Exchange Matters / April 18, 2023

Global Moment in Time: Crossing the Bridge One Story at a Time

By Belinda H. Y. Chiu & Jennifer Strauss, Bridge Builders for “A Global Moment in Time: Reflections on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility”

One global pandemic, 28 months, 170 countries, and 236 participants later, three special International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) initiatives have concluded. The Global Moment in Time IVLP was a unique hybrid exchange program that ran from fall 2021 through winter 2023, with each IVLP including three components: a virtual component (fall 2021), an in-person program (fall 2022 to winter 2023), and a Bridge program spanning the two. 

In previous Exchange Matters articles (linked below) Bridge Builders Minnie Battle Mayes, Bonnie Beard, Leesa Fields, and Brittany Lynk offered insight at various stages of this unique hybrid IVLP. As the last of these three programs to conclude, we offer: 1) more context and detail on this third program; 2) best practices; and 3) insights and opportunities to inform future programming and programmers. 

The three Global Moment in Time (GMiT) projects, each lead by a National Program Agency (NPA) partner, included:

  • Peace and Justice
    • 77 participants from 54 countries 
    • NPA: IIE | Bridge Builders: Minnie Battle Mayes and Leesa Fields 
  • Photojournalists Document Challenges and Opportunities in the COVID Era  
    • 73 participants from 55 countries 
    • NPA: World Learning | Bridge Builders: Bonnie Beard and Brittany Lynk 
  • Reflections on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility  
    • 86 participants from 61 countries 
    • NPA: Meridian International Center | Bridge Builders: Belinda Chiu and Jennifer Strauss

As noted previously, each of these hybrid programs kicked off with a virtual two-week program, followed by a voluntary ‘Bridge’ experience, and concluded with an in-person program. We concur with our fellow Bridge Builders that this format poses a powerful and innovative way for IVLP to navigate ongoing global changes and challenges, and leverage technology to create even deeper and more meaningful connections.

Context on DEIA

Reflections on DEIA posed an interesting challenge not only in its size, but also its scope. What diversity means in one context can be entirely different in another. A person working on issues of accessibility on neurodivergence, for example, may have little background on issues of inclusion towards the transgender community, while one individual engaged in the application of the arts for women’s rights may have little experience with how the law is applied to advocate for mobility differences. These different perspectives meant that while we couldn’t be all things to all people, we could be intentional about including different occupations, interests, and lived experiences from an incredibly diverse group.

Our Bridge offered opportunities to expand the breadth and depth of what DEIA entails, and to whom and why. To that end, our Bridge focused on the power of storytelling; it was an opportunity to challenge whose story gets told and to invite and center voices that don’t always get heard. 

Learning from our counterparts, we offered two Bridges each month, alternating between a “Culture” and a “Conversation” bridge. The former featured an invited U.S. speaker who shared an aspect of U.S. culture through the DEIA lens, and the latter was an opportunity for the participants to share their expertise and experiences.

For some, these sessions were the first time that attendees encountered someone with cerebral palsy or albinism, met a police officer or a journalist on the front lines of this work, or connected with U.S. citizens whose lived experiences differed greatly from the ones often portrayed in the “mainstream” media.

Some of the speakers included: Susan Finegan, an attorney who led the defeat of the 2017 immigration travel ban; Matt Maxey, ASL artist and interpreter for Chance the Rapper; and Lee Bitsoí (Diné), Ph.D., a member of the Navajo Nation, who is the Vice President of DEIA at Brandeis University. During these conversations, many of our participants shared their work in formats ranging from a Global Art House, to a roundtable on communication styles in cultural contexts, to a discussion about marginalization and stigma.

A visual quilt of Bridge sessions. Both images provided by the authors.

Over the course of 13 months, some participants consistently showed up and others came when they could. Being connected on a WhatsApp group throughout this period also allowed for the sharing of updates and news – both professional and personal, joyful, and tragic. Leveraging technology to drive real conversation – yes, it can be done virtually – in a safe, off-the-record space created a sense of camaraderie and trust before we saw each other in the flesh. 

When it came time for the in-person program, it felt like a family reunion. Friendships were forged on the flight to DC as participants recognized each other from the earlier Zoom sessions, and reunion dinners occurred on Day 0 of settling into the city. While it may be impossible to map out the direct correlation, we suspect that the nature of the subject matter expertise (inclusion) and the virtual Bridge helped the speed at which this group of 75 passionate, outspoken leaders connected with little fanfare and deep friendship. 

Best Practices from Bridge Building

Best Practice #1: Collaborate across agencies

Being the last of these three programs, we had the tremendous benefit of learning in real time from the other two projects. The other four Bridge Builders were incredibly generous in sharing their experiences. While the three programs occurred across three NPAs on vastly different topics, the fact that the six of us were willing and eager to meet on our own time to discuss what was working and what wasn’t helped to give some sense of consistency across the GMiT initiatives, as well as to share tools, so we each didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. We recommend for future projects of this scope to have dedicated time and space for the cross-fertilization of ideas, tips, and resources.

