In light of COVID-19 concerns, South Sound community and business leaders congregated virtually Monday to kick off the annual South Sound Summit.

The multi-part event is presented by the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber and will unfold every day this week through Thursday, Oct. 22.

Each day, the event will be broken up into two sessions — one in the morning and one in the afternoon —  culminating Thursday with a keynote presentation from Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Summit participants can submit questions and comments live throughout the day. 

Morning Session

The morning presentation featured Ali Modarres, the dean of urban studies and assistant chancellor for community engagement at the University of Washington Tacoma; Josh Garcia, Tacoma Public Schools’ deputy superintendent; and Jim Heath, the president of the Institute of Systems Biology (ISB) in Seattle.

The panel put a focus on the education system — specifically how adjusted COVID-conscious working practices have affected it this year. Modarres, who spoke first, optimistically invoked the positives that have come out of COVID-19 related changes, whether related to the uptick in teleworking or the decrease in commuting.

Garcia spoke about the state of education both locally and beyond, and how he thinks, looking at current trends, the system could change in the long-term in part due to COVID-19 modifications.

“What COVID has done has really heightened the awareness and the need for us as community business, education, and then the broader community to come together,” he said, noting how the pandemic has additionally emphasized the digital divide.

Garcia said that even though the digital divide has locally decreased in a short period of time, it still can be challenging to engage both students and staff in individual environments defined by remote work and isolation.

“We continue to worry about the social and emotional well-being of both students and staff, as well as general families,” Garcia said, adding that the district has seen the need for collaborative work and has made a concerted effort to continue diving into solutions. 

Garcia said he believes that, in the future, the roles of educators will likely shift, and the average sizes of schools could change. 

Heath brought up how the ISP has addressed COVID-19 over the last few months. He said the organization has coupled with the Swedish Hospital System to study some 200 of its patients over time, and has found that the signatures of severe disease tend to begin at the moderate stage — a phase that might be best to start with by way of therapeutic intervention. 

ISP also recently did an epidemiological study of about 300,000-plus tested patients across Washington, Oregon, and California, Heath said. Findings reinforced the fact that COVID-19 is hitting minority communities harder — something that further calls attention to a need for community medicine, with resources like mobile health care available, Heath said. 

Like most others, Heath said the ISP is waiting on the availability of a vaccination — something he thinks will not be broadly available for some time. While a vaccine could be available between the next two and four months, he posited that it could be twice that amount of time before more widespread distribution could occur. Because firm dates on when certain resources will be available, Heath underlined the importance of smaller preventative measures in the meantime.

“If you are going to go out, if you are going to mix with people, absolutely wear a mask,” Heath advised. “Take all the precautions we’re worried about … simple precautions make a mass difference.”

Afternoon Session 

The afternoon session featured Michael Liang, program director of Space Works Tacoma; Eli Taylor, vice president relationship manager of Key Private Bank; T’wina Nobles, community activist; and Tamar Jackson, director community engagement of WorkForce Central.

The panel focused on community response and resilience in light of COVID-19. Liang, who spoke first, encouraged people — and business owners — to redefine success. Referring to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, he said many reach for the top tier of self-actualization. However, he said, that top tier can’t be met until other needs are met.

“I think we need to redefine what success looks like. As you think about those work plans and how might you measure success, that’s a little bit lower on that pyramid. How are you protecting the wellness and safety of your staff, or the clients, or the customers that are coming in? I think we should really celebrate those moments when our basic needs are being taken care of. And I think if we focus on that in 2020, and even 2021, that’s a really good foundation for moving higher up the pyramid, and we’ll get back to that top part of the pyramid,” he said.

Liang also stressed the need for leaning into one’s strengths and doing things that they will be proud of in the future.

Taylor spoke about the challenges and opportunities that have arisen since the pandemic shutdowns and how the community has worked to collaborate and help one another adapt to new environments. Going into 2021, Taylor said he hopes to see continued collaboration, increased focus on virtual meetings, and developing new ways to create engaging events.

Nobles, who is a community activist and who leads the Tacoma Urban League, spoke about the work the Tacoma Urban League has done to help small businesses affected by COVID-19 get access to financial resources. In response to the need for local businesses needing assistance applying to various loans and grants, the Tacoma Urban League created a new position, a small business support navigator.

“We have a small business support navigator, who will provide technical assistance and will walk community members and business owners through how to apply for the funding, how to differentiate between all of the funding options because there are so many of them,” she said.

In her message, she urged people to continue to shop locally to support Pierce County small businesses and to communicate with policymakers about how to create more accessible financial resources to small businesses.

Jackson, the final speaker, spoke about how the community is going to continue to support one another after the pandemic. As a member of the Pierce County community engagement task force, he encouraged people to think about leadership and how and what needs to change in order to achieve solutions to long-term problems.

“It took a pandemic for all of us to come together. It’s taken many years for us to talk about a solution that’s always going to be a permanent problem until we start coming together,” he said. “If we know that our leadership is not where it needs to be, don’t be afraid to hold the leadership accountable … let’s not assume that they’re doing anything wrong. Let’s not assume that they’re forgetting about this community. Let’s just assume that we haven’t spoken loud enough to tell them that we want to be at the table. We want to be a part of what they’re doing. We want to be a voice and make sure that we have outcomes. So many times we build programs but we don’t see the outcome. 2020 was the year of community engagement — 2021 is the year of resilience.”

Tomorrow’s South Sound Summit will have two roundtable discussions featuring Marilyn Strickland, Bruce Dammeier, Victoria Woodards, and others.