Global Storytelling of Cultural Resilience in the Face of COVID and the Social Justice Movement of 2020
a SIETAR USA 2020 Virtual Conference Event and shared Global Connectedness Moment
Hosted by Kwesi Ewoodzie and Sue Shinomiya. October 10, 2020
Written by Kwesi Ewoodzie and Sue Shinomiya
In 2020, anything is possible. When it came to planning the SIETAR USA 2020 conference in a pandemic, a small group of devoted interculturalists seized upon this crisis as our opportunity. We didn’t want to just “move our conference online,” but rather to transform the experience into something special that couldn’t be done in person. Knowing that no one would be able to travel, why not instead find ways to bring the world to us? We wanted to create a sense of our community in a time when we all miss that level of connectedness. Basically, we knew the feeling we wanted to invoke but didn’t know how it would come together. The one thing we did know is we wanted to hear positive stories. As the title of the conference suggests (Moving Ahead: Learning from the Global Crisis), we have experienced (are experiencing) a global pandemic. It has touched every part of the world. We are living though world history, and unlike most events and natural disasters which have a specific geographical context, this pandemic has impacted all of us everywhere around the planet. As interculturalists, we know that although individuals from around the world may go through a singular experience, the response to that experience will wildly differ based on culture and circumstance.
With all that in mind, we formulated a simple prompt to send out to those we wished to participate: “Could you share with us a positive story of how you (your nation, region, city, neighborhood, family, etc.) have thrived in this era of global crisis, and how is that a reflection of cultural resilience.” With that, we had established the foundations of what would become the Global Storytelling of Cultural Resilience event, a 4+ hour journey, passing through at least 18 countries, 12 time zones, with 65+ intercultural participants from around the world. This was a global collaboration reaching beyond our borders to engage, participate and connect.
Reaching out to Participants…
If you can’t impose on your friends, then who can you impose on? We went door to door in a global and virtual fashion to find our storytellers. We reached out to SIETARians, former Summer Institute of Intercultural Communication participants, and our intercultural friends, far and wide. The instructions were for them to use their phone cameras to record 5 – 15-minute video to tell us a story about cultural resilience. We used this as an excuse to check in and catch up with old friends, colleagues, classmates, and clients. Our concept and our guest list were rounded out with the help of Ms. Globaliscious, Patricia Malidor Coleman.
If the generosity of interculturalist were ever in question, the response to our requests certainly affirmed it. Everyone was gracious with their time and brave enough to bulldoze ahead, making a personal video and submitting it. Interpretations of how to depict “my neighborhood” and “story of resilience” were fascinating - as varied as the countries we invited. People took the assignment to mean everything from full on mini-documentaries to someone’s wife’s smartphone clips of the neighborhood scene. We hoped for half a dozen countries to participate, and in the end, we had submissions from 18 countries! Based on feedback, it seemed that our intercultural community was eager to share these positive stories with one another. After we reached out, they stated that they were honored and grateful to be a part of our vision, and appreciative of the opportunity.
A Few Examples…:
One storyteller, Gladys Gu (Shanghai, China), was Sue’s client-turned-friend from when Gladys came to the United States on assignment as a semiconductor testing engineer. Sue knew that Gladys sometimes did live-streaming on Social Media of her own cooking. It was perfect that Gladys chose to film her talk with us from her homey kitchen! In the live interview, we spontaneously got to meet one of her two sons.
Monika De Waal (Delft, The Netherlands) was an obvious choice as a deep thinking and warm-hearted human being, though we knew she was under quarantine as her family had Covid-19, and likely she did too, though with light symptoms, when she was filming her quiet neighborhood street. We shared her struggle and her gratitude for life. She truly embodied the spirit of intercultural resilience.
Matthew Hill (Tooting, England), undeterred by a recent injury, sent out his wife to do the filming of his neighborhood, while he added his radio-perfect voice-over. As always, Matthew provided us with comic relief as he sparred with several of us on the call.
