The outbreak of COVID-19 and the President’s subsequent Declaration of a National Disaster on the 15th of March 2020, has had a profound effect on South Africa’s urban areas, with almost every sector of society experiencing unprecedented consequences. Municipal built environment practitioners have had to adapt to a new set of priorities and a very different way of working. As the project manager of the Built Environment Integration Task Team (BEITT) at the South African Cities Network, I was anxious about how the task team would manage to connect with each other during Lockdown, when staying connected during this time is so critical for personal and professional support.
To respond to these challenges, BEITT has used this time to come to together virtually on a much more regular basis. Ordinarily, the group meets quarterly to share and learn from different Cities’ experiences, and ultimately to grow as a group and as individuals who are able to shape their practice and their institutions to deliver on the mandate of spatial transformation in South Africa’s cities. Since the outbreak of the virus, 15 engaging virtual engagements have been held with the BEITT. These have all been conducted using a combination of Zoom, Mural and offline activities to ensure that the meetings are fun, exciting and visually stimulating.
The series of virtual engagements started with weekly check-ins to determine the headspace that practitioners were in and to create space to breathe and reflect. The quarterly meeting, focused on using this Covid-19 period to grapple with participation beyond a compliance burden and discuss ways to foster real partnerships with community? These virtual engagements have helped the BEITT Secretariat to understand where practitioners are at, professionally and personally, and how best the task team can serve them. Through the quarterly meeting, the need was established to set up a BEITT series dedicated to thinking through and actioning a post-Covid-19 recovery plan, and over the following two months, a virtual session was held each Friday morning to tease out different Covid-related themes in detail. Relevant guests and key stakeholders were invited to offer insights into these sessions and to be in conversation with practitioners. The series also importantly led up to the annual retreat: The BEITT Virtual Festival, where the group gets together to plan the way forward.
Normally, the retreat would be an opportunity for the task team to go away together for an intense period of team-building, reflection and actioning ideas. However, with the current need to remain physically distant from each other, meant that we’d have to find virtual ways to hold this important engagement. To create anticipation and build excitement for the retreat, it was conceptualized as “Virtual Festival” comprised of three weeks of activities and two anchor sessions conducted via Zoom. It was important that the retreat was not seen as just another meeting, but rather as a period of engagement.
From the years of engaging with City practitioners in the built environment, a sense of fear has emerged as an almost pervasive experience of working as an official in local government. The sense of fear keeps officials towing a very careful line despite the need to sometimes be more disruptive and to speak out in order to serve communities best. This has meant that practitioners often feel disempowered and unable to affect change in their institutions. It is this issue that the Virtual Festival sought to address through the theme of the Festival: “Amandla! What happened to Awethu?”. Through this theme we explored notions of power and what it takes to step into one’s own power through developing a relationship with one’s fear. The question “What happened to Awethu?” implies that the very people we are meant to hold the power are becoming more and more disempowered.
Anticipation was created through the build-up to the Festival, which saw items relating to fear and power being sent across the country to the group of practitioners. A number of fun activities, such as sharing your power outfit or journaling, connected the group of practitioners via the WhatsApp group. By the time the first anchor session kicked off with the Virtual Festival Parade, the group had connected with each other and was ready to go into a deep space of reflection as together we confronted our fear and stepped into our power. A virtual train ride led by the Programme Manager, Geoff Bickford, recounted the BEITT’s journey since 2017 as we remembered key moments along the way. With the wise words of the Presencing Institute’s Martin Kalungu-Banda, the group learnt about the different types of power and how to access them, not by overcoming our fear, but by dialoguing with our fear and establishing a relationship with it.
The second anchor session was held a week later, during which the group could reflect on the work done together and ready themselves for taking forward the notion “stepping into my power” both as a group and as individuals. The group spent time visioning how best the work of the BEITT and the community of practice could be used to have impact in the space. Dr Ela Manga provided the group with an experiential session on her breathwork practice and shared a number of tools for using the breath to access one’s power. The session was particularly moving and emotionally connecting for individuals.
This period has signified an incredible time of growth and learning for the BEITT and, despite the difficulties, we have found ways to stay committed to the work of the task team and authentically connect to each other. It has been incredible for me to see the personal relationship developing within the task team and a real reminder that it is possible to change our practice. I would never have expected a global crisis that prohibits group gatherings, to result in the strengthening and deepening of relations in this particular group. I have learnt that we don’t need to be in the same room to feel and experience something powerful together. After this experience with the BEITT, I can’t help feeling that while the outbreak of the Corona virus has no doubt presented unprecedented challenges for City practitioners, it has also allowed us to connect in more meaningful and creative ways. The work of the BEITT will continue into the 20/21 year and whether we are meeting virtually or in-person we will continue connect in honest, engaging and authentic ways.