More Online Gatherings? Yes, Please!June 7, 2022 4 Comments
These days, folks love to hate Zoom as much as they used to love to hate meetings in general. And “Zoom fatigue” is a problem most folks didn’t even have until the last couple of years. I know from experience how taxing it can be to interact with people through a computer or phone screen all day long. AND, for a minute, I want to sing the praises of online gatherings.
Online gatherings can be powerful. I’ve born witness to deep heart-opening moments and moments of relational repair in online meetings. I’ve seen people have important moments of insight and learning. I’ve seen folks inspire one another and discover their power to speak into difficult situations and confront unjust dynamics within their organizations. And, I’ve seen folks share important information and make really strategic decisions. It’s all about how you create and hold the space. When we bring the best of what we know about creating containers for meaningful engagement, designing for the whole person, the magic can still happen.
Online learning can be more fruitful than in-person learning. Before the pandemic began, most of our workshops were in person for two or three days at a time. As we transitioned to online learning, we broke the content up into smaller bites (typically 3 hours) and spread sessions out over several days or weeks. We’re finding that participants enjoy taking in content in smaller doses, absorbing the information, and practicing a little before layering on the next set of ideas.
Online gatherings can reduce the time, effort, and resources needed to participate. Since 2020, I have been able to participate in waaaay more conferences, convenings, and gatherings than I would have in the ‘before times.” I’ve been able to gather wisdom and inspiration from the Movement for Black Lives, Race Forward, and the Othering and Belonging Institute, to name just a few. I’ve participated in somatics workshops and disability justice workshops, and connected regularly with peers who are committed to deepening our practice of equity. I’ve been co-learning and co-leading a peer exploration at the intersections of racism and classism. And as a volunteer, I’ve been able to get deeply involved with the Poor People’s Campaign and both learn from powerful leaders from across the country and plan with leaders from across our state. On the flip side, while the cost of an online gathering isn’t zero, it can cost a lot less and make it possible to engage more people. While an online meeting does expend energy, I’d be surprised if the carbon footprint of a Zoom meeting exceeded a trip by car, train, or airplane.
Online gatherings have been good for my health. Because I haven’t been traveling for work and because full-day events are rare, there are rarely multi-day stretches where I’m 100% involved with only one group. This has meant much less late-night hustling for one group before an all-day in-person event for another. And I’ve done literally no late night work on train rides between NYC and Boston after a full work day (a regular feature of my work life before COVID). As someone who is chemically sensitive, it was not unusual for me to have to wear a mask to deal with chemical exposure in hotels and offices long before the pandemic. As someone with food allergies, eating on the road is fraught with difficulties. In the world of online work, it’s been a blessing to work from spaces where I can control fragrances and chemical exposure as well as my own meals. I have heard from others with chronic conditions and mobility challenges that online participation has enabled them to participate more fully in things that matter to them, with an important caveat. While we’re getting good at using features like chats and breakout rooms, we haven’t done as well with accessibility needs like ASL, spoken language interpretation, captioning, or other aids for folks with visual challenges.
Of course, there are caveats to all of these upsides to online gatherings. They can be boring, taxing, and even exclusionary. They can make it possible to sit still for too long, strain our wrists and hands, and spend too much time with our screens. They can make it possible to say yes to too many good things and thereby fail to carve out space for other meaningful things in our lives. They can create real accessibility problems for folks without a reliable internet connection or device. And, given the limited ability for participants to engage with one another as they would choose, there are a lot of power dynamics to address and manage. Still, the rise of online meetings in response to the pandemic has taught us that if we design carefully, facilitate attentively, and address equity and access issues, they can be a vehicle for more participation, less environmental damage, and more powerful thinking and action.