TK McLennon (St Catharines, Canada) took us all along for her neighborhood Wine and Grape Festival, including a parade with grapes and wine decorations and costumes of all sorts, marching right past her house, joining in with the delight and shouts of her young daughter. By the end of it, all of us were greeting each other both on Chat and unmuted with “Happy Wine and Grape!”
We were all especially grateful that Kwesi invited his colleagues Larry Lubowa (Kampala, Uganda) and James Brown (Kampala, Uganda), who brought us lively, colorful, local street footage set to delightful Coronavirus pop songs you could dance to. Moreover, our two guests willingly stayed on Zoom to talk with us live though it was well after 1:00AM in their part of the world.
Organizing a Global Virtual Event...
Only true interculturalists will put up with a 4+ hour event that spanned across 12 time zones. Not only did they put up with it, but it appears, they loved it. And only with Brett Parry on hand can you expect to pull it off technically, sharing videos from his Zoom platform while simultaneously livestreaming on the SIETAR USA Facebook page, all the while chiming in with his own cultural insights and well-timed humor.
We called on our storytellers to be understanding. We began in time zones that were 1 am (Uganda and Turkey), and midnight (England and Ghana). Some joined us at the crack of dawn (Taiwan and Pakistan). We informed them of approximately when to log on, but most came on early and stayed late to see the other country segments. Each segment gave us opportunities to ask our guests direct questions about their own cultural resilience experience.
Meaningfully engaging those in attendance was one of our most important goals if this was to be a community-creating event, rather than a film festival. The hosts and the Zoom platform itself inspired our guests to interact more freely. People felt free to unmute and speak or use the written Chat function. As people watched the videos, they were reminded of having been there, or the scene sparked memories of another place, and how we each identify with traveling and being a part of other countries, cultures, neighborhoods and families. Our special guest host, Ms. Globaliscious (Patricia), worked with us to keep things lively, inviting people to join in, Chat, move, dance and enjoy the evening together in fun, multicultural ways. People could get a global feel - laughing, crying, and dancing together - from the safety of our own homes. It was an opportunity to share in a way that could not be done in person.
Seeing all the activity, our storytellers and attendees alike, even those in lousy time zones, seemingly didn’t want the enjoyment of being together and learning from each other to end. It felt almost as if we, Kwesi and Sue, had been hosting in our own homes, as people wrote in Chat when it was time for them to go and thanked their hosts accordingly. By the end of the event, and after three and a half hours, we’d collected some 27 pages of chat.
In the end we exchanged stories from Ghana, Japan, Pakistan, Uganda, Taiwan, Australia, China, Turkey, Laos, Italy, England, The Netherlands, Albania, India, The Czech Republic, Canada, Mexico, and the USA.
The Impact of Global Storytelling…
Our Intercultural network is based all over the world. If our goal was to create a moment of sharing, especially in this year of isolation and restricted movement, we knew we needed to reach out and gather our community in a light-hearted way that would engage on an emotional as well as a sensory level. The glorious side effect of this global collaboration was to bring people together in a way that we could not possibly do even if it were in person. It’s not usual to capture and record my story and my neighborhood and then deliver it to a global conference audience in the virtual world. We had people reuniting after many years, and many who had never had this type of intercultural world journey experience before. It can be said that friendship is about making shared memories. This event allowed us to take an authentic journey around the world, connecting meaningfully, making new and renewed friendships by creating new shared memories together.
Feedback from our adventure participants:
“Thank you for an incredibly rich evening full of adventure, intrigue, warmth, and global connection!“
“This was the single best event I’ve ever gone to in any conference!”
We had the audacity to try for a global event. We honestly didn’t know what how it would turn out and who all would show up until the day of the event, which we livestreamed via SIETAR USA’s Facebook page to be inclusive of an even wider audience. We added a whole new layer in a livestreamed, Zoom world. We plan to continue to bring these events even when we go back to face to face conferences.
The Global Storytelling of Cultural Resilience event exceeded our expectations spectacularly. We invite you to reach out to us, Kwesi and Sue, if this project sounds like something you’d like to join or rejoin. We hope to invite many more of you to participate in the future, perhaps next time include traditions or celebrations, such as end of the year holiday celebrations of those world-wide moments that touch our hearts and bring us together.