Why We Are Choosing to Slow Down & Not Pivot Online

April 22, 2020

By Kailea Frederick, Co-Director, Black Mountain Circle

As the COVID-19 crisis escalates, much of our world has increasingly shifted online. Although our  organization, Black Mountain Circle exists online through our website, newsletters, videos, Facebook and Instagram pages, we haven’t invested a lot of energy previously into building an online presence. Our entire organization is in fact based around gathering people together, often in outdoor settings. This meant that when the pandemic hit we were faced with a choice that many organizations and small businesses had to grapple with: “Do we pivot online... or not?” The idea of pivoting online is not new; in fact in the digital age, most have not just consciously but strategically made that leap. It seems irresponsible in some ways not to, and yet here we were, an organization that had some technological infrastructure, events that could be adapted like most anything (read: online happy hour) to a webinar or Zoom class, and no clear way outside of transitioning online that spelled out any sort of possible economical longevity for us. The answer seemed obvious. Go online. 

In the first week of the shelter-in-place order it was more than alluring, with just about everyone finally learning how to use Zoom as a way to “creatively” and “socially” meet this moment. Online is the only place that any of us are allowed to be right now and also the only way that many organizations and businesses have a chance of surviving the economic shutdown. At first the thinking was over simplified. Now that many people don’t have work, they will have time that will need to be filled. This too could be a way for us to continue with the trajectory we had mapped out for the year and remain accountable to funders. We mulled over taking some of our in-person Spring events and turning them into webinars.  We thought: our network, our audience, needs to hear a response from us.  Didn’t we owe them that? Wouldn’t they want to show up to one of our events? We had a dedicated community after all and wanted to show up for them. 

It became apparent though in those initial first days that our community, although homegrown and geographically specific, was in fact being pulled in every direction, as were we. Even though the  chaos had yet to settle around the major transitions within work and home life, including the emotional and psychological impacts of going through a global crisis, we were already being asked to respond. The news seemed to update every second of every day. The anxiety of safely navigating grocery stores that were rapidly selling out of everything. The responsibility of communicating with our family and friends. The travel insurance that had to be called in and filed. Every part of our reality was being shifted and we needed to give extra attention and care to those changes. We noted this, realizing that not only were people emotionally full, but also that our small non-profit had suddenly entered the global online market. Our work, however important and beautiful, was now vying for screen time with every yoga studio, restaurant, place of prayer and even our local government who had now started having council meetings online. Aside from actually putting food in your body, you could now in fact virtually tend to most any need or interest from sunup to sundown from the comfort of your home and computer.

The myth of our time impoverished society being granted “more time” because of shelter-in-place, was wearing thin. A neighbor reflected to me in passing on week two, “I’ve never been more busy. Between the Zoom calls and the phone calls and my job and…” you get the picture. Here we were being duped back into the old story that the tech world had sold us. That through a world more integrated with technology, life would be easier, there would be more time for the carefree moments, time with your family, time to read a book, or to simply contemplate the major curveball of the biggest global recession since the Great Depression. 

Our small staff started having conversations in which we borrowed the language of “essential and non-essential.” These were hard conversations in which we truthfully talked out what our work was pre-Pandemic and what it could be now. If we shifted online we could in many ways mimic the idea of being essential, but were we really? Did we warrant another ask to keep someone at their screen? We were in a hard place, having to navigate an entirely new concept of what it meant for us to live within our integrity and also keep our organization running. As an Executive Director, isn’t that what you're tasked with? To keep things running at all costs? 

Now seems like a good moment to share a little about the work and mission that we remain dedicated to. 

