As the majority of America’s population shelters at home and in-person activities slow to a minimum, organizations are asking themselves how do they continue to serve and connect with their constituents and communities during this COVID age of social and physical separation, distance learning, and contactless deliveries.

Councils have historically prioritized in-person human interactions. From community conversations to reading and discussion programs, these interactions have facilitated understanding, togetherness, and personal and communal growth by addressing contemporary, historic, and hyper-relevant local, state, and national issues. Conversations have brought community activists, journalists, and police officers together to discuss law enforcement, race, and reporting in “Beyond the Headlines,” a program conducted by the Wisconsin Humanities Council. In Minnesota, water stewardship questions raised in their state prompted the council to pull together “We Are Water MN,” a network consisting of partnerships, traveling exhibits, and public events to make “better, more collaborative, and more relevant choices about water.” In Ohio, one of the hardest hit states in the opioid epidemic, the council used first-person stories from the book Not Far From Me: Stories of Opioids and Ohio, to “encourage in-depth, historically-informed dialogue around opioid use with the aim of reducing stigma” and exploring the reach of the crisis in Ohio.

But, what happens now? How do we support these meaningful, generative, and inspiring connections? While several councils have successfully pivoted and moved their programming online (for example, Indiana’s IN Slow Moments, an adaptation of their popular Next Indiana Campfires), there are important considerations to make when delving into virtual community and discussion programs. 

Last week, we spoke with Oregon Humanities Executive Director Adam Davis, Delaware Humanities Deputy Director and Senior Program Officer Ciera Fisher, and Humanities Montana Program Officer Samantha Dwyer about their recently launched virtual programs, Connect in Place (Oregon), Distant Discussions (Delaware), and Gather Round / Montana Conversations (Montana) to gather their tips for making community conversations, Zoom calls, and other online discussion programs work for their states.

Prior to COVID-19, did your council conduct virtual community conversations or discussions online?

OREGON: We did not conduct virtual conversations or discussion programs 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 (including This Land, Beyond the Margins, and more)

DELAWARE: We tried to previously, but there wasn’t much interest.

MONTANA: Before COVID-19, we talked about doing virtual community conversations, but never had sufficient time or pressure to make it happen. We sometimes recorded programs and put them on our YouTube channel for our 13 subscribers… In March, when we canceled our in-person programs we needed a way to continue to bring the humanities to Montanans. We wanted to have original content that people couldn’t find anywhere else online, led by Montana scholars, experts, and elders.

What do you feel were the biggest challenges to moving these conversations online or adapting them to the current environment?

OREGON: 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.

DELAWARE: Because we had attempted virtual community conversations before, we didn’t run into many challenges creating the program. Our biggest fear from past experiences was that no one would attend, but in that we were wrong. People seem to be looking for connection and engagement – our audiences haven’t been huge, but they’ve been consistent and enthusiastic.

MONTANA: So far, one of the biggest challenges has been the rapid timeline for planning, promoting, hosting, recording, editing, and publishing these events. We were used to taking about a month and working with partners to make Montana Conversations happen. Now we do it all in a week from home. The other challenge is competing with all the other stuff going on virtually. Our virtual conversations are with small groups of people. Maybe ten people will come to a Zoom meeting, but another 100 will watch on Facebook Live or YouTube when we share the recording. I know those are small numbers for the Internet, but for humanities programs, we are reaching a lot more people than before. Our YouTube subscribers have doubled!

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

OREGON: 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 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.

DELAWARE: Our first session was to discuss a short TED talk, and the second was a short story, although a short story on the longer side. We were going to move to perhaps full-length documentaries or even books, but in our second session no one seemed to have read the entire story. We went back to short (no longer than five minute) videos, very short stories, and poetry.

