(Re)Crafting Narrative Fragments of Personal Sense-Making during COVID-19: Pieces from our 2020 MCQ Forum Essay

For the August 2020 issue of Management Communication Quarterly, the journal has published an OPEN-ACCESS forum essay where a multicultural team of organizational communication scholars, from different universities, reflected on our collective sense-making of the historic COVID-19 pandemic. The essay builds on personal narratives from each of us on different questions posed by the lead researcher, to create a beautiful mosaic from our words, ideas and feelings. Below, I try to another iteration, by crafting together my fragmented narratives from an earlier, unedited version of the essay, to re-present those forms of expression, to create a new/old essay rooted in praxis. Thank you for reading.

COVID Landing

In February 2020, I was on sabbatical and visiting my parents in Kolkata, India. COVID-19 was still an obscure mention in the daily news, both in India and the United States (US), and the first time I was directly affected was when my Cathay Pacific flight home to Detroit was canceled and I had to re-book, have a lengthy layover in Hong Kong (HK), and stay an extra night in New York City. I was annoyed, more than scared, but my annoyance was tempered by the 5-star hotel Cathay put me up in HK for my layover and the prospect of a night in NYC.

But this HK was very different from the fun, bustling city I’d loved ten years ago. In a precursor to what was to happen in the US, most people were staying home and schools had moved instruction online. At HK airport, medical professionals wearing what looked like hazmat suits aimed their temperature guns at everyone walking past, and the crowds were much thinner than what I remembered.

After arriving back in Detroit MI, all hell broke loose. The state of Michigan, where I live, was among the first to declare shelter-at-home orders, but the death toll, as well as cases of COVID-19, surged anyway. Other than a few trips to the grocery early on, I stayed home.

One of the first things I realized was how privilege has shaped both the way this crisis is playing out and my positionality as an observer/scholar/resident. As an immuno-compromised individual, not only do I take incredible care cleaning my home and washing my hands with soap (for 20 seconds!) these days, but I am also careful about what information I divulge about my situation with others. Married to a small business owner, I understand all too well the financial uncertainty he is going through, and feel grateful that my tenured faculty position at a research-intensive university provides us some stability in the precarious months ahead—especially as the promised Paycheck Protection Program, meant to assist small businesses, remained elusive for those most in need.

Disparities and Inequities

Even as my sabbatical ensured I did not have to scramble to transfer my courses to an online delivery system, as so many others did, my faculty rank and union membership provides me with a shield not available to the vast majority of untenured, non-tenure track, and non-unionized faculty across the nation. My Green Card affords me a certain protection that those on H1B visas lack, especially given the federal government’s hostility to “foreign” workers and students.

But the biggest recognition of privilege—and the disjuncture at stake—was when I looked around me at the devastation this was causing in Detroit.  From the relative safety of my home in the suburbs, I received news almost daily of friends’ family and loved ones falling sick, being hospitalized, and succumbing to the virus. I heard and empathized with their shock and anger at the devastation caused by our society’s long-term ignoring of “underlying conditions” afflicting Black and Brown bodies, and the racist rhetoric and actions that both our federal government and some medical authorities often suggested—such as “testing” potentially dangerous drugs like hydroxychloroquine on Black people in Africa first, made by two French doctors before the WHO censured them.

On the same day that I received news that a friend from my fieldwork—someone whom I’d met while working on a research project on Detroit’s local entrepreneurs, and whom I knew to be a tireless advocate for underserved communities—had died of COVID-19, a group of rightwing “protesters” gathered at the state capitol Lansing MI against the Governor’s shelter-in-place orders, blocking hospital routes, violating physical distancing guidelines and endangering both themselves and others, carrying AK-47s and signs with racist symbols, including Nazi swastikas.

Even now, as I write this, my grief and rage are mixed, each giving the other potency, so that I must pause awhile to carry on…

Pandemic Pivot: What Doing Research Looked Like

Since 2018 my research lab has been exploring how community leaders organize to address water insecurity in Detroit, especially the mass shutoffs that began in 2014 and has since affected more than 142,000 households (Mesmer et al., 2020). As March 2020 dawned and COVID loomed, close to 4,000 residences were without access to running water (and no way to wash their hands), and a further 5,200 were in danger of new shutoffs. Sadly, given the lack of adequate sanitation, low-income residents were particularly vulnerable to the virus, which spread like wildfire throughout Detroit.

Our community partners rapidly switched gears to provide COVID relief to Detroit’s most vulnerable residents, donning masks and other protective equipment they produced themselves, and delivered water, food and clothing to people who lacked them—often endangering themselves, in the bargain. Many of them contracted the virus, sadly. Our research project then also pivoted to support our partners.

