Community Conversations Update

May 13, 2021

Mixed Medium from a Cumberland County Middle School student. “The butterflies being held down by chains represents me . . . the top of the painting shows our normal lives before Covid-19 and the lower painting’s darkness conveys how we have been affected.

The featured art work is one of the 581 submissions received from community residents across the state as part of Community Conversations, NJ’s COVID-19 Storytelling Project, a program created by the New Jersey YMCA State Alliance and the New Jersey Department of Health. The statewide effort collected personal accounts of New Jersey residents regarding the challenges faced during the pandemic, how they overcame struggles, and where they found support in their communities during this unprecedented time. These honest, heart-felt contributions from across NJ were expressed through many creative outlets, such as: music, videos, poetry, artwork, interviews, and vlogs.

“From the immediate threat of contracting, spreading, and weathering the virus, through the trauma of social isolation, we recognize that COVID-19 has touched every New Jersey community,” said Marissa Davis, Director, Healthy Equity and State Initiatives. “Collecting these resident accounts will ultimately help us build a more resilient, compassionate and healthy New Jersey.” 

The Community Conversations story gathering process started in August 2020 and concluded March 31, 2020, documenting stories from residents in all 21 New Jersey counties. The first 500 stories submitted were analyzed by the Senator Walter Rand Institute at Rutgers-Camden this spring, where they identified emerging themes and key disparities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Some of the emerging themes relate to the challenges of COVID, including negative impacts on mental health, isolation, grief, roadblocks preventing access to resources and information, and a myriad of social and economic disparities and implications. Other topics touched on positive impacts--of families and friends coming together or reconnecting, and the compassion and resilience of NJ communities.

The themes identified will become a focal point for the Healthy NJ 2030 Advisory Council as they work to create and elevate policies, practices, and programs in New Jersey’s State Health Improvement Plan. The full report on the stories and themes is expected to be completed by the fall of 2021. Plans are underway to present findings and to showcase the animated shorts, original artwork, and audio clips, at various locations around NJ. The presentation will culminate at the annual Culture of Health Conference December 9-10, 2021. 

All stories shared by community members who have consented to make their accounts public, will be digitally archived by the New Jersey State Library and the NJ YMCA State Alliance. The visualizations of the collective storytelling will help honor the diverse themes and impacts this project has unveiled, and will be made accessible to the public for future generations to come. The project was made possible through generous support from the Russell Berrie Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, NJ Dept. of Health and NJ Health Initiatives. To learn more about Community Conversations, and to see the list of community organizations who assisted with story gathering, please visit: www.njymca.org/communityconversations.