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Deborah Lynch
University of Queensland, Australia

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Catherine Forde
University College Cork, Ireland

'What am I missing?' Finding connection in an online community development course during COVID-19

This article focuses on a process of reflection, discovery and review of teaching and learning community development over one university semester in 2021. The question, ‘What am I missing?' is the starting point and impetus for our reflective analysis. The voices of our students drive us to explore contemporary circumstances more deeply and discover what is lost and what can still be found. As one social work student in the Community Development Course expressed it: 'Even thought I have kept up to date with course readings and online classes, I feel like I am lacking a connection somewhere. I feel that I am missing 'something' key that I should understand.' Our intention (and challenge) to discover what's missing and find a way forward focuses on a practice task undertaken by social work students in this online community development course. The task was to form online groups, design a powerful ('wicked') question and host a World Cafe Conversation. The World Café is a methodology for creating collaborative learning conversations around 'questions that matter' (Brown & Issacs, 2005).

One student group chose the themes of inequality, discrimination, violence against women and LGBTQ+ communities and racism for their World Café conversation. In our reflection and analysis in this article, we draw on the theme of discrimination and racism that mattered to the students in the COVID-19 context. In the first section of this article, we discuss the World Café practice task and reflect on students' perspectives that emerged in their written accounts of the experience. In the second part, we engage in a theoretical analysis to explore the issue of racism and discrimination more deeply. In the final section, we consider the implications for social work pedagogy and make some recommendations that will forge a way forward.

The World Café Methodology: Exploring Questions that Matter

In the course, students were guided to undertake specific practice tasks designed to deepen their learning around participatory processes and community development. One of these tasks was to host a mini-Conversation Café face-to-face or online via Zoom. Students worked together in groups of four or five to design a strategic question for their Conversation Café. They prepared the strategic or 'wicked question' beforehand on a topic that was relevant to the lived experience and concerns of the group. A 'wicked question' is one that does not have an obvious answer and may contain a paradox to be explored through conversation (Born, 2012). The students set up a hospitable space (i.e., safe and inviting) and hosted their dialogue with the group for 15 to 20 minutes. Key themes were documented and reflected back to the group.

The following example was offered to stimulate ideas:

Round 1: What do we now understand to be living better through a pandemic?

Round 2: What will be most important in a post-COVID world?

In the written piece, students were invited to reflect on the experience of a 'Conversation Café', their most important learning, what they found most challenging, what they would do differently and to describe how this process reflected a community development approach to practice.

One of the Conversation Cafés fostered critical dialogue on the theme of discrimination and racism. While these topics were explored at the political level in the conversation, one First Nations student wrote about her own lived experiences of racism in her reflection. She questioned whether to continue her social work studies due to lack of motivation and disappointments through online learning in the context of intersecting adversities. She tells the story of moving from a small regional town to the city to study social work from a small regional town. When reflecting on her story, we see challenges arising around identity, loneliness and lack of connection and sense of belonging. These feelings are intensified by online teaching and learning, where it becomes more difficult to develop a social identity as a university student and grow a professional identity of becoming a social worker in a culturally safe environment. This resonates with Barnett (1999, cited in Bliuc, Goodyear and Ellis, 2017, p. 210) who expresses that a highly complex world presents us with challenges of 'being' which encompasses the domains of 'knowing', as well as identity.

Another student expressed an awareness that something ‘key’ was missing in relation to her learning in the online course. She stated: ‘I feel like I am lacking a connection somewhere.’ Undertaking the practice tasks in the course changed this for her. She formed a group with other students, and they became a resource for each other. They found strength in Covid-times through fostering connection, diversity and commonalities. They identified gaps in the system through conversations that mattered, i.e., the social injustices that they wanted to address as a group. She later wrote: ‘We have decided as a group that we are going to enact the action plan we devised, as for us, the process was so powerful, we would like to keep it going in the future.’ Drawing on a community development approach, new groups for social support and social action were born out of the collective structural analysis and critical consciousness raising that occurred.

Theoretical Analysis: Questions that Matter

Prompted by the students' conversations, we now move to focus on racism and discrimination. The health, social and economic effects of Covid-19 have disproportionately impacted vulnerable groups and communities in our societies (Whitehead et al., 2021). One unanticipated consequence of the pandemic has been its adverse impact on black and Asian communities and migrants. Covid-19 poses greater physical and mental health risks to black and other ethnic minorities, due to existing comorbidities, inequalities and inadequacies in service provision and the reality that physical and mental health issues are 'inextricably linked' (Smith et al., 2020, p. 89). As well as health-related problems, Covid-19 has thrown into relief associated social and political issues that particularly affect black and Asian communities. The pandemic 'has uncovered social and political fractures within communities, with racialised and discriminatory responses to fear' (Devakumar et al., 2020, p. 1194). These fractures are often the result of long-standing racist and discriminatory attitudes, behaviours and policies that are reinforced during an emergency and have severe consequences for minority groups and communities. A recent online national survey found that Asian Australians were experiencing high rates of racism during the pandemic. However, cases were not being reported, which indicated that the extent of Covid-related racism was underrepresented (Kamp et al, 2021).

