MABELLEarts shows how established social infrastructure serves communities during social and physical distancing

Resource | août 28, 2020


Joy and community building live at the heart of MABELLEarts, an award-winning community arts organization that is rooted in parks in Central Etobicoke. Typically, MABELLEarts transforms parks in low-income neighbourhoods with the people who live there. And they transform them in the most beautiful and creative ways like an end of school year watermelon smash and annual outdoor Iftar celebrations called Iftar Nights.

WhenCOVID-19 and physical distancing meant it was no longer possible to foster in-person connections in parks, the park group quickly pivoted to fill a critical need in their community. 

Because they had long-established, trusted connections with the people within their community, Leah Houston and her team at MABELLEarts were able to respond, quickly.

The MABELLEarts team reviewed their entire database of contacts and, based on their experience working with the community, categorized the list into three groups:

  1. Participants likely to have immediate needs
  2. Participants likely to have needs
  3. General participants to connect with

Armed with phone numbers from their existing database of community members,  the team developed a script to use to check-in with people and determine how they were doing and whether they had any urgent needs. 


 “We didn’t have a strategy for what would happen in the phone-calls. Our first step was to listen to the most vulnerable members of our community and learn what they were struggling with,” says Leah. 


Very quickly, the team at MABELLEarts discovered that their most vulnerable were in need of food. The food bank at MABELLEarts had closed down, and people who were already experiencing food insecurity were struggling. With support from a key funder, Leah purchased and delivered basic groceries to 10 people. 


Through phone calls, the MABELLEarts team also determined that many in their community are experiencing intense social isolation. To respond, they are scheduling daily, weekly and monthly phone calls with community members.


“It seems really old fashioned to chat on the phone with people, but yacking and gossiping for a bit helps people get through the day. It’s what our moms and grandmothers did, and it worked. It’s working for our community in very difficult times,” says Leah. 


Community park groups across Canada have helped build valuable social infrastructure that can be leveraged to promote resilience in these challenging times. Here are some steps your park group can take to serve the community:

  1. Use your database or lists: Up to this point, the primary purpose of your lists may have been to update the community about park events. However, now that list can help you reach out via phone or email. If you have phone numbers, it’s great to call the people that you know from park programming. If you don’t know them, feel free to send an email inquiring if a phone call would be helpful. 
  2. Create a script: It can be awkward to pick up the phone. Having an informal script will help remind you what topics to cover on the phone. Once you get rolling, don’t be afraid to go off-script and chat. 
  3. Refer, refer, refer: While MABELLEarts decided to retrieve groceries for its participants, your group doesn’t have to directly serve all of the community’s needs. In fact, it’s not something we’d recommend. Instead, put together an up-to-date list of the non-profit and community organizations that are open and serving people in your community. 
  4. Keep calling: Determine the best schedule for calls and engage members of your community park group in phoning people on a regular schedule


We know it’s a difficult time for park people across Canada. Thank you for all you are doing to keep your community safe and happy. If you know of a park group serving their community during this challenging time, please let us know. 


Cover photo: Sarah Gladki, Toronto Arts Council


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