featuring nonprofit partners in the Stand Together community who are using creative, community-driven solutions to keep us connected and to help get us to our “new normal.”

The Village Square, a nonprofit organization focused on building civic trust across political and other societal divides, is no stranger to moderating discussions about divisive topics. For more than a decade, its events have served as a public forum for controversial topics, built on the belief that a spirit of healthy disagreement is good for our country. Now the team is using their platform and reputation to share valuable information about COVID-19 vaccine efforts across Florida.

Based in Tallahassee, The Village Square is committed to bringing together people with diverse personal backgrounds and political convictions. The organization joined Stand Together Foundation’s Catalyst Community in 2020 to refine and scale its model for empathy building and civic engagement.

“Every hometown needs to make an intentional commitment to the ideal of being in community with people who aren’t just like us,” says Liz Joyner, The Village Square’s founder and chief executive. “Not only is it far more interesting, but it’s also the way you solve problems in a country of, by, and for the people.”

The Village Square typically brings people together through town halls, large events, and/or over sharing a meal. But when the COVID-19 pandemic began, its leadership team recognized that those tactics were no longer feasible.

Instead, in the first weeks of lockdown, The Village Square began providing strategic, organizational and logistical support to rapid mask-production efforts, crafting protective equipment for at-risk individuals, essential workers, and healthcare personnel. Over the course of the crisis, as the national conversation steadily shifted from collaboration and public health to political division and misinformation, Liz and her team saw that community-level dialogue was once again desperately needed.

“It’s obvious we’ve lost our way in living out the fundamental ideal of a free people. We need each other,” she says. “The pandemic crisis we’ve faced together is just another data point confirming this belief.”

To combat the hostility playing out on national news outlets and on social media, The Village Square partnered with Tallahassee Memorial Hospital and the Tallahassee Democrat to hold a public series of “politics-free” status updates from local leaders and medical experts.

The response was overwhelmingly positive, and the Village Square realized that open and honest information amid chaos and uncertainty was just what the community needed.

As vaccines became available, the Village Square team decided to apply the same strategy to ease concerns about safety and accessibility.

They began in January with an event to explain how vaccines were developed. It was hosted by former Tallahassee Democrat publisher Skip Foster in conversation with two members of the FDA’s vaccine and related biological products advisory committee, Dr. Paul Spearman and Dr. Geeta Swamy. Through a partnership with USA Today, the conversation was streamed across the network’s Facebook pages statewide to ensure people had access to critical information.

In the following weeks, that first conversation transformed into a series of weekly virtual programs for Tallahassee residents. The events included city and county officials, and local clinics serving low-income community members.

These efforts made it possible for the community to hear from the head of every single department — including the health department — once a week about what was happening in their hometown at that very moment. “It was extraordinary. Like having your personal team of COVID consultants at the ready,” says Liz.

Ultimately, the goal for these conversations is the same commitment that The Village Square has made since its founding: to provide space for hard, important conversations at a hometown level. In this case, its team hopes that the result of its efforts won’t only be civic engagement — but a community-led path out of the pandemic.

“These events are an inspiring, elegant example of what communities can do together when they try,” says Liz. “We’re doggedly optimistic that hometowns can change everything. We know it because we’ve seen it.”

Want to discover more organizations like The Village Square? Visit Stand Together Foundation’s Catalyst Directory to see hundreds of organizations using bottom-up solutions to transform lives. Inquire here.