Although, from the start, we’d included community engagement and research translation (such as leading public discussions, educational workshops, creating a blog and sharing data with community partners; Kreps, 2020), I realized that we needed to become more public with our work and its implications—even if it meant being perceived as “political,” which could threaten our legitimacy as researchers. So, we embraced social media (#DetroitWaterStories) on a larger scale, amplifying our partners’ and research participants’ voices on health disparities, and commenting ourselves on how our data indicated that structural racism, water infrastructure, and public health were interconnected. I wrote an opinion piece in a prominent local magazine on why addressing water insecurity through short, medium and long-term measures was crucial—not only to protect us from COVID but also to safeguard against future risks.

Lessons for Researchers of Community Organizing

A trend I see, especially for ethnographic research with vulnerable populations particularly susceptible to Coronavirus is greater reliance on virtual techniques (Hallett & Barber, 2014). Projects already underway must likely shift to completing interviews via Zoom or Skype. For researchers beginning new projects, this means negotiating entry into online spaces that might have earlier been deemed the “back end” of organizing, compared to the “front end” of face-to-face open forums where they could more easily have gained confidence (Gajjala, 2002).

Scholars will find it useful to (re)learn the methodological and axiological precepts of virtual ethnography, tracing the ongoing intersections of online and offline practices, and being attuned to the social cues, privileges and barriers of online technologies (Boelstorff et al., 2012). Gaining in popularity may be photo-video methods (PVMs) and mapping, where participants take pictures or film video (Wilhoit, 2017), and/or produce maps of their organizing and organizational spaces (D’Antona et al., 2008).

Screen capture tools installed on participants’ devices prior to online organizational meetings can help scholars understand both verbal and nonverbal communication practices, even as mediated shadowing (e.g., using wearable technology or geographic information system mapping) can uncover movements and spaces blocked to researchers due to quarantine regulations or COVID fears—with participants’ informed consent, of course!

Concurrently, interpretive, critical and feminist scholars might adopt personal narrative, hand-drawn or photographic images, poetic writing, or autoethnography more often to re-present organizing and organizational experiences. Although several monographs and edited volumes (e.g., Herrmann, 2017) showcase the strengths of such research practices, few peer-reviewed articles using them have been published in the field’s top journals.

From Research to Practice: Service and Translation

For me, research methods and participant engagement are blurred, perhaps because the bulk of my present work is situated in and with communities on the ground, where I study not so much formal organizations but processes of organizing by social actors.  

I see a growth in opportunities for scholars to engage with community organizing and collective action to address new questions in response to COVID. We can explore how to be better research partners by shifting the lens both inward and outward (Mitra, 2020).

We also need to consider how to center powerful emotions like grief, rage, and precariousness that help us make sense of this new context of organizing.

Finally, given the social polarization around us, based on political affiliation, location, race, and class (to mention but a few), we should ask how institutional trust (or lack thereof) shapes the study of organizations and crisis response. After all, lack of trust extends not just to political and media organizations, but also to scholarly institutions—both among the general population and more worryingly among vulnerable Black and Brown communities, for whom the COVID response brings fears of a new Tuskegee (Jaiswal, 2019).

References

Boellstorff, T., Nardi, B., Pearce, C., & Taylor, T.L. (2012). Ethnography and virtual worlds: A handbook of method. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

D’Antona, A. de O., Cak, D.A., & VanWey, L.K. (2008). Collecting sketch maps to understand property land use and land cover in large surveys. Field Methods, 20, 66-84.

Gajjala, R. (2002). An interrupted postcolonial/feminist cyberethnography: Complicity and resistance in the “Cyberfield.” Feminist Media Studies, 2, 177-193.

Hallett, R.E., & Barber, K. (2014). Ethnographic research in a cyber era. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 43, 306-330.

Herrmann, A. (Eds.). (2017). Organizational autoethnographies: Power and identity in our working lives. New York: Routledge.

Jaiswal, J. (2019). Whose responsibility is it to dismantle medical mistrust: Future directions for researchers and health care providers. Behavioral Medicine, 45(2), 188-196.

Kreps, G, L. (2020). Engaged Communication scholarship: The challenge to translate Communication research into practice. In H.D. O’Hair, & M.J. O’Hair (Eds.), The handbook of applied communication research, vol. 1. (pp. 93-102). Malden, MA: Wiley.

Mesmer, K., Aniss, M., & Mitra, R. (2020). Naturalizing environmental injustice: How privileged residents make sense of Detroit’s water shutoffs. In C. Schmitt, C.S. Thomas, & T.R. Castor (Eds.)., Water, rhetoric and social justice: A critical confluence, (pp. 149-170). Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Mitra, R. (2020). Organizing for sustainability: Including and engaging diverse stakeholders. In M.L. Doerfel, & J.L. Gibbs, (Eds.), Organizing inclusion: Moving diversity from demographics to communication processes (pp. 180-199). New York: Routledge.

Wilhoit, E.D. (2017). Photo and video methods in organizational and managerial communication research. Management Communication Quarterly, 31, 447–466.

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