Seneca professor spreads kindness during COVID-19
Initiative gets a tweet from Obama
April 9, 2020
Neighbourhood “pods” are springing up across the country as more and more people like Prof. Amara Possian are stepping up to help their neighbours get through the COVID-19 pandemic.
The initiative has even caught the attention of a former U.S. president.
Ms. Possian, who teaches in Seneca’s Government Relations graduate certificate program, recently activated a pod — a group of five to 30 people who live in the same neighbourhood or building and who are working to support each other — on her street in the west end of Toronto.
“I don’t know what sparked it. I just thought I’m relatively young and healthy, I can help,” she said. “I thought it’s especially important for people to be kind to one another while there are others who are hoarding toilet paper.”
Ms. Possian went door to door, dropping off notes in her neighbours’ mailboxes offering to grab groceries, medication and anything else anyone who is vulnerable to the virus might need.
After tweeting about it, she connected with people doing similar things in Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver to compile a toolkit for others to start a neighbourhood pod. Her effort was highlighted in a Washington Post article that was then tweeted by former U.S. president Barack Obama as “a great example of the kind of community spirit that we need to get through this.”
And Ms. Possian almost didn’t do it.
“I almost didn’t write the note,” she said. “The reason I posted it online was I thought, if someone had posted this and I saw a template, I’d be 1,000 times more likely to do it. So, I hope that other people seeing this now will think about being compassionate to each other.”
In fact, Ms. Possian is no stranger when it comes to building grassroots community networks that are enabled by technology. During the 2015 federal election, she ran Leadnow’s Vote Together campaign to defeat the Conservatives. During the 2019 federal election, she managed 350 Canada’s Our Time campaign to make the climate crisis a central election issue. Both national campaigns were led by grassroots hubs that collaborated online.
“I have a lot of experiences to draw on,” said Ms. Possian, Campaigns Director at 350 Canada. “I’m one of the lucky ones in that I already do a lot of my work remotely and I have facilitated many workshops and meetings online.”
With that in mind for her Digital Campaign class at Seneca, Ms. Possian cancelled one of the assignments just to create some breathing room for the students. She has also been setting aside time in each class to check in and make sure students have time to connect.
“I mean, I had no idea that the last time I saw my students would be the last time I’d see them in person,” she said. “It was definitely the right call to close campuses, but I wanted to hold that emotional space online for my class.”
Ms. Possian has also adapted her class’s final project from executing a hypothetical campaign to one that concerns COVID-19. Her students have designed campaigns to provide mental health supports during social isolation and to ensure that everyone asked to work and learn remotely has internet access.
“Mutual aid is a key part of our response and what we do to support each other is both important and meaningful,” she said. “But politicians need to step in as well. The longer this pandemic lasts, the more important it is that the government has our backs.”
For now, Ms. Possian has made new friends with neighbours she didn’t know very well before, including a lady who lives across the street from her and with whom she has been exchanging poetry every day through email.
“I think tons of people had the same idea at the same time and we found each other,” she said. “There is way more people willing to help than people asking for help. And, along the way, some beautiful friendships are formed.”