REAL COMMUNITIES – Keeping the “Welcome” in Welcoming Community Dialogues
by Jennifer Bosk
As the world deals with COVID-19, the typical way of gathering for day-long brainstorming and discussions, going out into neighborhoods and doing face-to-face contact, are no longer viable options.
Like many other groups and organizations, each of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities’ (GCDD) Real Communities Partnerships worked diligently to find their new normal to carry on the work of their Welcoming Community Dialogues (WCD).
The Real Communities Partnerships, launched in 2010, equips community members with support to gather and focus on people with and without disabilities in a grassroots effort to make sure their neighborhood and local environment is work-able and livable for all. GCDD assists these communities with technical assistance, training, popular education and financial support. All Real Communities Partnerships work to ensure the four commitments of the initiative.
Commitments of Initiative
- People with developmental disabilities are active members.
- Action focuses on making the community better for everyone.
- Over time, the initiative builds up local capacity for collective action.
- Participants take responsibility for sharing what they are learning.
Onnie Poe, the founder of Filling in the Gaps, LLC in Augusta, GA, recently organized a series of four Authentic Dialogues & Virtual Deliberation gatherings on Zoom, the online meeting platform. Topics covered were “Life in the Time of Corona,” “Mental Health: Reducing the Stigma,” “Finding Healing in Daily Lives” and “The Power of Empathy.”
Poe said she feels the best discussion was the one on mental health and mental wellness. “At the end of our discussion, I asked what next steps were going to be taken, and five of the participants said they would be seeking help with their mental health issues,” she said.
Each of the Authentic Dialogue sessions reached 15 participants, on average. Poe added, “I had originally planned to have just two dialogue sessions and expected 50 participants. But now that we’ve done four and expect to do more with less people, the ‘meat’ of the dialogue was much greater than I ever expected.”
The online dialogue series utilized the style of Living Room Conversations, which defines its talks as, “a conversational bridge across issues that divide and separate us.” A PowerPoint for each topic was sent to registered participants and provided a list of questions allowing individuals to prepare their thoughts and answers ahead of the dialogues.
There are more dialogues being planned around the topic of people with disabilities to engage parents of children with disabilities. “I want to do more to connect these families so all voices can be heard in a safe environment,” Poe said. These conversations will be offered in August with a back-to-school focus. Those interested should email Poe at .
Global Ubuntu of Lilburn, GA, now provides oversight for the Real Communities Partnership. They began their relationship with GCDD’s initiative in 2019, growing the number of participating communities as well as providing opportunities for those representing the Real Communities to come together to share ideas and receive additional training.
Sumaya Karimi, founder and director of Global Ubuntu, says her organization will host their second annual Summit on September 26, bringing all the participants together to not only celebrate the past 10 years of the initiative but to discuss what the next 10 years could and should encompass.
Staying Connected During COVID-19
There are multiple Welcoming Communities Dialogues taking place throughout Georgia and most have been able to stay active during COVID-19. Here’s a snapshot of what some of those communities are doing to stay connected to those living and building inclusive cities and towns:
The Ark Refuge Ministries, Inc., LaGrange
This nonprofit is planning a series of WCD workshops starting in July and you can sign up for information by emailing . Organizers are looking at alternatives to virtual workshops, as many of their participants do not have access to the internet and electronic devices. One possibility is to conduct these in-person workshops outdoors in accordance with the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines regarding social distancing. The workshops will focus on returning citizens and persons with disabilities who are experiencing financial, housing and employment hardships back into the community that The Ark Refuge Ministries serves.
Colquitt County Arts Center, Moultrie
Normally, the Open Studio for All WCD is held at the Arts Center so community members can gather with one another, discuss community issues and create art. Since COVID-19, it has shifted to a virtual Open Studio. Participants may still register online as usual and pick up their art materials, without contact, from the Colquitt County Arts Center drive through. Later on the pickup day, participants can log in to a virtual gathering for check-in, community discussions and short creative lessons.
Compassionate Atlanta, Metro Atlanta
This organization is working on the intersection of gender, sexuality and disabilities and moved their discussion to a Zoom meeting with a small group who had experience in those areas. The next meeting on this topic will include allies, advocates and service providers. The group’s other focus is on race and disability. They partnered with Georgia Public Broadcasting to show the film Community First and then hosted an online panel discussion on the challenges of affordable housing related to race, LGBTQ and disability. As more webinars and events are added, you will find them listed on the Compassionate Atlanta website.
Through its Meet Your Neighbor Dialogue, ConnectAbility has been hosting Family Fun Nights that have included a magic show, children’s book illustrator and a puppet/comedy show all online due to COVID-19. It also hosted Small-Town Celebrity Story Time featuring stories read online by local resident celebrities; and Tuesday night concerts on Facebook Live to support local musicians and provide shared experiences. Plus, the group has created Kids Virtual Connections, a weekly Zoom call with themes such as scavenger hunts, a dance party, crafting activities, sharing jokes and dressing up. During April, the organization reached 22,000 people online. You can find out more about the Meet Your Neighbor Dialogue online.
By Jennifer Bosk