Bucking up

Every fall, Luke’s Place, where I am the Legal Director, brings together Ontario’s Family Court Support Workers (FCSWs) for a two-day conference, preceded by a one-day training for workers hired in the previous year. It is a much-needed opportunity for these 70+ folks — most of whom work in isolation providing support to women fleeing abuse as they sort out their family law issues — to spend time together, establishing and renewing professional and personal relationships. We pack a lot of learning into those three days, but there is always time for some fun, too.

Our program generally mixes sessions on law with others on managing the traumatic impact of the work, cultural awareness, staying connected online and current issues facing FCSWs and the women they serve. We invite as many guest presenters as our limited budget and their generosity allows.

Initially, we wanted to move the gathering around the province so those in the most remote regions were not always travelling to Toronto, but we quickly learned two things: it is much cheaper to move everyone to Toronto than to, say, Sault Ste. Marie or Kenora, and many of our rural and northern FCSWs love the opportunity to get to the big city for a few days on their employer’s dime.

We had picked our dates, booked the hotel and started planning the program for the 2020 Annual Gathering in the Before Times. Optimists as we were, even once the pandemic hit, until late May we held onto the hope that we might be able to pull the event off in its usual format. After all, back then, didn’t most of us think we would be back to normal before the end of summer?

A successful pivot

By June 1st, we realized there was almost no likelihood of being able to bring the FCSWs together in person and began thinking about how to pivot to an online format.

I started the process in a gloomy frame of mind. I connect to these workers all year online, mostly through a forum where they post questions for me to answer, we create resources for them and I moderate their discussions with one another.

I look forward to the in-person connection of the Gathering as much as they do – it was a chance for more informal conversations, sharing of personal news, and humour that has no place in online forums.

We know from our stats that use of the online forum always goes up for a few months post-Gathering – seeing their colleagues in person seems to spur FCSWs to stay connected online. How could we possibly create that feeling of connection without an in-person event?

We hired a great organization, led by a woman who had presented at a number of previous Gatherings so knew the participants and what mattered to them, to help us think through how to engage more than 70 people in an online format and to provide the tech support that we all needed.

We divided the two days into four half-days spread over two weeks, because we didn’t think anyone – including us – would function well in front of a screen for two solid days. We ensured that every session provided opportunities for small group work. Our event consultants ran per-conference office hours so anyone unsure of their tech abilities could meet with them to run through what they would need to know. Presenters were required to participate in a dress rehearsal to work out possible tech bugs.

We sent each participant a small package before the event began: a fidget toy, some sweet treats and sealed envelopes with special messages, to be opened at specific times during the conference.

We asked FCSWs in different regions of the province to open each session with a land acknowledgement from their community. A panel of FCSWs talked about the challenges and high points of doing their work during the pandemic.

Making it work

And, you know what? Luke’s Place staff worked extremely hard, and we pulled it off. We had high attendance at each session. We strongly encouraged participants to keep their cameras on, which created more of a sense of being together than looking at dozens of dark Zoom squares on our screens, but also let us know who was really there. Sure, we had the odd tech glitch, and there were some frantic posts to the chat (“I can’t hear anyone. I can’t hear. Where are you? Can you hear me?”). I lost my audio briefly, fortunately not when I was speaking, but a quick reboot, and I was back in action.

Most importantly, the participants engaged: they talked, they posted in the chat, they put up their hands, they loaded our online flip charts with comments during their small group sessions.

There were a couple of pluses to an online over an in-person event: we were able to bring in a fantastic keynote speaker – Vikki Reynolds – from Vancouver, because we did not have to pay for her to travel to us, and agencies did not have to pay for their FCSWs to get to Toronto and stay in a hotel. (Also — none of the usual “the room is too hot/cold,” “I don’t like the food” complaints!)

Finding that zone of fabulousness

Of course, Luke’s Place is not the only organization that has had to replace in-person with online plans. I recently delivered a conference keynote address online, and in upcoming months will be giving guest lectures to law classes in different parts of the country online.

Does this mean I would like to do this on a permanent basis? Absolutely not. I thrive on in-person contact. The best discussions, whether at conferences or in classrooms, are the ones that happen before and after the official event, and Zoom can’t create those moments.

Giving a talk online, at least for me, is exhausting, whereas I find doing the same in person to be exhilarating. It’s just not possible to read (or sometimes even to see) the audience; it feels very one way out with nothing coming back. Someone too shy to ask or post a question publicly has no opportunity to corner the speaker in the hallway, on the elevator, in the lunch line or in the washroom. And, there is just no way to replicate a hug in the online environment.

However, the experiences I have had, as is no doubt true for thousands of other people, show that, when circumstances offer limited options, we still find ways to get it done.

May we not have to do so for too much longer.

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