Best Practice #2: Solicit and align participant interests

As Bridge Builders, we had some ideas about how we wanted to craft the Bridge session, but because we also knew that these were optional sessions, we needed to truly understand what would encourage already busy individuals to spend more time with us, for some at late hours. After all, the Bridge wasn’t about us, it was about the participants. At the beginning, we took a survey to ask for the topics that they were interested in learning more about. We then sent out monthly reminders of upcoming Bridge events and noted how each one aligned with one or more of the three big themes that they expressed as topics of interest.

The Bridge team shared email newsletters to keep the community engaged.

Best Practice #3: Go beyond the usual resource go-tos.

As none of us has subject matter expertise on every topic, it was helpful to work with experts to craft how the conversations around DEIA would continue during the virtual year. We leveraged both our areas of knowledge and skillsets to identify and engage existing resources, such as an adapted tour by the wonderful David Shaw in Washington, DC. It also allowed us to go beyond the usual resources of IVLP to offer a broader understanding of the diversity of the U.S. story, such as issues of sovereignty and language from a Native Hawaiian professor to leadership mindfulness and wellbeing from an elected state legislator of Cape Verdean descent and an educator of Argentinian origin. We recommend that future programs invite the perspective and knowledge base of ILs and others who may have a different lived experience to seek out diverse voices and perspectives.

Best Practice #4: Integrate inclusion into every logistic

This program was focused on DEIA and included many participants with accommodations. Having a sense ahead of the participants’ needs helped inform our communications and planning with Meridian International Center, the NPA hosting this program. Meridian was extraordinary in the care it took to ensure every detail and accommodation was accounted for to ensure the true inclusion of all during the in-person program. From arranging wheelchairs and large-print program books for participants, to being mindful of the need for social media protection and a quiet space for neurodivergence and lactating mothers, the program ensured that no one was left out of any activity. More importantly, each person had the agency of how they wanted to participate. We recommend that future projects ensure that inclusion and accommodations are woven into the logistics of the program.

Best Practice #5: Separate Bridge from the virtual/in-person program

Meridian, the liaisons assigned for the virtual DC program, and the liaisons assigned for the in-person program collaborated well together to ensure a smooth and clear transition to and from the Bridge. As Bridge Builders, we attended the virtual program to get a sense of what the participants were experiencing, as well as for them to get familiar with us. However, we kept a relatively low profile for much of this time to ensure that their connections were to the liaisons. 

On the last day of the virtual program, we invited our colleagues from the U.S. Department of State, Meridian, and in-person liaisons to “hand off” the Bridge program, delineating that the program had then shifted to a connected but different experience. Their presence provided closure to this last Bridge and was an opportunity to both answer questions and to get participants excited for the in-person program. Because we knew that connections had been made with us as the Bridge Builders, we also felt it was important to allow our colleague liaisons to step into their roles for the in-person program. During the evening opening sharing session, as Bridge Builders, we intentionally “stepped off” the Bridge so that the group could now gather as one team with the six liaisons. 

Insights and Opportunities

Insight #1: Shorten the Bridge

While the other two GMIT programs had 10-month Bridge components, due to logistics, this one was stretched a few months further. As a result, we were on the Bridge for 13 months. While the participants were open to the experience, having too long of a virtual experience can be exhausting. That said, having a virtual component prior to in-person programs is incredibly powerful and can get everyone on the ground running, so to speak, far quicker than without. It also can make for less interpersonal issues that may arise. We recommend a Bridge-type program for 3-6 months ahead of an in-person program if possible.

Insight #2: Focus the topic

As mentioned previously, this particular Bridge was extraordinary in the breadth it covered, and the diversity of this group posed a great opportunity and challenge. While we tried to make the Bridges relevant and interesting for everyone, it wasn’t always possible as their occupations and areas of focus varied greatly. The benefit was a lot of cross-fertilization, especially around broader topics of identity, inclusive leadership, and activist wellbeing, as well as learning best practices from other communities. We were able to do this more because we had over one year to cover a wide variety of issues. The drawback was not everyone felt like each session was specific to their own needs. We recommend considering a bit more focus to allow for even deeper conversations, especially with shorter Bridge-type experiences.

In Summary

We often talk about inclusion in theory or from one perspective. To navigate tough conversations, share our wisdom and our struggles, and be open to learning about what inclusion and accessibility truly means with compassion and joy is the work and is the hope. As Ty Tengan, Ph.D., one of our Bridge interlocutors mentioned, the native Hawaiian word for story is mo’olelo – and it’s more than story, it explains how the world works, and with every telling those stories become more powerful. 

It would be an understatement to say that the three Bridge teams had a transformative experience with the Global Moment in Time model. The hybrid format allowed for meaningful opportunities to talk and share stories virtually, which, in turn, translated to deep trust and little need for the usual awkward adjustments needed when a group comes together for the first time. Not to mention, our group was treated to a multinational dance party on a boat across the San Francisco Bay as part of the project’s conclusion.

As one participant reflected on the Bridge experience:

“Every abstract problem is understandable if there is a face next to it who has a personal story. Even academic knowledge can be spread this way, but the spice that personal stories add to the knowledge, even makes them able to sympathize with, so more convince-able. Storytelling makes our work more effective.”

We have so much gratitude for each person who played a role in building and crossing this Bridge together, one story at a time.