The moral panic caused by Covid-19 has increased fear of and prejudice towards 'the other'. The persistence of these prejudices suggests that societies have progressed relatively little from previous centuries when otherness was promoted and emergencies exacerbated prejudice. From the start of the pandemic, racial slurs have pervaded as different countries have sought to blame each other for the appearance and spread of Covid-19. References to the ‘China virus’ and ‘Indian strain’ placed unfounded blame on particular countries and peoples. Consequently, the WHO has insisted on using nomenclature based on the Greek alphabet. Across the world, geographical borders have been reinforced and governments have used the pandemic as a means to enforce stringent immigration and asylum policies. Liu and Modir (2020) offer evidence that black and ethnic minority communities have experienced individual, structural and cultural racism in the context of Covid-19. Meanwhile, far-right, extremist and white supremacist groups have 'weaponized' (Bieber, 2020, p. 9) the crisis to spread uncertainty, promote conspiracies and encourage distrust of specific races and minorities.

The multiple challenges that black and ethnic minority groups face alert us to the significance of an intersectional perspective on the Covid-19 pandemic. This perspective enables the identification of intersecting problems that affect members of particular groups, including women, ethnic minorities and young people. A recent study by Ranji et al. (2021) found that in the US low-income black and Hispanic women and Hispanic women were more likely to quit their jobs for reasons relating to Covid-19; these reasons included the closure of their children's day-care or caring responsibilities.

‘…an intersectional approach underlines the difference in the impact of pandemics between individuals and social groups, and helps in designing policy responses that mitigate, instead of increase, the potential unequal effect of this pandemic’ (Maestripieri, 2020, p. 4).

There is a need for nuanced policy responses that consider the intersectional nature of disadvantage, privilege the equality and equal treatment of each person based on the principle of the 'sovereignty of an individual' (Solas, 2008, p. 818) and acknowledge that equality will not be achieved without concomitant losses to more privileged groups, including white people (Applebaum, 2016).

As well as careful policy responses, the trauma caused by the pandemic requires 'interpersonal, systemic, and socio-political levels of care' (Liu and Modir, p. 440). Social Workers are amongst those who will need to deliver this care, but in their turn they require the knowledge, experience and opportunity to do so both critically and effectively. We explore the implications for social work pedagogy and put forward some recommendations below.

Implications for Social Work Pedagogy

As an issue of major concern, racism has been at the forefront of national social work responses such as the launch in February 2021 of the Irish Association of Social Workers' (IASW) inaugural Social Work Anti-Racism Strategic Plan. Public forms of resistance (such as street protests) in the face of grave injustice have gathered momentum in the 'Black Lives Matter' movement following the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota (Fisher, 2020). Critical pedagogies in social work and community development reflect these themes and practices (see Morley et al., 2020) and are crucial in current Covid-19 circumstances. As educators, we seek to create 'brave spaces' which Areo and Clemens (2013) describe as 'intentional places' for 'challenging dialogues about power, oppression, privilege and justice' (p. 149) within the teaching and learning environment. Our approach seeks to empower students to challenge injustices such as racism in their future practice as social workers (Lynch, Lathouras & Forde, 2021).

Drawing on the emergent themes of the World Café Conversations, it becomes even more important that educators seek out opportunities to establish critical reference groups and 'yarning circles' (Fleming et al., 2020) to explore what inclusive pedagogy means for diverse groups so that all students can contribute meaningfully in the classroom without increasing personal risks.

Ongoing practices to 'internationalise' pedagogy through forging connections with practitioners from the Global South, developing these kinds of conversations and introducing students to them is crucially important. Conversations with practitioners, academics and students from across the globe will develop students' awareness of issues such as racism, inequality and discrimination as well as building their awareness of the knowledge and experience that exists in other parts of the world including the two-thirds world (Global South).

Connecting to self, others and purpose through the critical methodologies of community development can become a sustaining force in disrupted times. There is value in critical dialogue through a range of expressive modalities (World Cafe Conversations, art forms, culture and performance theatre) which are forms integral to community development practice with people and their communities. By engaging in the World Café methodology, some students were able to 'connect' with peers in a meaningful way in the restricted online environment. We have explored the intersectional nature of disadvantage and the multiple challenges and impacts of Covid-19 on health, wellbeing and belonging, which disproportionately affect marginalised groups. The stories and actions of students deepen understanding about the interacting impacts on self, motivation and career decisions. These narratives are an essential part of the ongoing discourse during these Covid--19 times.


We acknowledge the Traditional Owners and their custodianship of the lands on which we teach and learn at the University of Queensland. We pay our respects to their Ancestors and their descendants, who continue their cultural and spiritual connections to Country. We recognise their valuable contributions to Australian and global society.

Thank you to the social work students whose strong and clear voices inspired our reflections and gave us permission to draw on their course experiences.


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