When your oven breaks: new recipes from virtual workshops
Online spaces offer new opportunities to support creative experimentation in human rights work—but taking them seriously doesn’t have to mean being too serious.
Participants in an Espresso Lab bring their physical world into the virtual space. Image courtesy of JustLabs
“Everything you touch you change. Everything you change, changes you.” – Octavia Butler
In early 2020, our oven broke. Well, a lot of things broke, one of which was our oven.
We both work with JustLabs, which is a creative kitchen of sorts where we experiment with new approaches to human rights work. (Full disclosure: JustLabs is the parent organization of OpenGlobalRights. But we went through the standard editorial process, had to re-write several of our favorite puns, and even wrote this disclaimer to make our editors happy.)
If JustLabs is a kitchen, workshops are our oven. Like many other organizations interested in bringing experimental tactics down to the level of personal experience, JustLabs has relied on in-person gatherings to cultivate immersive, creative experiences. They are how we turn raw dough into delicious cookies. When 2020 hit, we were left with a version of the same question everyone who relied on physical encounters for their work was asking: how do you bake without an oven?
Scenes from a typical JustLabs workshop in-person.
The frustrating and wonderful thing about being forced into change is when, as Ellen Sprenger puts it, resignation turns into curiosity. There is no shortage of reasons to be well-versed in virtual baking—not least of all because our work spans so many time zones. But how do we maintain community and trusting spaces online? How do we design creatively challenging, collaborative experiences when we’re not sharing a physical environment?
These are the questions we started with. But as we were trying to cook up a response in that changing kitchen of 2020, our process led us to see more clearly that we were missing a key ingredient across our work. Enter: the Espresso Labs, our second oven.
Maybe the kitchen always needed...another oven?
“The more you know, the more you can create. There’s no end to imagination in the kitchen.” – Julia Child
We spend a lot of our time thinking about how social changers change. We use workshops to crack open the tactical boxes we usually operate inside of. In the in-person world, we would rent fun co-working spaces and bring artists and creatives into rooms with lawyers and researchers to try to open people up to new ways of thinking about human rights.
But what happens after the brainstorm? Where do once-inspired individuals turn when they find themselves back in their own regular kitchen, with its institutionalized habits, routine pressures, and drawer of familiar utensils? One way our team has approached this challenge is by working with funders to create a structure for organizations to apply their workshopped ideas in practice. The Narrative Hub is one such initiative. Created together with the Fund for Global Human Rights, the project has accompanied and supported four organizations around the world in thinking creatively about ways to integrate narrative ideas into their organizations’ work.
“I was pretty much familiar with the concepts of all of the sessions, but I was somewhat drifting from them in my day-to-day work. The sessions gave me the reflective space to put my mind back into these ideas.” - Espresso Lab Participant
But new habits are hard to bring to life, especially in organizations. And design-thinking workshops and dedicated projects can add to the sense that any given lens—be it narrative, foresight, or creative activism—is something siloed to a specific project or a specific output, and not a broader shift in the mindsets and tools that human rights practitioners use.
Thinking outside the oven
The Espresso Labs offer a different recipe. Rather than high-intensity, in-person immersion, they offer small scale repetition with a community of familiar faces (we hold them monthly; each session lasts less than two hours). In these labs, we think about creativity as a mindset, cultivating professional creativity by attending to the personal creative self. So far we’ve played with creative activism, hope-based communications, foresight, mindfulness for creativity, dance-freestyling human rights, and everyday awe through origami.
So, how did we get here? Here’s a quick recap:
Step 1: Find your inner baker.
Moving online requires intention. It took three months of thoughtful conversations about what JustLabs could offer the inundated online environment before we launched a pilot. Our purpose was shaped by the stress, isolation, and frustration we were seeing in our community. Though tempted by public-facing webinars and live videos, we recognized that responding to our community would require a more intimate and interactive space.
Step 2: Learn from those who know how to bake.
To quote the iconic Boromir meme, one does not simply copy and paste an in-person program onto Zoom. Moving online requires translation. We were fortunate to learn from the brilliant team at Spring, but there are all kinds of free resources out there, like Blueprints for Change’s tips on hosting virtual meetings, The Commons’ list of digital tools, or Jeanne Rewa and Daniel Hunter’s guide to leading groups online.
“You have to step away from the daily grind to think creative things. It’s a discipline that our sector isn’t great at. We have to get better at carving out space and downtime to let our brains think in these more proactive, creative, experimental mindsets.” – Espresso Lab Participant
Spring’s virtual facilitation training showed us how online tools can still center people, making virtual spaces intimate, caring, and expressive. Here are a few of the other handy tips we picked up from them: It takes three times as long to design online spaces than in-person ones; keep sessions short and incorporate physical movement; not everything has to be done online; reduce stress by setting the expectation that technology will be imperfect; keep the experience smooth by having both a lead and a process (tech) facilitator; and the experience you want to create should inform the technology tools you use.
Step 3: Prepare the dough.
Did we want to mimic our in-person workshops’ in-depth exploration of a topic, or treat the online experience more like a creative spark? Go for open and public-facing, or small and intimate? Guided by the intentions we set at the beginning, we decided on the latter for both.
Step 4: Taste-test.
Our pilot launched in June. At the time, we were still thinking of the labs in terms of “skills-training.” But what people said they appreciated most was having a space to step away from the stresses and pressures of their daily work, and into a lighthearted, creative, fun space with other people who were facing similar challenges.
Step 5: Become the baker you were born to be.
We made the Espresso Labs a regular part of our program, and started integrating lessons we learned into our project-based workshops and regular meetings. The most important one? Even—no, especially—human rights defenders need spaces for human interaction and expression in their work, especially in the boxy online world.
Our game-show inspired problem-solving activity for the narratives group: Wheel of Obstacles.
Don’t stop bake-lieving.
For one of our Espresso Labs, titled Dance, Dance, (Social) Revolution, our facilitator Ariel Sim offered a great analogy. Being creative in human rights is like freestyling in dance: freestyling honors the core elements of a practice, while still making space for the unique interpretation of the dancer. But (if you move like us), you don't get thrown from your first dance class directly into a freestyle jam session (aka, a cypher). Dancers support one another, building up confidence in their own expression over time.
The Espresso Labs are our freestyling crew. And it’s working. Community members have told us the labs give them energy and encouragement to insert more fun and creativity into their daily work environments. Our team has experienced the same thing: facilitators like Ariel are bringing new aspects of themselves into their facilitation, we’re actively making more creative space for our day-to-day problem-solving (or problem “shifting”, as our colleague Rami Efal proposed), and we’re thinking much more intentionally about the personal dimension of the tactical and organizational changes we’re encouraging.
Throughout this process, our colleague Ella Scheepers has consistently reoriented us towards principles of emergent strategy: change begins at the level of connection and relationship. Changing human rights tactics and outcomes requires looking at how we show up to our work and to one another. The online space often feels impersonal, so we created a space that invites people to bring in the parts of themselves so often left at the door (or Zoom waiting room) of our work.
What else will emerge? Octavia Butler reminds us that we are shaped by what we change. New recipes are there for the making.
On your marks, get set, bake.
This article is a part of a collection by JustLabs and the Fund for Global Human Rights on bringing narrative initiatives to life in human rights work.
Ishtar Lakhani is a free(lance) radical and advocacy strategist based in Cape Town, South Africa.
Lucas Paulson is part of the JustLabs team, where he helps create spaces to experiment in human rights work. Formerly based in Bogotá, Colombia, he is currently working from his hometown in northern Wisconsin, US.