The pandemic reiterates that Zora's House is more than a building

Andy Downing
adowning@columbusalive.com
Zora's House

In mid-March, in the days before Gov. Mike DeWine shuttered Ohio’s daycares amid the threat of the coronavirus,Zora’s House founder LC Johnson struggled with how to approach operation of the community space, whichshe founded as a co-working center and a place of refuge for women of color in 2018.

On one hand, Johnson knew the Weinland Park space wasn’t an “essential” business. On the other, she had initiated plans to operate Zora's House as a temporary childcare center for members, many of whom were unsure how to manage the sudden loss of daycare, and she wanted to be there to support her community. 

“We actually organized a fundraiser to be able to use the space for small-group childcare for about three weeks early [in the pandemic],” Johnson said by phone in late November (the space’s currentGiving Tuesday fundraiser closes today). “It was very challenging, I’ll be honest. … I felt a lot of pressure to make a lot of decisions that were best for the community I was leading, to do the right thing and not make the wrong decision.

“Even when we offered childcare, during the last week of it people were like, ‘Oh, social distancing. You shouldn’t be aroundanyone.’ And I was like, ‘Is this the right thing? Are we actually putting people in greater jeopardy?’ It was a lot of pressure as a leader, knowing people were looking to me for answers that I didn’t have, and that I was still trying to figure out. It was a really, really difficult time.”

Compounding this stress, Johnson, a mother of two, was also navigating life with a newborn while simultaneously adjusting to a new remote work routine. So, following that initial three-week run as an emergency daycare, Johnson shuttered Zora’s House with the idea that it would be closed for a couple of months and then resume normal operations once the pandemic was in the rearview.

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Around late spring, though, it started to become clear that COVID-19 might be a longer-term reality. And following the late May death of George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police, Johnson felt a need to resume activity in some form, acknowledging that Zora’s House has always been a responsive, available space for the community.

“In a normal world, with the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, we would have been a gathering space for mourning, for conversation, for healing, for being together and gathering while people were trying to process all that was going on,” Johnson said. “And we couldn’t do that.”

So rather than again opening the physical doors to Zora’s House, Johnson spearheaded the space’s first virtual event, a healing circle the founder described as an “aha moment.”

“There was this realization that things aren’t going back to normal, but the need for a space like ours is actually greater than ever,” Johnson said. “That was a big moment to be like, ‘OK, we need to change the way we do stuff, because people are still in need of the work we do.'”

In the months that have followed, Zora’s House has leaned more heavily into its digital presentation, which has allowed not only local members to again feel that sense of community, but expanded the organization’s global reach, since events are open to anyone with an internet connection. Johnson said roughly half of the attendees at the first digital event beamed in from outside of Central Ohio, which led to Zora’s House launching a national network and extending its first virtual membership offer. (The space now boasts members from 13 states as well as Canada.)

At the same time, Johnson said that Zora’s House has tried to strike a balance between operating in the digital realm and understanding the importance of safe, offline interaction. To that end, the space established a summer program called “Hey, Neighbor,” which connected nearby women, allowing them the opportunity to take outdoor, socially distanced walks together. During the early days of COVID, the organization also conducted a “Secret Santa”-like gift program in which matched participants exchanged physical trinkets in an effort to stem the sense of isolation felt by many amid stay-at-home orders.

“[Moving digital] has not shifted the mission for us,” said Johnson, who in late August opened the physical space under limited hours and strict social distancing guidelines, shuttering it again as COVID-19 numbers spiked in early November (current plans are to remain closed until at least April of next year, pending developments with the virus). “I think if anything it’s reinforced this idea that we are so much more important than the physical space. And this year has shown us that, because our community has actuallygrown while our space has been shut down. … Zora’s House is unique because it’s a community space, but it’s also a community. The events we have, the coming together, it’s all meant to reinforce that idea.”