In April, the Federation spoke with Oregon Humanities Executive Director Adam Davis about the council’s program, Connect in Place, a virtual conversation held each Tuesday that was created to bring people together despite physical distancing.

View the full interview here:

Prior to COVID-19, did you council conduct virtual community conversations or discussion forums online? What do you feel were the biggest challenges to moving these conversations online or adapting them to this current environment?

DAVIS: We did not conduct virtual community conversations or discussion forums online prior to COVID 19. As an organization, we place a high priority on gathering people face-to-face for conversations, onstage discussions, Clemente courses, and facilitation training, and prior to COVID 19 we had actively resisted taking conversations online. It’s also important to say, though, that we have been publishing Oregon Humanities Magazine online for a while now (as well as distributing hard copies), and we have put significant resources into sharing and producing other digital efforts as well (including This Land, Beyond the Margins, and more:  

The biggest challenges to moving and adapting our face-to-face conversations online have been:

  • Learning how best to use technology (especially, for our virtual community conversations, zoom, which we had been using internally, but using it for external programs brought up plenty of additional questions).
  • Considering security and accessibility. With accessibility in mind, it’s worth saying that we decided to go ahead with Connect in Place programming (and will go ahead with different forms of online facilitation training) even knowing that some people would not have the tools or the inclination to participate.
  • This online work calls for some kinds of knowledge that program staff had not been chosen for or practicing.
  •  Capacity—to learn what partner organizations and facilitators need takes time and energy. It requires surveying and lots of communication and then figuring out how best to respond. And to do so quickly.

How has selecting topics, partners, hosts, or facilitators changed or evolved for a virtual vs. in-person audience?

DAVIS: We have tried in this period to think about all the topics we’d previously convened people to talk about, and to identify which of these topics would most resonate now. We also tried to get a quick sense from partners of what their constituents most need to connect or talk about now.

We asked our facilitators whether they would like to lead online conversations, whether they’d like to lead their pre-COVID topic or some new one/s, and whether they need this facilitation work to offset income losses due to COVID.

Organizational partnerships are different now, in that we don’t ask host/partner organizations to open up their physical space and all that goes with that. We ask for outreach support and little more – though that could change as we get further into this period.

There are some Conversation Projects we will not rush to move online, either because of the topic or because the facilitators have let us know that they are relatively financially secure right now.

We have been alternating between topic-driven virtual conversations and place-based virtual conversations. A few years ago we ran a statewide series of conversations called This Place. Now we’re trying to use virtual tools to re-create a sense of the local, the community, and the place we live in. For these conversations, we’ve developed a loose framework centered around a few key questions, and we structure the conversations so that participants do almost all the talking, to each other, in breakout groups and the whole group.

“The questions that the facilitator asked were ones I hadn’t thought about before.” – Who Are the Deserving Poor? 

Any additional resources or prep that you provide to your communities prior to the event dates to help alleviate questions or troubleshooting needs during the event?

DAVIS: We are doing a lot more pre-conversation communication by email with participants to help them get comfortable with zoom and prepared for an interactive conversation.

We have made sure to pair a “zoom guide” from our staff with every facilitator – so we’ve done some internal training around what this entails and we’ve asked staff to step up outside their usual areas of work.

We’ve shared guidelines and recommendations with facilitators by email and in virtual meetings, and we’ve met with facilitators and zoom guides right after the conversations to debrief their experience and see what forms of support would be most helpful going forward.

When I initially signed up I wasn’t aware that I would have to talk to the group. So I appreciate the email that was sent the day of the event letting me know that this would be required of me. I’m an introvert so knowing what was coming was super critical. – Program Participant

What has been the response of your communities to the virtual programming? 

DAVIS: We’ve held 9 online community conversations thus far, and we have many more coming up. It’s already clear that participants are coming to these with a strong need to connect and re-establish community. People have regularly and heartfully expressed gratitude for these spaces. The place-based conversations in particular have created opportunities for participants to get to know people in their region during a time of crisis. We’ve also encouraged people to name community resources and shared these.