Black Mountain Circle believes at its ethos that powerful stories, strong community and deep connection to nature and spirit can help us reclaim our relationship to earth and to each other. As mentioned above, we are event based, and are known for our ability to produce thoughtful speaker series, workshops, film screenings and pilgrimage walks, in our home near Point Reyes National Seashore. We are in fact named for Black Mountain, a quiet present shadow that our office looks out onto. Our living dedication is one of uplifting and sharing the work and narratives of those who are providing language and story to this moment of Great Unraveling that we have been situated in for decades. We have been invested in pointing towards where we could be going, and in building social resilience in the broader geography of where we are situated. In more than one way our mission and work is ripe for this moment. Might we remain essential and out on the public market? When we turned to our organizational values though the answer was not as clear. 

The purpose of organizational and life values are to provide grounded accountability every step of the way towards one’s larger mission. Yes, you can have a mission that is grand, woke and on point, but if you don’t have values to guide your way or have to continuously break from the values you’ve outlined for yourself, are you really living your mission?  The values we brought up were ones that tied into our work and the world we had just departed, as well as ones that we believed to be part of the  future world we were anticipating. What kept coming up was that in order for the type of deep connection we aimed to bring to our four main pillars—story, community, nature and spirit—people need time and spaciousness. Time and space to: process through the grief of a changed world, lost lives, lost jobs, lost homes. Time and space to: re-navigate a life trajectory, organize around the shocks that our federal government is throwing at us, go through the daily tasks of keeping your home clean and your family fed. Time and space to: settle into a new routine with family members, go for walks, listen to music, read, nap, garden. 

“The current moment actually calls for silence but we are too addicted to technology for this truth.” - The Nap Ministry

Two points of conflicting truth have emerged from this moment of pause. 

  1. As always, there are systemic issues at play here that have made this moment not just a modern day tragedy, but a repetition of historical events. What I’m talking about are the ways that this Pandemic has unjustly impacted poor people and communities of color. What I’m talking about is how this has exacerbated whose basic needs are being (or not being) met and how crises such as this will increase the amount of people who fear for their basic needs. 
  2. The Earth is being given a moment of reprieve, time and spaciousness from what had become an insane amount of consumption and extraction. So much that so that today, April 21st, 2020, oil prices for the first time ever dropped below $0. 

What does this mean and how do we hold both of these truths? One of incredible fear and grief and the other of some kind of hope. These are the two points that we feel committed to meeting and exploring on the other end of this. Through our own painful discernment of arriving to the conclusion that we are not in fact essential to the world of the internet, we realized that our work and energy will remain essential in supporting the building and envisioning of what it is to follow. As part of this we came to the conclusion that our organization as its own entity also needs time and space. That if we are to actually deem ourselves essential beyond the pandemic that we will need to first rest, dream and then pivot—and not from in-person to screen, but on our foundational level. 

In January while visiting with a funder we proudly started off by listingthe over 40 events that we produced in 2019. This funder who is in her elder years and past the point of caring what anyone thinks of her, halted us mid-sentence, “No, no, please stop, it's exhausting to listen to!” she waved her hands at us, entirely serious over the fact that what we had done was too much. “I am up to here” she brought her hands to her eyes, “in information! They weren’t lying when they said this would be the age of information.” She was entirely unimpressed by our efforts. “People don’t need more, they need less”, she ended with. “Come back to me when you have a painting class”, were in fact her parting words to us at the end of the visit. 

People don’t need more, they need less. We need less. Our spirits need less. These values of time and spaciousness had become in part lost for us in our need to produce, perform and in all honesty, compete. The economic shutdown is devastating and scary, yet we can’t help but be curious about what this moment is really asking of all of us. Is it asking us to create more content? Is it asking us as a society to integrate completely online?  Is it asking us to keep things running at all costs? The birth of the world so many of us have been asking for, praying for, speaking into being is here, alongside the death howls of business-as-usual. We will need to be steadfast in continuing to usher extractive and outdated models out while caretaking those who are most vulnerable, all while enacting and building the world we wish to see. This might be the task of our lifetime and beyond. 

Although the challenges ahead will continue to be unveiled, our biggest obstacle yet might be taking the time to pause and quiet. I cannot help but think of the author, Arundhati Roy's famous words, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”