Turning your “box” into a center for innovation, collaboration and justice
Living in a one-room, 500 square foot box during a pandemic has its positive aspects that include far less time mopping and far more time solving our state’s biggest challenges. I realize my “turning lemons into lemonade” philosophy may not be for everyone, but allow me to sketch it out for you.
Back in March, when the governor’s first press conference announcing public health guidelines for pandemic prevention began in New Mexico, I was literally in a Santa Fe conference room in the middle of doing a presentation to public health advocates on health disparities. I was sharing survey results illustrating families’ lack of access to medical care along with nine other vital services. After the press conference was broadcast to somewhat bewildered workshop attendees, I said, “If this pandemic hits us hard, we certainly don’t want to have 30% to 50% of families without access to medical care and other vital services, do we?”
The Box: As Safe As It Gets
And so began what many describe as our national nightmare, as we were told by various news media that COVID-19 presented a very real danger (unless it didn’t), non-essential businesses closed and joblessness rose, in-person school ended and unprepared parents became home schooling educators, and an already stressed non-profit sector providing our safety net services for health care, food and shelter became overwhelmed.
The message I heard was stay in your box, wear a mask if you must leave and then disinfect everything. This radical change in lifestyle became all the more stressful as a national election played itself out like a SyFy TV movie Attack of the 6 Headed Shark, but instead of heroes fighting fantasy monsters we had public health followers vs. super-spreading non-believers.
I was one of the lucky ones with a full-time job I could do from home, that came with health insurance and other benefits. And from my home base I knew I had an important decision to make.
Option A: Put in my forty hours for work, ramp up my order of wine deliveries and patiently (and passively) wait for someone else to prevent infection, end the lockdown and kick start the economy — as least in New Mexico.
Option B: Substantially increase coffee consumption, channel my inner passion-fueled activist, and turned my humble monk-like residence into a 24–7 center for collaboration, innovation and problem-solving.
The Box: Connecting to other Boxes
To illustrate the last ten months of Option B could take up a lot of webspace, so I offer in cartoon format my highlights of life since lockdown. As you will see, I did not adopt the popular pandemic-era lifestyle of “awaiting further instructions.” Instead, I used the world-wide-web and zoom to strengthen collaboration with heroic partners, all living in an assortment of boxes across the state.
My days, evenings and weekends became filled with brainstorming sessions and strategic planning events, all made inspiring by passionate participation from my organization’s team (part of New Mexico’s higher education system), state and local elected leaders, stakeholders and community champions. 6am and 10pm calls from a health care leader, calling before and after his shifts, kept me abreast of our state’s capacity to test, do contact tracing, treat illness and design a county-based system of COVID-19 prevention that included strengthening the local systems of services for surviving and thriving.
Santa Fe, New Mexico: The first step was setting up box-to-box-communication with our organization’s core team. All systems were go as we connected with our county initiative leaders throughout the weeks and months across a very long, confusing, chaotic and exhausting year.
The Doña Ana County team, led by Las Cruces City Councilor Kasandra Gandara, had established ten action teams with each one focused on a vital service for surviving and thriving outlined in the books Anna, Age Eight and 100% Community. Doña Ana implemented the first county survey to illustrate where barriers to vital services like medical care existed. Two months before COVID-19 was declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization, Gandara had organized a Summit to share survey findings with city, county and state leaders. She also initiated book clubs and public forums as a way to increase public awareness of childhood trauma, social adversity, health disparities and gaps in family services.
In Taos County, Taos Pueblo health strategist Aurora Valdez organized 100% Community book clubs for Tribal members and for Taos City and Taos County elected leaders and stakeholders. The tribe had implemented the 100% Community survey and shared with all county leadership the lessons learned by identifying gaps in vital services requiring a data-driven response. Valdez invited all leaders within the county’s borders to collaborate on creating a seamless system of programs to strengthen health, safety and resilience.
In San Miguel County, the team led by Matt Probst, El Centro Family Health medical director, perfected the art of zoom book clubs once physical isolation became the norm. Their ten action teams were already organized when the pandemic hit, providing efficient cross-agency communication across all levels of government. They prioritized creating the “Ten Vital Services” web-based directory to ten key services in the county.
In Socorro County, team leaders JC Trujillo (in leadership with a home health care agency) and Dr. Sharon Sessions (school board member and professor at New Mexico Tech) focused on public awareness, survey implementation and recruiting action team members to analyze their county survey results that identified gaps in local services for families. As the pandemic unfolded, Trujillo’s work team became engaged in heroic measures to meet the urgent health needs of Navajo tribal members living within the county’s borders while Dr. Sessions strategized with the state team focused on training, data analysis, and empowerment for all initiative members.
Valencia County’s Health Council committed to reading Anna, Age Eight and 100% Community as a team before voting to endorse the countywide initiative. Council members Ginny Adame, Diana Good and Noel Chavez then started their countywide survey of families and began organizing their resource information to develop a web-based directory to ten vital services.
In Rio Arriba County, artist and educator Diego Lopez (with the non-profit agency Hands Across Cultures) and Leticia Bernal (with Big Brothers/Big Sisters) shared with stakeholders the county survey on gaps in ten vital services and reasons why barriers exist. Lopez started a process of public awareness while collaborator Bernal focused on developing a web-based directory to vital services.
In Otero County, activism emerged in a variety of settings, including those working in the public school superintendent’s office, the local university and with local stakeholders Lisa Yehle and Peg Crim organizing a book club and ten action teams. A countywide survey was started with support provided by NMSU-Alamogordo Vice President Michelle Perry.
Toward the end of the year, our team heard from Catron County, with a population of approximately 3,700. County stakeholder Deborah Boyer shared with our state team, “Some research projects won’t help us out because they say our population is too small.” Our response, “We are here for you 100%.” A process for implementing the countywide survey to identify barriers to vital services in rural New Mexico, including health care, food security and housing security, began immediately.
The Box: A Clutter-free Synergy Center
As you can see, heroic acts are happening all around us. You most likely won’t get these updates from so-called news media, an endless supply of distracting and disempowering clutter streaming into your mobile. In the real world, in counties across New Mexico, local box-bound champions are educating, collaborating, innovating and solving what‘s been called “historic unsolvable problems” that include ensuring all residents can be fed, housed and cared for during the pandemic.
As my illustrations document, I was far from alone into turning my box into a form of virtual Justice League. In New Mexico, we have superheroes who also work unmasked as state lawmakers, city councilors, county commissioners, school board members, tribal health leaders, clinic medical directors, health care providers, health council members, college administrators, university professors, community-based organization managers, high school art teachers, writers, technologists and a host of rural retired folks who said, “What’s our assignment?”
The Box: Harnessing Your Power to Solve Urgent Problems
Across our state there are networks of committed champions who are working tirelessly to not only get all of their community members through the pandemic and economic free fall, but to share a vision of what post-COVID-19 society can be. If you desire a future where 100% can thrive, it’s time to harness your capacity for collaboration, compassion and courage. Living physically isolated from inside our boxes need not diminish our power. Quite the opposite is true. Welcome to the era of thinking way outside the box to get us out of our box.
Fight! Survive! Thrive!
Please excuse any typos as I construct an article at 3am on only one cup of joe. These stories are mine and mine alone. I do not represent any organization here. Words and images ©Dominic Cappello but share with everyone you know. Questions? The groundbreaking graphic novel and manifesto Attack of the Three-Headed Hydras: Confronting Apathy, Envy and Fear on the road to saving humans and the future awaits you here: www.tenvitalservices.org.