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  • Leslie James

Community in the Time of COVID

Updated: Sep 24, 2020

This past week was the eighth (8! I'm old.) year of Denver Startup Week.


To keep folks safe, the organizers opted for a fully remote experience. While the sessions lacked much of the peer-to-peer networking afforded to in-person events of years past, I found that the virtual format actually allowed for MORE engagement with the panelists and speakers themselves.


Just like every year, this year I got overexcited and signed up for a whole slew of events focused on real estate, community building, and female founders. In the end, I only made it to a few live events, but have been able to catch up on the ones I missed by watching the recordings on YouTube (another nice perk of the virtual format).


Here are some of my favorite takeaways from those sessions:


Designing Tomorrow's Community Spaces



Designing Tomorrow's Community Spaces was my favorite session this year.


Much of the session was focused on how we go about building intentionally inclusive community spaces in which we are safe from COVID, black lives truly matter, and our marginalized communities, such as our homeless, are supported. Some of the conversation focused on the shift to digital and the way to bring random creative collisions into a digital experience. They also mentioned the need to just show up -- by putting yourself in an environment that is different affords you the opportunity to meet people who "aren't you".


Frank Phillip's ideas on empathy, fostering creative conflict, and creating a sense of belonging for all really spoke to me. In the end, he uses human-centered design to create spaces which welcome hard conversations but also give us a sense of peace.


Holly Whelan with Arapahoe Public Libraries provided a really insightful to comparison to 9/11 -- "we're never going back" to what things looked like before. And she issued a challenge to all creatives working in space design -- be aware and help society combat the negative feelings that come out of any tragedy.


Interior designer Ali Johnston thought that there would be a continual evolution of what a community space looks like, into more positive, open places for collaboration and storytelling. She also cautioned folks to not immediately react, but to truly reflect and think about how we want our spaces to evolve and what we need them to be. And that may incorporate more outdoor or natural space in the process.


I connected with Frank and Ali after the session to discuss how we can use place and design to inspire conversations within our communities, even among those with markedly different life experiences. Again Frank's words really resonated:


"You and I definitely find common ground that good design builds bridges – and built environment that has it’s cultural history wrapped tightly around it becomes a wise old soul enabling conversations to start more softly and warmly than anything I can think of outside of a campfire."

I hope to connect with them both in person to figure out how we can work together to bring this to bear in Denver.



Startup Cribs -- Does Place Still Matter?



In the past, Startup Cribs was focused on showcasing envelope-pushing (for the time) and cool (beauty is in the eye of the beholder) startup offices, and demonstrating how they use space to build community and a happier workforce. An old company of mine even appears in their video backlog. :)


But the transition of this year's event into a fully remote session, actually offered more depth in terms of practical advice for companies looking to better support their teams through the COVID pandemic.


The panelists confirmed that most, if not all, of their employees had been working remotely since March, with no plans to bring folks back into an office environment until at least the end of 2020. While that's in alignment with coastal tech startups and may be dictated by some of the VC firms backing said companies, I am surprised to hear those dates given that many Denver-area children in public schools are headed back into the classroom in the coming weeks. But I digress...


Kirk Adams of Automox mentioned that they have worked to accommodate asynchronous work schedules to accommodate employees' needs to balance childcare or remote learning and their daily office tasks. While that sentiment was echoed by the other panelists, Karen Dahl at Guild mentioned that they are continuing to build out a dedicated childcare facility for their Denver employees, to open in tandem with their physical offices later this year (gamechanger!)


Cheryl Derricotte of Virta led much of the conversation because her team is distributed in more than 190 locations. She reflected that the office isn't dead, but she thought that we would see more of a hub or hybrid office model, in which the overall square footage may be reduced, but there are still places to gather and work collaboratively.


She focused on how to intentionally build community, and the need for communication, diversity, and inclusion as ways to make a remote workplace work well. And my favorite takeaway? Virta's monthly team movie night (Netflix Party, holla!) focused on timely conversations around #blacklivesmatter and #sfpride50. I have some watching to do:


13th

Screaming Queens

Disclosure

Mrs. America (series about Shirley Chisholm)


And I still have this session on commercial real estate placemaking left in my queue to watch.


Building Community Through Shared Experience


So why is a woman focused on architectural salvage and sourcing antiques writing about these Denver Startup Week sessions?


Because I think that many of the physical artifacts of our spaces, even a lowly utility sink, have the potential to spark conversations and build bridges between those that experienced what came before and those who are experiencing something for the first time. In essence, salvaged pieces, especially when repurposed in public or commercial spaces, help us find a shared reference for thriving as a community right now, even as we continue to evolve.


This quote from a Cynthia E. Smith and Paul Polak in a recent interview by Maren Maier encapsulates how I feel about antiques and architectural salvage.


When I asked a local community architect who worked with residents to transform an informal settlement...into a thriving and vibrant neighborhood which skill he thought was most needed for his work, he responded, "Listening."

Antiques and salvaged items help us spark and contextualize the stories of our past.



Looking to build community through design? Contact Denver Squared and we can help you uncover stories and find pieces to bring your space to life.


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