Amplifying Diverse Voices via Hybrid Meetings

Dr Katy Goldstraw

We have only just learnt how to do online meetings, yet as intermittent Wi-Fi, wild offspring and performing pets morph into a return to ‘the office’ – new challenges are arising. Many of us are working ‘hybrid’ with some days at home and others in the office. Many Universities have returned to face to face teaching, others haven’t. Many businesses are still home based, and others aren’t. Community groups, who delivered much of the backbone of the Covid-19 response, are making tentative returns to the vibrant community action of ‘before.’

The world of online meetings has challenges, discussed in other ISR blogs; but its does allow the gathering of participants from across the globe, those that cannot travel can be involved, and the meeting can, if facilitated well, be an inclusive space.

So how do we make sure our meeting are inclusive, diverse and involving when some of us are in the room, and others are online?

First we need good quality tech. A decent meeting room with good audio, a large screen and good lighting are essential – as is someone who knows how to work it!

An ‘in person’ meeting facilitator and another ‘online’ meeting facilitator ensures that voices have equal opportunity to be heard.

Keeping an eye on online chat and ensuring that in person body language is responded to is an essential part of any good quality hybrid meeting.

Balancing the numbers of online and face to face helps, as does managing expectations in advance in terms of how the meeting will work.

So often the networking and informal conversations that take place in a tea break or the connections made in a shared anecdote are lost in a hybrid meeting, so making time to create informal hybrid interaction can help overcome this.

An informal fifteen minutes online while the face to face meeting members get refreshments can help create networking opportunities, as can ‘posting out’ participation packs to online meeting members so that they can share refreshments and any participatory activities within the face to face meeting.

Thinking about the room layout is important too – so often the online participants are beamed in on a big screen and the meeting faces and communicates with the big screen. If the Zoom participants are set up so they have a virtual place at the table, are facilitated by a dedicated online facilitator they can be an equal, not an overbearing part of the conversation. Ensuring that those attending have the correct digital access and data is essential as the digital divide is a continuing issue for many community groups.

When hybrid meetings work they hold the opportunity to include a greater diversity of voices. The opportunity to involve global voices without the climate or economic costs of travel is exciting. The opportunity to include those that cannot travel because of caring responsibilities or disability, is an imperative to ensure equality of voice within our conversations.  We have an opportunity here to build collaboration, if we do it well, hybrid meetings can be the future!

Dr Katy Goldstraw is Senior Lecturer at Staffordshire University and Chair of the ISR External Advisory Group (EAG).

Please click this link to access the graphic commissioned by the ISR EAG to act as an aide memoir for hybrid meetings.

Image by visual facilitator, Jon Dorsett

Singing Through a Pandemic: Thoughts from the Field

Dr Jennifer Daniel

Singing has long been shown to have significant psychological and physiological benefits to health. Choral singing in particular has the additional benefit of bringing people together in groups.

But what happens when that same activity that brings people together, comes with the risk of Covid19? What does this mean for those of us in positions of teaching or leadership? What are our responsibilities to the individuals that make up our classes and choirs?

Both anecdotal evidence and peer-reviewed research points to choral singing as high risk. What better for Covid transmission than a room full of people in close proximity, projecting their voices (and associated particles) and inhaling deeply, in a resonant indoor space, for an extended period of time? 

This being established, lockdown imposed a moratorium on such activities, after which alternatives were found to group singing various contexts. Church congregations listened to hymn tunes whilst reading lyrics; primary school children hummed ‘Happy Birthday’ to one another; music classes heard one singer at a time.

Current research on Covid transmission advises us that for absolute mitigation of Covid risk we might ‘avoid choir practice’ but, the guidance also allows individuals to remove face-coverings when it is ‘reasonably necessary for them to sing‘.

For choral leaders and vocal educators, we now face a quandary.

With mass immunisation the risk of death is less tangible than early in the pandemic, but with Omicron, the infection rates have risen fast. There is still a significant risk to many including the immunocompromised and the non-immunised, some of whom cannot be immunised for medical reasons. 

So what can we do?

Face-coverings dampen sound. Full body-length screens are helpful to prevent the projection of particles directly outward from one vocalist at a time toward an audience, but in a room full of singers the number required would be impractical, and they do not prevent the flow of air around the room.

