Building Community Connections in Digital Spaces

A half a million.

On most days, that whopping figure might be something to celebrate. But, on Wednesday, March 25, it marked a milestone of another kind: the number of COVID-19 cases worldwide, a number that sinks the heart and signals an immeasurable disruption to life as we have come to know it.

In Rhode Island, the toll of those infected has crossed the 200-mark, and the state’s residents continue to self-quarantine to stifle further spread. As the second week of this federal and state directive unfolded, Leadership Rhode Island continued to fill a critical need central to its mission: supporting and convening the people of the Ocean State in new and innovative ways.

Two of the biggest collateral casualties of this crisis stem from precisely what will stop the virus’ progress — solitude and loneliness. Which is exactly why LRI is determined to create spaces that foster human connection.

Topher Wilkins, co-founder and board chair of

“When’s the last time we questioned the power of proximity? When have we ever wondered whether or not we should BE together? And yet, in this new COVID-19 era, we are forced to find new ways of being in community with one another, new ways to share ideas, resources, and best practices, new ways to build effective partnerships and collaborations. Ironically, we need each other now more than ever,” says Topher Wilkins, co-founder and board chair of, an international organization that recognizes the transformative power that convening has to positively change the world, and an LRI partner.

“I’m not at all surprised that the LRI team has become a leading convener in response to this pandemic. Indeed, LRI’s efforts to connect the most effective solutions are what’s needed most right now.”

Pi II Team Pivots

Do it right, and do it early.

So goes the motto of one of LRI’s Leadership in Action (LIA) teams. The current Pi IIs, divided into geographical teams, are focusing on Combating Loneliness, a topic decided upon before coronavirus was part of the common lexicon.

The Kent County team’s original project idea was to pair elementary school children and the elderly community in a pen pal program. But when news of the pandemic began to disrupt the everyday lives of Rhode Islanders, the team quickly shifted, focusing instead on creating a Facebook group to celebrate authentic connections in the face of crisis.

“Our intent is to create a page that brings people together to share thoughts, ideas, and stories about how they are dealing with this problem,” says Brian Casey, President of Pariseault Builders and a member of the Kent County team.

Logo for the “Keep it together, people” facebook group

The purpose of the initiative, cheekily deemed “Keep It Together, People,” reads: “The one thing scientifically proven to spread faster than any virus… is the feeling of connectivity. We hope that this page will make you smile, laugh, cry, pray, and anything else that us humans can all do alongside one another… You are NOT alone.”

Its mission has resonated. What debuted Friday, March 20 as a fledgling idea has attracted more than 2,500 members, a clear sign of both the need behind the effort, and its impact and efficacy.

Age-Friendly Rhode Island

Catherine Taylor, Executive Director of Age Friendly RI, a coalition of community agencies, health and service providers, and individuals committed to healthy aging, recalls exactly when the reality of coronavirus hit home.

Catherine Taylor Director, Age-Friendly RI

“I remember hearing that COVID-19 hit the elderly particularly hard. I was looking across the street at my neighbor who just turned 90 on Sunday, and I thought, ‘My God, we need to find a way to help,’ ’” says Taylor. “Older people are often at risk for isolation. And here is a virus that demands loneliness as a part of the preventative regimen. The immediate question is: How can we possibly do that when we all have to stay apart?”

Quarantined but committed, Taylor, new to her role,  telephoned Mike Ritz, executive director, to see how LRI’s interest in addressing loneliness might mesh with her agency’s mission. The call ended with an unexpected offer: LRI would use its freshly minted skills navigating the digital realm to host Taylor’s first-ever meeting of the Social Isolation Work Group, a gathering of about two dozen stakeholders interested in assisting the state’s elderly population.

Two days later, Taylor convened the new group, with LRI in the virtual control booth.

