Pitt u.lab hub Helping Mister Rogers’ Less Visible Neighbors during COVID-19

Gemma Jiang
University Of Pittsburgh

In response to areas of need arising from the pandemic, the Pitt u.lab hub partnered with Wellness Collective to convene a group of citizens in Allegheny County to advocate for underserved citizens.
The Pitt u.lab hub provides Theory U based support infrastructure for social innovation to members of University of Pittsburgh and its surrounding communities. Wellness Collective is a local non-profit focused on mechanisms to enable neighbors to help neighbors. The founder of Wellness Collective has been engaging with the Pitt u.lab hub for about a year. She invited the Pitt u.lab hub on the co-convening team.
This group of 20-50 concerned citizens have been meeting online every Sunday since mid-March to identify and plan around less-anticipated ways the Covid-19 pandemic might affect neighbors in the region. Planning sessions have centered around county residents who are not able to access resources due to transportation barriers, living in geographically isolated parts, illness, lack of access to childcare, inability to use SNAP benefits from a delivery-only approach, and many other resource-related barriers to having needs met.
The group has championed three projects so far, with several more projects underway: 1) a regional-specific Google Maps featuring pinned resources to help connect citizens to options for help; 2) a delivery hotline and volunteer network for food and other household items; 3) weekly social solidarity circles to connect socially isolated neighbors. Social solidarity circle is a Theory U inspired method where a group of five neighbors check in with each other virtually for one hour each week. They follow a structure where they each share their personal contexts, then mirror the “social body” among the group and engage each other in generative dialogues.
The success factors of this initiative are mainly two: 1) the Theory U framework. This awareness-based action research framework is applied widely all over the world for community engagement and social innovation. Its methods for generating awareness-based collective action have been effective in leading the group. For example, as the beginning of each meeting, a three-minute mindfulness exercise is done to invite full presence into the meeting. Zoom breakout rooms were also utilized to generate rich interactive dynamics in small groups; 2) the Pitt u.lab hub was able to leverage the trusting relationship with Wellness Collective, and its deep root and wide reach in the local communities to apply this leadership framework for bottom up planning and action.