The Role of Community-led Grassroots Organizations During COVID-19 and Beyond

Par Jasleen Brar , Student
15 juillet 2021


Sikh Heritage Alberta

While it can seem daunting to initiate a project or begin a grassroots organization, it is crucial for community members who recognize social injustices or intervention needs in their community to become community champions and address these challenges themselves – for if not them, then who? 

 Filling the gaps 

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted BIPOC minorities. Language, informational, and cultural sensitivity barriers during the pandemic vastly perpetuated and illuminated existing health inequities for minority groups. With lack of governmental intervention, the role of health promotion and community protection falls under community champions and leaders. Specifically, for immigrant communities with many elderly and recent immigrants, this responsibility falls to first generation Canadians – the children of settler immigrants and the current youth of minority communities. 

Sikhs Doing SevaRecognizing our role as the youth of the Sikh/Punjabi community led us to begin the South Asian COVID-19 Relief Project (SACRP) in January of 2021. Our team, Sikh Heritage Alberta, is a non-profit organization that we founded in 2019 to uncover and recognize the stories and the pioneer legacy of the Sikh community in Alberta dating back to 1909. Sikh Heritage Alberta partnered with the similarly youth founded grassroots organization, Sikhs Doing Seva, to initiate the South Asian COVID-19 Relief Project.  

Over the course of six months, we provided weekly workshops to our community at our local community temples to provide translated information regarding COVID-19 and health and safety measures, as well as distribute culturally sensitive and effective PPE. A large proportion of the Sikh community, as well as several communities, tie dastaars, or turbans, as part of their religious identity. However, this expression of religion can hinder wearing a mask effectively and thus we designed, 3D printed, and distributed, mask clips that allow one to fasten masks behind their neck rather than loop them behind their ears. It is crucial to recognize cultural barriers in healthcare and mobilize action to address these barriers. Current practices allow for the failure of culture identities to find a place in non-accommodating dominant approaches to health.  

Much of the news and information disseminated regarding the coronavirus is in English and delivered through social media or other similar virtual platforms, thus increasing language, technological, and accessibility barriers. Since the inception of the South Asian COVID-19 Relief Project, we have provided mask education, COVID-19 safety tips, and culturally sensitive information to increase capacity for protection in the community. We also began vaccine booking booths to decrease technological and language barriers, present when booking vaccination appointments. This was especially helpful for seniors in the Sikh/Punjabi community.  

As members of this community, it is much easier for us to understand the needs and to identify the barriers for our own people. Initiating community projects, as community members, allow us to better address the gaps that ignore the unique differences and needs of our community.  


Community foundations and the post-pandemic stage 

As we transition into the post-pandemic stages of COVID-19, we recognize the extensive and negative mental health impacts that have intensified during the pandemic. As such, we will soon be launching ‘post-pandemic workshops’, informed by the Biopsychosocial Model of Health and working in collaboration with various mental health professionals. The aim is to further educate the community and increase their capacity regarding psychoeducation topics such as anxiety and depression, coping strategies, and to simply provide a community gathering and building space after a year of isolation.  

As alluded to in this piece, community members are best able to identify the gaps and needs of their communities and thus it is crucial for community organizations to take on key stakeholder roles in transitioning to the post-pandemic stages. Societal and community needs are changing in diverse ways with unique underlying struggles and necessities specific to cultural contexts. Community foundations, comprised of leaders in the community, are able to identify with and better grasp the specifics of such intersectional struggles in ways members of the dominant community may not be able to. The lack of community partnerships during the pandemic exacerbated health inequities and illuminated the need for dominant organizations and corporations to partner with grassroots community organizations. These partnerships can lead to increased capacity and can provide resources to help tackle community issues such as health literacy and accessibility barriers that are faced by minority groups in Western society.  


Funding and grants 

One of the larger issues we had with SACRP was identifying and securing funding. Due to a lack of previous experience with grantmaking organizations, a lack of awareness of funding possibilities, eligibility specifics, and lengthy timelines, our organization was forced to rely on community donations to fund our project. It was difficult to locate funding opportunities and when we found a good match, many had approval timelines of several months which would not have been applicable to SACRP as it was a project born out of urgent community needs. Further, many grants have specifics in terms of the populations that are to be served, the ways by which the populations must be served, or even the information that is provided to populations. These specifics and eligibility criteria often fail to include youth-led, grassroots community projects that are not associated with larger industries or corporations. 

In order for community based, grassroots projects to be successful, it is necessary for grantmaking organization to allow leaders of such projects to have increased autonomy as well as increase the urgency with which grant applications are received and funds are disseminated. 


Supporting community-led grassroots organizations 

There is a potential opportunity for the philanthropic sector to better support community-led grassroots organizations. Examples of tangible action items within the jurisdiction of the philanthropic sector that would greatly benefit community-led grassroots organizations include: increasing awareness and accessibility of grantmaking organizations and developing networks for grassroots organizations to collaborate and learn from each other. From our experience with the South-Asian COVID-19 Relief Project, and with our larger NPOs (Sikh Heritage Alberta and Sikhs Doing Seva), it is evident that grassroots organizations can easily become resource-limited and contained within isolated silos. The philanthropic sector can potentially weave grassroots organizations into the larger philanthropic community to increase the strength and capability of individual organizations while allowing the grassroots organization to maintain their autonomy and work within their own communities. 

There is a unique opportunity for the philanthropic sector to empower and increase the capacity of individual community-led grassroots organizations, so that they are more successful in working with their individual communities, as well as linking similar grassroots organizations, pan-nationally, to create a community of communities. Community-led grassroots organizations have the understanding of the community’s lived experience, and the philanthropic sector has the resources to support this experience – however there is a gap between the understanding and the acquisition of resources. Grassroots organizations are the functional, foundational unit of the philanthropic sector, that can provide appropriate community interventions, but without strong foundational supports, large scale efforts can easily crumble.  

This project was co-founded and co-led with Isha Gill, Aarondeep Maan, and Simeran Sidhu. 

This article was written by Jasleen Brar.