Expanding the Boundaries of Small Conversations

Benefits and challenges of moving conversation-driven social change online

Author Colleen Butler is Cortico’s Director of Capacity Building

Along with most other people in the world, we have done much shifting and learning over the last year at Cortico. We moved our meaningful, in-person, small group conversations to the online environment of Zoom — with immensely beneficial results.

Moving forward, we will apply the lessons we learned cultivating conversation-driven insights in a purely online environment.

Living Up to the Promise of “Online Community”

Some of us were skeptical about the ability to foster the same kind of trust and vulnerable storytelling over a virtual platform as we had been able to cultivate in person through our Local Voices Network. However, it quickly became clear that we need not fear.

Whether it was because people were starved for connection during quarantine, or because Zoom created a space for people who did not know each other to connect across geographic or logistical boundaries, we saw the interest in, and depth of, our conversations flourish.

And, we learned that with the right amount of intentionality, you can create community connection online. The depth of honesty uncovered in our COVID-era conversations demonstrate this to be true. I am including a number of conversation highlights throughout this piece, to bring voices we heard from into dialogue with this reflection on how to make such sharing possible.

Edward from Sioux Nation in South Dakota shares how the first nations community banded together during COVID to provide food for school children

There Are Many Paths to Accessibility

Cortico has always sought to bring under-heard voices into the center of public dialogue. During the pandemic, online conversations expanded our accessibility further in multiple ways:

  • We were able to include people with physical disabilities in ways that were much more inclusive than in-person gatherings
  • We were able to include greater language access
  • We were able to include people in conversations who lived in remote communities where we otherwise would not have had staff or the technology to host in-person conversations
  • We were able to host conversations with people across geographies

For all of these reasons, virtual conversations will remain an important option for those seeking to engage in conversation-driven action.

Emre from Boston shares how GoFundMes sprung up to support local businesses threatened by the pandemic

While we did find many accessibility benefits to virtual conversations, there were drawbacks as well. Online conversations were nearly impossible for people without strong internet access — which was a barrier to many members of more rural communities. Some people who do not have jobs where they were at a computer all day expressed that online conversations feel less welcoming than face-to-face conversations — leading us to more explicitly welcome participation by those joining us by phone. The flip side of this is that by the one-year mark of quarantine, people who did work on computers all day were exhausted and not interested in recreational Zoom conversations.

Expanding the Boundaries of Conversation

As we navigate through this current transition period, when Zoom fatigue has squashed some of the initial enthusiasm for virtual conversations, we are launching Hearth v2, which will allow us to resume in-person conversations by the end of the summer. As we move forward, we will continue to respond to the needs of our participants and partners by offering both in-person conversations utilizing our digital hearth, and virtual conversations on Zoom.

We are committed to bringing the lessons we have learned about accessibility into our efforts to engage a wide cross-section of people in our conversations.

Kellie of Birmingham speaks about the importance of remembering this time of COVID

As we have listened to and learned from participant experiences, we’ve been inspired to expand our toolkit in service of our commitment to improving our understanding of one another. We look forward to continuing to learn and grow as we adapt to the changing needs of our communities.

Hear More Voices on our Local Voices Network

Subscribe to Our Newsletter
Join Our Community
Cortico is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization led by a multidisciplinary team of experts in community engagement, technology and non-profit management. We strive to meld two elements not typically found in one space: technological innovation and community-centered advocacy. We'd love to keep you up to date on what we're doing!