While the guidance has moved toward individual responsibility, our responsibilities as leaders and educators remain. While no solution to Covid-safe group singing is perfect, we need to compromise; using the kinds of shields or covers that lessen the disruption of sound quality in the classroom and in rehearsal, in combination with good spacing and crucial ventilation (even it means wearing coats indoors).

Alongside, we must ensure that the non-immunised and otherwise vulnerable are aware of the contextual risk of exposure inherent in choral singing, and that alternative measures are in place so that they are not asked to engage in the activity as a requirement.

Mass immunisation may have allowed us, in many ways, to return to old activities with mitigated risk; but ‘compromise’ is likely to remain with us for some time, and may influence the way we ‘sing’ long into the future.

Dr Jennifer Daniel is a Senior Lecturer in Musical Theatre at Edge Hill University.

Is Socially Distanced Social Responsibility Possible?

Social responsibility is part of Bluecoat’s core purpose. We have survived many challenges and the basis of our resilience has always been a deep sense of responsibility to our civic role.

We are a working arts centre with a community of artists, creative businesses, a public garden, galleries and performance spaces.

We engage offsite with communities, care homes and historic buildings.

And all our projects orbit around our building as a kind of ‘mothership’, a tangible, material space in the city centre.

So when the world locked down, how could we continue? How could we socially distance projects where connection, relationship building, and communication were key?

The challenges were considerable but not unsurmountable – here’s how we tackled some of them.

Blue Room

For more than ten years Blue Room has helped adults with learning disabilities develop their artistic practice. When lockdown hit, our weekly face to face sessions had to stop. But it was vital we kept connection with members – so we developed ‘Blue Room @ Home’.  

Taking Blue Room online meant Blue Zoom sessions, home deliveries of materials and worksheets, WhatsApp groups and monthly welfare calls. We also secured funding for devices and connectivity (Wi-Fi hubs and data) to engage with digitally excluded members.

Digital exclusion is a major issue in learning disabled communities, so welcoming an average of 16 members to each Zoom session was a big success!

Where the Arts Belong

The Centre for Collaborative Innovation on Dementia at Liverpool John Moores University told us that our partnership with Belong villages on dementia and the arts, Where the Arts Belong ‘helped to arrest decline and perhaps stabilise the quality of life of recipients of the intervention’. So we had to keep the programme live through lockdown.

So Instead we trained care staff to deliver small arts sessions as part of their daily contact with residents. It was an intensive process, but the staff are really embracing the challenge of arts facilitation; as you can see from the clip below:


Developing ideas, connecting with peers and testing work is a huge part of artist development and we’ve done everything we can to keep our onsite studios open in a safe way.

Before Covid, we were looking to create a new artist development scheme in partnership with Castlefield Gallery in Manchester. The challenges we’ve seen artists face over the past 12 months has brought into even sharper focus, the need for the scheme.

With a specific focus on mid-career contemporary artists, PIVOT will provide bursaries and a programme that supports their practice.

During lockdown we had to take applications, conversations and exchange online but have continued to mentor and support the first five PIVOT artists.

Bluecoat @ home

When our doors have been closed we’ve been committed to keeping open opportunities to engage with the arts.  Weekly newsletters have connected audiences with new digital artwork, music playlists, and film premieres. We’ve also produced weekly activities for children and families to inspire creativity and help with learning at home.

It’s been a difficult year to lead an organisation where social responsibility is part of who we are, but it’s been difficult to do. But we’ve found new ways to connect and continued to reach the communities where our impact is felt the most. Post pandemic this will be more important than ever. Bluecoat will have an important role in supporting Liverpool to tackle the many different costs of the virus and the arts in navigating the challenging months and years ahead.  

Mary Cloake is the CEO of Liverpool Bluecoat and a member of the ISR External Advisory Board.

Photo by Arthur John Picton

Social Distant Socially Responsible: One Church’s Experience

In light of the current, and preceding lockdowns, ‘church’ at St Gabriel’s, Huyton, has been very different.

Transferring worship services online has allowed our congregation to interact, but the ceasing of public worship has decimated church finances and fees. We cannot let out of our facilities which impacts our ability to reach out to the wider community, and reduces our resources. It also posed a threat to our fellowship’s cohesion and the work we do in the community, including meal services and other community support programmes.

