December 1, 2022

whatever pops up

small islands in the water, as seen from cadillac mountain
photo caption: the porcupine islands as seen from cadillac mountain in acadia national park. visitors dot the edge of the granite. i hope they’re lichen what they see.

During the covid pandemic, service providers had to be in a lot of places, fast. We couldn’t rely on traditional models if we wanted to reach the people hardest hit by the virus. We needed to send covid-19 vaccines to places where there might not be an established health clinic. These locations would “pop up” (hence the name) anywhere it was convenient to land them. Pop-up vaccine clinics would come with staffing, tents, vaccines, and volunteers. All we needed was people to use them.

Pop-ups, sometimes called satellite locations, are a helpful way to respond to an emergency need. They’re fairly cheap, easy to set up, and can be mobile depending on the circumstances. Two years into the pandemic, they still play a role in getting people the services they need. But like any action we take (especially in an emergency), we have to take a step back and ask ourselves: “are we doing it this way for the community, or for us?”

Pop-ups are flexible. Depending on the need, one could be a clinic, bookmobile, food truck, food pantry, or more. It’s much easier to stand up a pop-up over building or renting a brick and mortar location. Pop-ups are also useful in situations where you don’t quite know where to put a location. You can set it up in one area for a while and then move it somewhere else later. All you need is permission from whomever manages the land you’re on.

the downsides of popping up

Pop-ups are by nature temporary. Having a pop-up at a location one day is no guarantee that it’ll be there even a day later. Some people have the ability to see something on the road and stop. I do this all the time, often to the chagrin of my passengers. But I’m a special case: I’m easily distracted and I like making stops. I once took a detour in Philly because my dad took a nap while I was driving and my mom and I wanted cheesesteaks. Not everyone can do this! Some folks need to prepare days or even weeks in advance to get somewhere. They may have to deal with childcare, jobs with weird hours, family obligations, or more.

Pop-ups in borrowed spaces also bring their own instability. We weren’t always able to set up shop in a location that was easy to get to by bus, bike, or on foot. We went where we had access to space, or where rent was cheap. And we often operated at the whim of the owner of the property. If they needed us out, we would have to go.

Pop-ups can’t replace permanent locations. While a pop-up setup might be convenient for the people who run them, they can also hide a long-term need. During covid, we set up vaccine pop-ups in parts of the county that didn’t have easy access to health clinics. Sometimes we offered the vaccine alongside other health services. People could get their vaccines and also get a dental exam or information on diabetes. But when our pop-up left, our healthcare options did too.

Our pop-up clinics did nothing to improve the long-term health of the neighbors around us. A pop-up food pantry doesn’t make food any easier to access when we leave. These programs are often paid for by grants or other short-term funding. What we needed more of was stable funding for permanent sites like the ones in wealthier parts of town.

pop off with something better

Recognize the limitations of the form. If you have to resort to a pop-up location, you’re already playing catch-up. You don’t have time or can’t afford a more permanent location. Before you get started, ask yourselves why the need exists in that area. Are social services underfunded? Does the neighborhood have good public transit access? Long-term investments in the area will go a long way for the community. You’ll also build up infrastructure in an area where you may need it again in the future.

Learn about the community. Offer interpreters based on the language needs of the area. Ask simple questions to better understand why people are visiting the pop-up. Err on the side of friendly rather than complicated. You can do a more thorough study later. Try questions like,

  • why did you decide to stop here today?
  • what was convenient about this location?
  • how long did it take you to get here?
  • what else do you have trouble accessing?

Stay consistent. It can take months or years for a place to be well-known and trusted by the community. During the pandemic, some companies set up unregulated covid testing sites. They looked official but may have been distributing fake tests. When everyone is trying to make a buck off you, it’s hard to know who to trust.

Set different expectations. Think about the long-term effects of your pop-up before you begin. For how long will your funding last? If people come to rely on you, what will they do when you leave? Don’t rely on the same metrics that a permanent site might use. I said above that it can take a long time for community members to know and trust your site. Most programs won’t fund a pop-up site that long. Low numbers at a pop-up won’t tell the same story that they would at a fixed site. You may be telling a false story about the community and what they need without even knowing it.

Engage community from the start. Make your pop-up a success by involving community partners from the beginning. Community groups often know their community members well. They can lend gravitas to an event or mobilize their network to attend. Be mindful of the power dynamics present in any community engagement. We often see well-funded, salaried staff working with volunteer coalitions. The coalitions are often the ones doing the hard work for a fraction of the pay. Many do their work as a labor of love, but that’s not an invitation to exploit that labor.

I keep in mind the experience of Friends of Chinatown Toronto (FOCT) during the pandemic. The local health network recruited them to help with outreach and volunteer support. But clinic staff at the event acted in unsafe and disrespectful ways. This hurt the clients who visited and the community groups who vouched for the services. I highly recommend reading FOCT’s demands as a guide on how to center community first.

think before you pop

Pop-up sites have their flaws. The remedies by themselves won’t erase the injustice of needing them. Pay close attention to what we really need. Instead of a pop-up run by a distant command team, we need locally-driven ideas from a community of people. We need to reject gatekeepers, paternalism, and saviorism. Before the next emergency happens, communities need the resources to do what’s best for themselves.

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture.space