Virtual meeting tools help keep US Baha’i public affairs work moving
Creativity and perseverance. Those qualities are key to keeping conversations and relationships close when the times demand physical distance.
Conversations and relationships are at the heart of what the U.S. Baha’i Office of Public Affairs (OPA) in Washington, DC, does in its efforts to contribute ideas from the Baha’i teachings to public discourse, as well as to advocate for the rights of Baha’is in countries where they face severe persecution.
As with many people, OPA’s staff members are relying more heavily on phone and video calls as they work during the pandemic, says Anthony Vance, public affairs director. But they also find surprising opportunities to give deeper thought to some key issues and put them in writing.
OPA works in several arenas: in Washington in contact with federal government offices and representatives of like-minded organizations working for the good of society, mainly headquartered in DC; at the United Nations; and nationwide in coordination with local delegations that are reaching out to members of Congress.
The office works continually to strengthen its capacity to enter public discourse in a few areas that are in harmony with Baha’i principles. Those include: human rights, especially concerning religious persecution of Baha’is; issues of racial justice and racial unity; gender equality and the advancement of women; economic justice; sustainable development; and the role of the media.
And the focus on these issues is steady, even as periodic discussions take place on videoconference rather than in-person gatherings, notes Negar Abay, who manages OPA’s discourse on gender equality and the advancement of women.
For instance, she organizes monthly gatherings on working toward peace and equality, with the help of volunteer facilitators who “plan engaging discussions.” Since that regular gathering went virtual, more people from inside and outside Washington have been able to join in, and “participants have expressed appreciation for the opportunity to continue meeting.” The latest, on March 31, brought about 30 people together, more than 50 percent larger than the previous average in-person attendance.
Fortunately, “Some people who ordinarily have very busy speaking and travel schedules are more available to meet online, and collaborators from other parts of the country are able to join these discussions,” Abay says.
The writing projects OPA has found more time for, Vance says, are often “short concept notes, which are used in our discussion meetings with representatives of NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and faith-based groups to stimulate discussion.” Those conversations often re-examine common assumptions about current approaches to social and economic problems, and offer spiritual principles that might form part of the solution.
The office is also working on longer analytical documents, mainly for internal study and evaluation of progress and learning.
OPA also is encouraging the local delegations it coordinates to use virtual meeting tools to reach the district offices of their members of Congress to build support for House Resolution 823, which condemns the Iranian government’s persecution of that country’s Baha’i minority.
“Staffers in district offices, often now working at home, have easy access to these technologies,” Vance notes. “Indeed, Baha’i delegations may find it easier to schedule a meeting on Skype or Zoom than meeting in person when such in-person meetings were the norm.”