Abstract: The COVID-19 Pandemic As Critical Incident: Examining the (re)Configuring of Relations Among Refugee-Serving Institutions (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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The COVID-19 Pandemic As Critical Incident: Examining the (re)Configuring of Relations Among Refugee-Serving Institutions

Thursday, January 12, 2023
Hospitality 3 - Room 432, 4th Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Odessa Gonzalez Benson, PhD, MSW, Assistant Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
Alex Judelsohn, Doctoral Student, University of Michigan Taubman College of Urban Planning and Architecture
Ana Paula Pimentel Walker, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Michigan Taubman College of Urban Planning and Architecture
Background and Purpose: Emergent modalities and efforts of professional institutions for crisis response to the COVID-19 pandemic were limited in reaching marginalized communities, including those of resettled refugees. Given such limitations, grassroots organizations run by refugees themselves, termed refugee-led community organizations (RCOs), have emerged as key organizations for effective and culturally appropriate assistance during the pandemic. RCOs partnered with mainstream institutions in crisis response, by diminishing barriers in terms of language, culture and geographic proximity to refugees. In this study, we examine how relations between professional and grassroots organizations were sustained, challenged or evolved as we transition towards a new normal.

Method: This study examines RCOs of the Bhutanese and Congolese refugee communities in a midwestern metropolitan area in the United States. Data for this study include fieldwork and interviews collected during the earliest phases of the pandemic between March and August 2020, and follow up interviews one year later in November 2021. We interviewed 14 refugee leaders from one Bhutanese and two Congolese RLOs, each of whom was interviewed at least twice. A total of 38 interviews were conducted. Initially, in the first stage of analysis, grounded theory approach was utilized, allowing ideas about inter-organizational relations to emerge from the data. Then, the latter stage of data analysis entailed application of sensitizing concepts, as informed by theories on inter-organizational relations.

Results: During the pandemic, findings suggest that RCOs initiated and sought to establish relationships with peer institutions, particularly public health agencies and resettlement agencies. RCOs also deployed capital and resources for information exchange to/from institutions and refugee communities. Later, as the pandemic eased towards a ‘new normal’, findings illustrate the varied ways through which inter-organizational relations evolved. There were opportunities for sustained collaboration, as public health agencies and resettlement agencies continued to partner with RCOs in vaccine outreach and other programming. At the same time, critical analysis suggests that emergent relations were characterized by a lack of shared decision making, appropriation or cooptation of RCOs’ modalities and expertise, and limited technical assistance or opportunities for RCOs’ organizational development.

Conclusion and Implications: The COVID-19 pandemic can thus serve as a ‘critical incident’ or ‘natural experiment’ of sorts, whereby the rapid and far-reaching changes brought on by the pandemic can be means for examining the (re)configuring of relations among refugee-serving institutions. Findings illustrate that the pandemic forged renewed relationalities among professional and grassroots refugee-serving organizations, illustrating both promise and contestation. RCOs have gained some level of organizational legitimacy as they came to be considered as crucial in linking mainstream organizations with ‘hard-to-reach’ refugees. However, much more is needed towards equitable, sustainable partnerships. Findings call upon re-envisioning refugee assistance in ways that accommodate and appreciate both grassroots, informal modalities as well as professionalized service provision.