A virtual Association for Baha’i Studies conference engaged thousands of participants across Canada and the United States, including new cohorts of young adults.
For more than forty years, the Association for Baha’i Studies-North America has held an annual conference in different locations in Canada and the United States. The conference features plenary sessions, workshops and seminars that explore the relationship between Baha’i thought and various fields of study. The Association aims to “promotes inquiry within the sciences and humanities to advance thought and practice that address the needs of contemporary society.”
Initially planning to hold its conference in Dallas, Texas, the coronavirus pandemic led the Executive Committee to adapt its planning for a new virtual format.
“We learned a lot about organizational agility: how to experiment boldly but thoughtfully, to maintain unity of vision when decisions are required much more quickly, how to respond in real time to events shaping our communities, to be relevant but not reactive,” said Dr. Julia Berger, Secretary of the Executive Committee.
“One of the most helpful elements at the outset was looking to how other organizations dealt with this challenge, consulting with them, and appreciating the generous spirit in which they shared their insights,” she added.
Normally held over a period of three or four days, this year the conference unfolded over the course of two weeks. Sessions of the conference were broadcast between July 24 and August 8, and remain available on the ABS website. The overarching theme was “Beyond Critique to Constructive Engagement.”
“The transition to a virtual conference prompted the Association to rethink its approach to creating spaces in which all participants feel welcome, feel that this is their space, have the tools and resources to access it, and to know that their contribution is needed and valued,” reflected Dr. Berger.
Ultimately, more than 3000 people registered for the conference and almost 7000 user accounts participated. The largest age cohort attending the conference was young adults, aged 25-34.
Among the participants in the virtual conference, almost half had never attended an ABS conference in the past.
The most well-attended sessions included hundreds of participants, who explored a range of themes from: “Constructive Resilience and the Efforts of African American Baha’is” and “Methodologies in Economics” to “The Social and Spiritual Implications of the Pandemic” and “Media as a Consultative Instrument.” Sessions on race and identity engaged thousands of people, who were looking for fresh thinking about the challenges of prejudice and racism confronting North American societies.
The program included many features that were already planned for the in-person conference, such as plenary sessions and workshops. New elements were added as well, including virtual book launches, a film festival, and poster presentations.
Another feature of the new conference was the initiation of more than 20 virtual reading groups, which took place in July and August. Around 200 people joined one of these groups, most of which met at least four times over the time. Insights from their discussions were integrated into the conference program as workshop presentations.
“The idea for reading groups drew on experiences within the Association with small groups within professional and academic fields working on focused, sustained, collaborative projects,” said Selvi Adaikkalam, a member of the ABS Committee for Collaborative Initiatives.
“The aim is to bring together people that want to read a discourse within a professional or academic field with a Baha'i lens. Out of this initial effort, we are hoping that sustained, collaborative projects may emerge that will over time contribute to discourses and to the intellectual life of the Bahai community,” she continued.
The Executive Committee envisions that future conferences will continue to harness the power of communications technology to allow for a wide range of participation in its activities.
“We hope that the experience of this conference has helped to expand our collective understanding of Baha’i scholarship,” concluded Dr. Berger. “The contributions we will make will draw on the insights, practices and attitudes that emerge from a lifetime of inquiry and practice.”