In Carlisle, Pa., 2016’s Strongest Town, a Community Action Network organized by the local college president (years before the pandemic) could be a blueprint for small towns across America looking for efficient ways to communicate, collaborate and respond to emerging needs now and in the future.

It all started with breakfast. Dickinson College President Margee Ensign set up the CAN shortly after she arrived at the college in 2017 by arranging early morning meetings in her home with a handful of local leaders—the YWCA; United Way; the chamber of commerce, etc. The group has grown to more than 90 representatives of every community sector—schools, government, religious organizations, law enforcement, healthcare, food pantries and shelters, even the military. Ensign leads weekly meetings of the group via Zoom, which enables the CAN to quickly respond to emerging needs. 

Some outcomes: Computer science students have helped small businesses build websites; the college created a one-stop-shop website listing organizations in need and how people can help them; empty buildings are now potential testing sites; pop-up food donation sites were established with produce and shelf-stable products from businesses and local farms; an emergency response fund was created; a community center was converted to a shelter; hand sanitizer made by a local distiller was quickly distributed to community members.

The original intent of the group was to identify community needs and meet them through collaboration, but the relationships built along the way have been paying untold dividends in the time of COVID-19. 

To her credit, Ensign knows about living through crises. She previously led the American University of Nigeria when Boko Haram terrorists threatened the campus. She even helped rescue and secure an education for many of the schoolgirls who were captured by the militants. Like everyone else, she didn’t expect COVID-19 to reshape life in America or drastically change Dickinson College’s plans for the future. But she knew building relationships among community leaders early would be critical when a crisis of any kind came calling. 

As President Ensign stated in a recently published op-ed: “Colleges are—and should be—at the epicenter of community responses to COVID. They can and should be the assembly point for community action. It’s imperative that colleges start building or strengthening relationships with leaders in their communities now, to help in recovery and before the next crisis or disaster occurs.”

Of course, not every town is a college town, but most towns certainly have groups of similar leaders across sectors who could come together to form their own community action networks. We were fortunate our CAN was in place and the relationships had been built before COVID-19 hit.