“The most meaningful part was hearing how some were dealing with the COVID-19 isolation.” This Place Now – Southern Oregon participant. 

DAVIS: It’s also worth saying that there have been a number of participants who generally encounter barriers to convening with people – and these Connect in Place conversations have meant a great deal to them. We are learning from this, and we know our future programming decisions will take this learning into account.

“In our final go-around, I was moved when one participant, who had a lot of analytical experience with the topic, said that his big takeaway for the night was the importance of feelings as they affect how we find and understand news.” – Kelly McElroy, facilitator of Beyond Fake News. 

What do you see as the humanities council role during the pandemic? In what ways does providing these kinds of virtual programs (community conversations, discussion forums) respond to that role?

DAVIS: In many ways, our role as a humanities council has not changed: we try to create opportunities for people to connect, talk, listen, and think together. We try to create opportunities for people to ask questions and sit with questions, and to reflect on how their questions are related to what they do in the world. We have to use different tools now, but our role is the same.

Our role in distributing funds through the CARES Act emergency relief effort is also consistent with what we were doing before – connecting with small- and mid-sized organizations all around the state to complement and support the community-based culture-building work they’ve been doing. 

“Understanding that there are so many reasons that someone with a completely opposite point of view may have arrived at their conclusions.” This Place Now – Southern Oregon

Do you find it more, less or equally challenging for people to express themselves and share their perspectives, experiences, and opinions on certain topics in the online setting? What are ways your council works to create the safe space online for conversation, learning and discussion.

DAVIS: It’s hard to generalize here. People seem to respond in many different ways. We’ve deliberately kept these conversations small so that people have space to show up and hear each other and be heard. Some people feel more empowered because they’re literally at home, so there’s safety in that. It matters that the groups are small (no more than 20, though we are planning a couple of larger, less regionally bounded conversations, too). It matters that they are not recorded. And it matters that they are set up for full participation. Especially in this online setting, we’ve seen how important it is for facilitators to deliberately and explicitly invite people to join in, to disagree, to be comfortable with some awkward silence, to sit with questions, etc. We’re still convening mostly strangers – and doing so now in a pretty strange space in an especially strange time.

“It was so unexpectedly meaningful to meet new people right now in an environment that felt safe enough to actually get to know each other enough to challenge our biases and serve a purpose for each other by creating community.” This Place Now – Willamette Valley participant. 

Do you organize your programs by region or other kinds of community demographics to help facilitate participation and conversation? 

DAVIS: We’re run place-based conversations where we group people by region. We’ve run affinity group conversations where people choose to participate based on their identity. And we’ve run topical conversations where interest in the topic determines the boundaries. When it comes to the regional conversations, we know that the slicing oversimplifies, and sometimes the location of the borders isn’t fully satisfying to every participant, so we try to be flexible. 

Please share your top three tips for hosting online community conversations/discussions or other participatory programs.

  1. Start with, be very clear about, and regularly return to goals: why are we trying to do this stuff online? What are we hoping participants and facilitators experience and take away from this?
  2. Build from the inside: if we want to reach those goals, what needs to be in place to do this well?
  3. Respond to the strange online space and the stranger COVID moment by being explicit about damn near everything: the importance of connection, the value of awkward silence, the importance of every voice, the seriousness of the large and small barriers to participation, the vitality of questions.

Why are the tools and disciplines of the humanities so valuable in establishing, maintaining and generating human connection despite physical distancing in the age of COVID?

DAVIS: People want to be heard and to feel connected and to know what’s going on for other people, and the news is not generally a good source for most of this.

COVID has illuminated so much of what is already in place and what isn’t in place. And it has raised questions that are clearly rooted in the daily and long-term realities of people’s lives. In this moment, we’re trying to show up as a calm, encouraging, and reliable partner in creating opportunities for people all over Oregon to feel a strong sense of interpersonal connection and shared imagination.