Our topics started with a Literature and Medicine bend, because our main Distant Discussions facilitator, Sarah, creates the syllabus for and runs a session of our Literature and Medicine program. We’ve branched out now to discuss women’s history (since our March in-person programming was cancelled), environmental humanities (to celebrate Earth Day), and other topics, and have brought in guest facilitators.

We pose a “big idea” question to get people engaged before they even see the material. This gets their attention and seems to help them quickly determine if they want to take the next steps of engagement (consuming the material and signing up for the discussion). We were at first completely on our own, but a library heard about our program and offered to partner to help us advertise more broadly, which we were eager to do.

MONTANA: We sent an email to our conversation leaders at the start of the shelter-in-place order to see who might be able to lead virtual conversations. They responded very generously with their time and enthusiasm and I scheduled many based on availability and experience using a virtual platform. People with less experience were given later dates to have time to become comfortable on these new platforms. We are not currently working with partners like we usually do because most are closed. We have a conversation in the planning stages with a rural library, but that won’t happen until June. We have sponsored a few virtual classroom visits, but have had at least 25 programs canceled in the last two months that our partners would usually host. We did partner with a nonprofit that normally did writing workshops on the river and had to shift to a virtual platform instead. They were creative with redesigning their content and had enthusiastic responses. Although they tried to limit the number of participants to 20, they had a hard time saying no and ended up with a very engaged group of 26 people who did an entire weekend on Zoom together!

Did you provide additional resources or preparation to your communities prior to your virtual events to help alleviate questions or troubleshooting needs during the event?

OREGON: 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.

DELAWARE: No, we thought about writing a Zoom “how-to,” but no one really has had any issues. Our short tutorial at the beginning of each session seems to answer any tech questions people may have.

MONTANA: I always do a practice session in Zoom with the facilitator to make sure lighting, sound, and Internet connection are okay and they know how to share their screen, if needed. I don’t send out resources or prep the audience. Everyone seems to be learning quickly and that information is pretty readily available.

Do you find it more, less, or equally challenging for people to express themselves on certain topics in the online setting? What are ways you are creating the safe space online for conversation, learning, and discussion?

OREGON: 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.

DELAWARE: There is what I would more call technology shyness and it is taking a little longer for people to get warmed up to the format. Once that passes, due to the circumstances, people actually seem more willing to share, to feel that sense of connection with others. I don’t think that has anything to do with the online setting.

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

OREGON: 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 crises. We’ve also encouraged people to name community resources and shared those.

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.

DELAWARE: We’ve received a great deal of positive feedback. People like our format (a short piece to read/watch ahead of time and then a 30-minute conversation at lunchtime or during happy hour). Our Literature and Medicine program has been cancelled for 2020, so some of our participants of that program have been attending. One individual has attended every single session, and at the end, thanks us for our hard work and tells us how much she misses Literature and Medicine. I think I can speak for the entire staff when I say how good that makes us feel. We miss seeing everyone in person too, but are glad we can offer something to the community at this time to keep us connected.

MONTANA: The response has been very positive. The people who participate in the live programs are grateful to connect with different people.

Thank you so much for your time and for sharing about your programs! Before you go, please share your top tips for hosting online community conversations or discussions and other virtual 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? (Adam Davis, Oregon Humanities)
  2. Build from the inside: if we want to reach those goals, what needs to be in place to do this well? (Adam Davis, Oregon Humanities)
  3. If posing a question to the audience, wait a little longer than you normally would for a response – there is lag, people may be a little less comfortable or take a little longer to decide to speak, etc. If participants are continually talked over, no one will want to or attempt to speak. (Ciera Fisher, Delaware Humanities)
  4. Have good lighting and use your camera – it makes a difference to see your face. (Ciera Fisher, Delaware Humanities)
  5. Take a moment to walk everyone through the most important features. If you mute everyone because of some sort of background noise, you’ll want attendees to know how to turn their microphones back on so they can participate. (Ciera Fisher, Delaware Humanities)
  6. 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. (Adam Davis, Oregon Humanities)