“COVID made it that much more important, like, wow, we really need this right now."
“Towards the end of the stay-at-home order, there was a lot of talk among our library staff about what we could do to connect everyone right off the bat - our library patrons, our larger community of Baytown, and especially our youth. Our library staff is incredibly creative and they came up with The Hope Tree. We wrapped the huge tree right outside the library with big, colorful expanses of fabric. And then we die-cut a bunch of leaves and bought special clips so the leaves could be attached to the fabric wrap. Little kids, parents, older people, from all over Baytown wrote words of encouragement and hope and pinned them on the tree.
The tree exploded with colorful leaves everywhere. It was a really great way for people to rally, to hear each other’s words of hope, and to get conversations started. Some of the kds wrote things like
‘I really hope I can go back to school. I miss my friends.’
‘I hope my teachers are doing okay.’
‘I hope I get a puppy.’
And then you had Martin Luther King Jr., and quotes like ‘we're gonna get through this together,’ ‘Baytown strong,’ things like that. It was beautiful seeing the community come together for The Hope Tree and then from there we just wanted to keep the momentum going.
So in June it was kind of natural for me to go from my job as the Marketing Librarian to a new job as the City of Baytown’s Community Engagement Coordinator. Yeah, June, right smack in the middle of everything. So for the first six months of my job, I’ve only known a COVID world for community engagement.
Originally for 2020, the Community Engagement plan involved a lot of activities and events that would bring together a lot of people all in one space. For example, we had planned on doing a huge community asphalt art project, with hundreds of volunteers together. We obviously had to scrap that plan because of COVID. We had to think about community engagement in a completely new way. How do we help people feel connected without having people together?
During quarantine and stay-at-home, Baytown had a number people could call and just share their stories. The idea was to compile the stories and share some of them on a podcast. People feel connected when they hear each other’s stories, and we knew how much all of us were needing connection. People also shared a lot of resources, good information, and important tips were shared through these stories.
Sherman Gray's story comes to mind. He’s an educator, a father, and a minister. Sherman talked about what he was doing during stay-at-home, how he and his family adapted, how he helped his kids with their schoolwork, and what his hopes were for the rest of 2020. It was really cool.
The podcast, like the tree, was received really well. So we kept the podcast going. It’s called Baytown Engage and it’s hosted by Erline Maingot, who is a podcast queen. I help behind the scenes. We've had over 20 episodes and a lot of downloads. As things began to open up around town, we moved the podcast to the next level so that people can hear about, and have conversations about, things going on in town and issues affecting the community. So now the Baytown Engage Podcast features topics like public art, social services programs, and economic development initiatives.
Baytown Engage also is the name of Baytown’s first digital platform for community engagement. It’s a place to have two-way dialogue between our departments and our residents. Even before COVID, the town wanted to set up something like this, but it was more of a dream or a goal, like ‘at some point we want to have this.’ COVID made it that much more important, like, wow, we really need this right now. We hosted a couple of virtual public meetings, but, you know, they're a work in progress.
Now, with Baytown Engage’s platform, if residents have questions or comments, those comments go directly to the person over the project, and they can answer them directly. So it’s really helped us field concerns and questions efficiently. Residents are getting more accurate information in a more timely way. It also helps with misinformation because if we're able to respond quickly with the correct information, then that person's more liable to share that with their neighbors or share it with their friends and then you really cut down on the amount of misinformation being spread.
It's been really exciting to hear from our residents in a new way because it's so different, so much better, than people using social media to post comments and then the posts getting bogged down to the point that it’s hard to process. Now with the Baytown Engage platform, we can have Q&A sections and we can do polls and surveys. People really seem to like it. For one project, we received 350 responses but if it had been an in-person town hall meeting like we would have done before COVID, 20 or so people would have showed up. The Baytown Engage platform is a fantastic addition, I think, to our community engagement initiatives.
Even in the middle of a pandemic I feel like we've been able to connect with people, even if it's not the way we wish we could have. We’ll have a huge community paint-by-number asphalt art project at some point. We'll get there.” - Sabrina #Texas