“Over the course of a two-hour Zoom meeting, what was supposed to be an introductory meeting transformed into a dedicated workgroup and learning community that will be critically important in the months and years to come. I am incredibly grateful to LRI for helping us. I couldn’t have done it without them,” says Taylor.

Leading By Example

Of course, you can’t convene without conveners and LRI is finding more and more groups, large and small, hungry for the opportunity to get together.  More than 200 representatives of leadership organizations in 35 states participated in an LRI-led training session on tips and best practices at the start of the week and a small group of 11 local food service businesses, some temporarily closed, shared concerns and questions in a convening near week’s end.

While providing these and other online opportunities that help keep people together, LRI staff members are striving to balance their professional and personal lives, just like the rest of us.

Samantha Bergbauer, LRI’s College Program & Alumni Coordinator

Sam Bergbauer, new coordinator of LRI’s college program, sees the positive, using social distancing as a great excuse to facilitate an extended family gathering via Zoom, and remains thankful to be a part of a team that has so nimbly shifted to a new normal.

Christopher Donovan, who, as LRI’s new communications specialist, has been spending long days helping LRI master virtual space, while squeezing in time to do the same thing in his volunteer role as an organizer for PVD Pecha Kucha, a gathering during which presenters use exactly 20 images that last 20 seconds to tell a story. Using the skills he picked up in his day job, he reluctantly transitioned to a digital Pecha Kucha event for the first time in the organization’s history. What he thought would be a watered-down version of a beloved social gathering actually had a profound effect — it helped people feel less alone.

And while walking around her neighborhood, Abby Montine, LRI’s new training director, noticed more of a willingness among strangers to connect in an authentic fashion.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Age-Friendly RI’s Catherine Taylor as she reflected that an exploratory telephone call to LRI blossomed into a new way to convene community leaders from around the state to help the elderly.

“I loved connecting with LRI and with others I hadn’t met around what’s core to our mission. But I also found such value in our personal conversations,” Taylor said after the virtual meeting. “People ended our meeting by asking each other a key question: ‘How are you?’ And people answered honestly. Right now, we can’t shake hands. We can’t share food. But what we can share are real and meaningful connections, true honesty. This crisis will leave many marks on the world, but that is one I’ll always be happy to remember.”

Leadership, Virtually: Working alongside the talented and exceptionally versatile Leadership Rhode Island team on this initiative is an alumnae team with expertise in journalism, communication, digital technology, and nonprofit excellence. They are charged with chronicling this time of bringing people together virtually to make connections and offer critical support.

Luann Edwards, LRI ’19, is founder of Socially Professional, a social media marketing consultancy. You’ll find her at the intersection of communication and technology, where some of the most meaningful connections are happening. As a strategist, she meets a challenge with a plan and tenacity. She’s grateful to be a small part of the leadership that our state, and Leadership Rhode Island, is bringing to this unprecedented time.
Strategic | Learner | Context | Connectedness | Input

Jane Nugent, Ed.D. LRI ‘95, nonprofit professional in RI since 1982, believes in the power of nonprofit organizations to be the key problem solvers for society.  She has witnessed the power of Rhode Island community based groups provide the greatest good for the greatest number over a long period of time. She has worked with many groups in the state and knows that this time will be no different than difficult times past — they will rise to the occasion and lead the way.
Learner | Analytical | Individualization | Relator | Achiever

Ashley Rappa, LRI’19, founder of Human Writes Consulting and Director of Marketing & Communication at Lincoln School, is a writer at heart and a Rhode Islander by choice. At her best, she believes in the power of words to elevate our lives, and the deep beauty of human connection. At her worst, she still believes that, but likely needs more coffee.
Input | WOO | Communication | Empathy | Positivity

Carol Young, LRI ’92, After 45 fabulous years at the Providence Journal, she bid adieu to the Fourth Estate.  Ten  years later, she still has printer’s ink in her blood and welcomes opportunities to work with writers while  keeping her editing skills sharp.
Harmony | Achiever | Learner | Communication | Significance