A child's hand is shown stamping a pattern on a white t-shirt.

Breaking the Digital Ice: Creative Approaches to Community Engagement

When I submitted my FAO Schwarz Fellowship application in February 2020, how could I have predicted that the world would become unrecognizable in just four short weeks? Graduating college, starting a full-time job, and moving to a new city are not easy feats, pandemic or not. Under normal circumstances, I would have walked across a stage in May to receive my degree. I would have visited the city wherein I’d received a job offer–before accepting the offer. 

But since last March, the world has operated under abnormal circumstances.

In spite of these circumstances, I began my fellowship at the Trust for Public Land on June 1. While entering a new chapter in my life, I was immediately swept into a learning curve. That summer, I found myself designing curriculum and writing grants based on my limited knowledge of Philadelphia and TPL. My knowledge grew as I took on more responsibilities.

Now a full year into my fellowship, I have found authentic community engagement to be the most important, and challenging, component of my work as an FAO fellow at TPL. Many meetings and events have moved online, and there are limitations to in-person gatherings. Forming deep relationships through technical barriers is difficult. Still, since last June, I’ve met a number of people from all walks of life from across a laptop screen. This includes TPL colleagues living as far as Hawaii and change-making artists based here in Philadelphia.

My main two projects as a fellow have been: 1.) Green Schoolyards and 2.) Heat Response: Creative action for Philly’s rising temperatures. Green Schoolyards has entailed working with students, namely two cohorts of fourth and sixth graders, faculty, and community members to design and steward schoolyards. These schoolyards serve as public green spaces.

With Heat Response, I’ve been supporting the work of three artist teams using public art to advocate for communities disproportionately impacted by extreme heat. Given the creative nature of this project, we’ve had to consider how we can make the most of Zoom meetings.

Through both projects, I’ve had the opportunity to work with youth. Considering the disruption and isolation people everywhere faced this past year, my supervisor advised me to do trauma-informed training before working with youth. This training informed me of the importance of ensuring sessions are structured and predictable, and that they allow for rest. These conditions are especially important as some of our students use school-issued Chromebooks, have unstable Wi-Fi, or manage other responsibilities at home.

From fall to spring, I met with two student cohorts on a weekly/bi-weekly basis for participatory design (PD) sessions. Each PD session began with a one-minute stretch. I then reminded them of our session expectations and informed them of our objectives of the day. 

I’ve found in prior experiences with this demographic that icebreakers can make or break an engagement session. This is especially true now. An icebreaker is often just a question. Though simple, the right question can lead to a thoughtful discussion. 

Some of the questions I’ve head and used include:

  • If you could be any cartoon character, who would you be and why?
  • What’s something you learned recently?
  • Would you rather meet an ancestor of yours or a descendant? Why?
  • If you could invite anyone to dinner, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
  • What’s the last song you listened to?
  • What are you reading?

An effective icebreaker can connect directly with the theme of the meeting you’re hosting. Bonus points if it allows for some interactive engagement like asking participants to draw something or make something using materials around them. For example, at our Heat Response kick-off call last July, I divided our team into small groups and had folks introduce themselves. They then had to develop a movie pitch based on their introductions to share with everyone on the call. Based on the smiles and muted laughs I saw on my screen, this icebreaker succeeded. 

A child paints broccoli while another watches.

Another effective icebreaker is one that was facilitated by Heat Response lead artist, Eve Mosher. At one of our meetings, she gave everyone a set of words (e.g. heat, shade, keeping cool, etc.) and asked them to sketch out an invention idea based on their selection of words. Again, this icebreaker succeeded because it aligned with the theme of extreme heat and allowed for a creative interactive activity. 


Though a majority of my work is virtual, I have also engaged with the community in person while following safety guidelines, like wearing masks and social distancing. Fortunately, since green spaces are significant to our work at TPL, I’ve met community members in these spaces. Learning about their relationships to their community and to public land through our conversations has helped inform my role at the organization. 

In addition to one-on-one meetings, I’ve also supported Heat Response in-person engagement like a pen pal exchange between residents and socially distanced art workshops. Both of these engagements were led by Jenna Robb, a Philly-based artist leading the project in Grays Ferry.

Now that the weather is warming up and it’s relatively safer to connect with people, I look forward to the new relationships that will form in my second year as a fellow.

Zoom fatigue has ridden many of us with a shorter attention span and inability to fully engage during virtual meetings. However, effective virtual or socially-distanced engagement is not impossible. In fact, these challenges can beget creative solutions.



H’Abigail “Abi” Mlo (she/her) is Fellow and Stewardship Program Associate at the Trust for Public Land in Philadelphia.