The SOAS Working in Development and Social Change Conference Goes Digital
In this post Chloe Topping, MSc in Environment, Politics and Development student and Jane Baker, MSc Development Studies student, both members of the student organising committee for the Working in Development and Social Change Conference 2020, reflect on organising and participating in an online event in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the 9th and 10th June 2020, the Department of Development studies held an online conference on Working in Development and Social Change, organised by students and designed to present the opportunity for students to engage with people working in many different sectors and roles under the umbrella of development.
As the UK entered ‘lockdown’ in spring 2020, the student organising committee for the Working in Development and Social Change conference felt it was more important than ever that fellow students had the opportunity to hear from and engage with people working in social change, as we consider our next steps as graduates in a fundamentally altered, pandemic-afflicted world. On the 9th and 10th of June, the team’s efforts designing panels, securing speakers and transitioning the conference into a virtual format came to fruition.
The absence of the intimate ways we used to meet and interact with people was notable: there were no handshakes with speakers and no informal chats over refreshments. However, the virtual format transformed the conference and extended the limits of the possible. Freed from the need to have our speakers physically present on the SOAS campus, we were able to bring in professionals working on child protection in the Horn of Africa and mass displacement in Latin America. While physically remote, panel discussions, talks, interviews and live Q&As were brought into students’ homes across the world. The feedback received shows these sessions were greatly appreciated and enjoyed. It can be hard to put your hand up and speak in front a room full of people, or approach a speaker after a presentation, but writing out questions or raising your virtual hand can seem easier, and the directness of interaction students felt they had with speakers resonated throughout their reflections. For those moderating, instead of sitting at the front of a lecture theatre, they were honing a new set of virtual interviewing and chairing skills, getting to grips with the online platform, and moderating questions and comments coming in via the chat box. All skills well suited to the 2020 workplace!
The nine panels that took place over the two days featured 23 practitioners representing a range of roles in the development and humanitarian sectors, giving the 200 students who attended brilliant exposure to the diversity of careers in the field. Session topics included humanitarian aid, environmental issues, migration and refugee advocacy, research and consultancy work, UN recruitment, networking and balancing life and work. How to apply the critical reflection that SOAS promotes in its students in the workplace was an underlying question on many of our minds, and speakers engaged with this beautifully, from the opening keynote to the closing panel on ‘how to avoid being a problematic practitioner’. In this final session, Duncan Green, Senior Strategic Advisor for Oxfam GB and Professor in Practice at the LSE emphasised the importance of understanding how power and systems function in order to formulate effective strategies for change. Other speakers focused on the importance of listening to local concerns and acknowledging a diversity of perspectives over a top-down one-size-fits-all agenda. Positionality and reflexivity were recurring themes, with our speakers discussing how they navigated the challenges their racial, gender or national identity created in relation to their work in development and social change.
As well as sharing their deeper insights and critical reflection, the speakers gave pragmatic advice for students to implement in the coming days and months to help prepare them for the job market. For instance, many of us were relieved to hear speakers recommending taking the pressure off our sky-high expectations for the next few months, and thinking sideways, focusing on the usefulness of transferable skills in jobs that we are able to get in the short-term, whilst staying engaged with the issues we care about. Elsewhere, speakers counselled those wanting to change systems to work for private sector or state organisations that they would ultimately like to influence, with the short-term goal of better understanding logics and processes of change, and scope for initiating change from the inside.
The speakers did not try to disguise the reality of the challenging circumstances that lie ahead. However, reassuringly, what emerged from the conference was a sense of how all the paths our speakers took were unpredictable and involved failures and happenstance along the way. This, combined with a broader awareness of what jobs are out there and how students can start their journey, felt invaluable at the present time. The sense that beginning one’s career in this new landscape might present an unrivalled opportunity was also palpable, with SOASians about to explore new pathways in a changing world.