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  • KerryAnn Cochrane

“Moving Ahead: Learning from the Global Crisis” – SIETAR USA’s virtual 2020 conference

By KerryAnn Cochrane

Imagine this if you will: You make yourself a cup of herbal tea or coffee, settle into your cozies (or maybe take this opportunity to actually put on a nice shirt), set up your laptop or tablet, and then, with the click of a button, you are projected into a space that looks like the floorplan of a hotel ball room set up for a conference. Suddenly, the four or five other people who happen to have been “projected” by the universe (or, more specifically, by the online platform, called Remo) to the same table as you, show up on your screen. Someone gives a little wave, someone else gives a friendly, “Hi KerryAnn, where are you joining from?” You are at your very first SIETAR (USA) conference, as a new member of SIETAR BC (living in Montreal!).

As you may have heard, this year’s conference, which took place from October 8 to 13 (along with some pre-conference workshops) went entirely virtual, for reasons that probably don’t need to be explained.

I’m not sure how to describe the experience in just a few words. If I were to start with two, it would be: It worked! I really felt like I was there—thanks to the very interactive elements of the Remo and Zoom platforms that were used (Remo for all of the networking sessions, opening remarks, and keynote addresses, and zoom for most of the concurrent workshops, break-out sessions, shorter “NED talks,” and morning wellness sessions). There were even cocktail hours, a cultural performance featuring a soloist of the Mongolian Philharmonic Ensemble, a global story-sharing evening about “cultural resilience in the face of Covid and the social justice movement of 2020,” and a lively and convivial zoom dance party at the end. Really, who would have ever imagined any of that a year ago?

Of course it would be impossible to describe a five-plus day event such as this in just a short page, but I walked away from it (walked away from my living room couch!), vibrating with a feeling of connection and full of gratitude for the deep learning I’d experienced. Let me just throw out a few of the themes that showed up in various presentations and discussions. I’ll let you imagine how they may have been woven into the general topic of the conference and into that of interculturality: Compassion versus empathy; the polyvagal ladder; brain science and neuroplasticity; personal leadership; mindfulness; intersectionality; diversity, equity and inclusion; practitioners of colour; whiteness and anti-racism; VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity); resilience; and yes, love. (I knew I’d landed in the right place when that last word was mentioned right in the opening keynote address.)

I don’t know what SIETAR USA conferences usually look like, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it to next year’s in Omaha, Nebraska. I do know that the experience of attending this virtual conference with our “neighbours down south” (and people from all over the world) was well worth the hours I spent sitting cross-legged in front of my computer, even as I juggled dog care, answering e-mails, and cooking for my family. I felt like I had travelled, I met other interculturalists who practice with grace and humility, and I stretched my brain, my heart, and my soul in new directions.

Maybe, without realizing it, I met some of you there. If not, I do hope our paths may meet at some future SIETAR event, whether in person and with a real-live handshake or on-screen with a genuine smile and a virtual high-five. Nice to meet you. Happy to be part of this community.

KerryAnn Cochrane facilitates workshops in intercultural effectiveness, cross-cultural communication, and cultural adaptation, as well as connected topics such as diversity, equity, and inclusion and bias awareness. She works in a variety of settings and contexts (NGO, non-profit, government, academic, private sector, military), and like so many facilitators, has recently learned how to do all of this online. She is also certified as a facilitator in appreciative inquiry and has accreditation as a professional coach. She lives in Montreal, Quebec.

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