Nonetheless, as a team we responded quickly, ably led by the Vicar, Canon Mal Rogers. We immediately set up telephone contact systems so that our members could be contacted by other members on a regular basis; which was particularly important for those who could not use social media or had the IT to communicate, or join events. We also held fun nights and quizzes and other online meetings and suggested screenings to encourage and entertain those who might feel isolated and in need of nurturing and encouragement.

During the brief lull in infections, we did manage to open the church for a maximum of 30 people for Sunday services. This came with a booking system, PPE, track and trace and social distancing. Singing or social contact was not allowed; but we did manage Communion Services with bread (wafers) only.

With funerals we adopted a new approach, allowing families to choose music to be played at the graveside, and in church. It is fair to say this had some ‘interesting’ outcomes, but by and large, sensitive and moving moments were created from mobile speakers, portable sound systems and even the funeral car CD player on one occasion!

We were also deeply concerned to continue our social outreach with the Apples Trust Nursery supporting local families in need and the One Knowsley initiative. Through Knowsley Kitchen we have continued delivering regular food to families throughout the pandemic, including Christmas Dinners and lunches for children.

As a Church we are also committed to help rebuild after Covid-19 and have applied for grants for the Huyton Deanery area from the Big Lottery and other charitable trusts. We are looking forward to being a strong player in the restoration of services and facilities; new initiatives to help our people rebuild the community. We trust we can start again, and do it better than before!

Rev John Davis is an ISR Visiting Fellow, and Assistant Priest at St Gabriel’s Huyton.

How do you do Socially Distant Social Responsibility?

Overcoming digital divides, building social connections and acting in a socially responsible way in the midst of a global pandemic isn’t easy. Last week (13/01/21) ISR hosted a webinar to discuss this challenge.

The date of the webinar coincided with the launch of the JRF UK poverty report and the JRF Destitution Report which both detailed the impact of digital exclusion during the pandemic. COVID-19 has exacerbated existing inequalities, with those already experiencing digital poverty excluded from what was an almost exclusively digital policy response to the outbreak. It was in the context of increasing poverty, digital exclusion and communities struggling with the impact of the new 2021 Lockdown, that we hosted the webinar.

We welcomed guest speakers; Mary Cloake from the Bluecoat, Stuart Dunne and Milo Dwyer from Youth Focus and Rev John Davis, ISR Visiting Fellow and assistant priest at St Gabriel’s, Huyton.  The speakers shared how they sought to overcome the digital divide and maintain meaningful connections with their communities.

In giving an overview of their work, Stuart and Milo connected the right to online participation with human rights. Ensuring that people have the devices and data to participate fully was key to doing socially distant social responsibility. They also spoke about the challenges of making new online connections, finding it easier to ensure that ensuring that existing contacts were supported. This observation was endorsed by many of the webinar participants, and remains a huge challenge.

John focussed on how to nourish communities in a digital and socially distant space. Maintaining links via practical food and volunteer support, using ‘old fashioned approaches’ like the telephone, letters, and socially distant visits had been fundamental to this. John’s experience shows that there are other ways to respond that just using digital media. We are perhaps at risk of forgetting this!

Finally, Mary shared some of the opportunities for empowerment that had emerged from Lockdown. The Bluecoat lead on ‘where the arts belong, a project that works in care homes with people living with dementia. As project workers could no longer visit the care homes to offer activities, they instead trained the care home staff on how to engage with the residents artistically. The project is now delivered by care home staff, ensuring its longevity and positive impact on residents.

All of the speakers, and webinar participants through the ‘chat’, expressed both challenges and unexpected benefits arising from the need to rethink how we do ‘social responsibility’. Some online approaches can have a wider reach, technology permitting; but there were limitations, particularly in building those deeper connections and initiating contacts.

Rethinking accessibility to include digital equality, nourishing communities with multi layered communication approaches, and empowering individuals to develop new skills, can build a robust, caring and person-centred methodology for socially distant social responsibility, are all part of the solution, but we are keen to discover more!  

So, from this initial webinar further conversations will be organised by the Institute for Social Responsibility at Edge Hill University with a view to gathering a set of creative resources that share challenges, solutions and best practice on how to do socially distant social responsibility.

We do hope that you will take part – so look out for forthcoming events.

Dr Katy Goldstraw is the Chair of the ISR External Advisory Group and Senior Lecturer in Health and Social Care at Staffordshire University.

Image by smartboy10 on Istock