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Meaningful Connections in a Virtual World

By on April 4, 2018



Active Living By Design is in the process of transitioning to a more virtual work environment, and it’s making us ask how we can continue to cultivate organic conversations and meaningful relationships when we’re not in the same space. We’re not alone in this, either. As philanthropy leverages technology to scale initiatives, our sector often prioritizes efficient virtual platforms and their myriad tools over more intimate, tailored, and in-person learning. While technology allows best practices and innovative ideas to spread more quickly and connect more people, we need a balance of both learning approaches. With all of this technology at our fingertips and no sign of it slowing down, we still—and always will—yearn for deep, meaningful connections and highly specific resources to meet our needs.

This month I had the opportunity to present at the thirteenth annual Michigan Choices Conference. The conference is sponsored by the Michigan Nutrition Network, which focuses on food, health, and collaboration. I left feeling inspired and re-energized, with new friends and multi-sector connections. In the hallways, in between sessions, and while waiting in line for food, I had great conversations, offered (and received) applicable resources and examples, and shared challenges and successes.

For example, on the way to a breakout panel, a school nutritionist told me about her school system’s progressive policies, which are getting more local, healthy produce into the cafeterias. But the staff who prepare the meals are struggling to adjust to the changes. We identified the possibility that the cafeteria workers were being overlooked as vital stakeholders in the new policy implementation process. We brainstormed ways to re-engage them, exchanged information to keep in touch, and then parted ways. No one set the stage for this conversation or told us the topic ahead of time, yet we were still connecting with a common purpose.

The real-time and comfortable nature of such conversations allows for dynamic and organic exchanges with few barriers or distractions. It’s possible that these types of encounters could be made virtually, but with face-to-face meetings, the potential risks of sounding off topic or co-opting a conversation if others are present seem lower, and the potential reward of getting immediate support seems higher. Regardless of how we interact, virtually or in-person, such relationships are created and cultivated, not manufactured.

One example of this has stuck with me: I recently finished the psychiatrist Irvin Yalom’s memoir, “Becoming Myself.” He is in his mid-80s and has been practicing psychiatry for almost 60 years. Throughout the book, he shares how he continues to challenge himself and stretch his thinking—particularly through his more than 20-year participation in a bi-weekly support group. He writes, “For me, what has been most remarkable has been the persistence of novel encounters. For over five hundred meetings, I continue to discover something new and different about my co-members and myself every single meeting.” What a joy it would be if we could say the same of every conference, community meeting, online tutorial, and webinar we attend! It is a high bar, but why not strive for it?

One of Active Living By Design’s six Essential Practices is a Culture of Learning. We continue to deepen our own thinking about how we facilitate virtual learning events that spark meaningful engagement. This includes identifying new platforms that improve interaction between speakers and attendees; considering how power dynamics can manifest through virtual learnings; assessing needs and surveying attendees beforehand; and/or creating time and space for those with different learning styles to engage and contribute.

As we continue to address health and racial inequities, historical and systematic oppression, and community-change strategies to overcome these long-standing barriers to health for all, we must have tough and meaningful conversations in multiple places, on different platforms, and in safe spaces. This collaborative learning can happen formally and organically through telephone lines, screens, in-person conversations, and with a level of trust and respect that comes from knowing we’re all members of a community: a nationwide community working to create healthy places to live and grow for everyone.

Tim Schwantes

Tim Schwantes |

Project Officer

Life-long learner, connector, listener, privilege checker, and triathlete.

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