The power of virtual exchange
Virtual exchange can be defined as a technology-enabled practice, which consists of sustained, human-to-human interactions. It is a practice whereby constructive communication takes place between individuals who are geographically, socio-economically, and/or culturally separated.
As we have seen throughout the course of this pandemic, virtual exchanges — in the form of Zoom calls, WhatsApp chats, live stream events, social media posts, and even blogs such as this — are happening all around us, all of the time.
If we can learn to embrace the core practice of exchange — the practice of widening our lenses, so that we can witness each other’s stories and begin to discover a more unified, more human connection — I believe that virtual exchange will serve as one of the greatest tools for moving the world forward on its journey to healing.
All over the world, stories have come to light — stories of countries, communities, and individuals hitting pause on daily operations, in order to provide emergency relief to those in need. Take for example, Days for Girls International (DfG), an organization that normally supports menstrual health in more than 125 countries, which garnered more than 3,000 volunteers to make protective masks for at least one million people (including medical professionals, assisted living workers and residents, homeless populations, veterinary staff, and naval officers) when our global economy’s “just in time” delivery system began to fail them.
Celeste Mergens, founder and CEO of DfG, wrote an essay for Medium, chronicling the organization’s #Masks4Millions relief campaign. Perfectly encapsulating one of our generation’s universal truths, Mergens’ post opens with the news of a friend’s daughter in Ohio, who was diagnosed with COVID-19, traveling from a colleague in India to a nearby friend in Washington and eventually on to her via e-message:
Our exchanges are local. They are global. And sometimes, they are one and the same.
In late May, when George Floyd, an African American man, died beneath the knee of a white Minnesota police officer, protests erupted across the United States. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement of 2013 reignited with ferocity, as marches, demonstrations, riots and even looting took hold of major cities like Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Denver, and New York City.
Instagram feeds went dark in support of Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas’ Blackout Tuesday campaign, while melanated voices were amplified across social media platforms, as users gave their accounts over to Black, indigenous, and activists of color doing impactful social justice work.
With the time and space that had been forcefully carved out by the COVID-19 pandemic, white Americans were listening and for better or for worse, they were acting.
In fact, people of every race and ethnicity began showing up for BLM demonstrations across the country. Stories began to spread of national guard troops kneeling with and even hugging protestors in Hollywood. Officers in Camden, New Jersey carried a “Standing in Solidarity” banner, while a white sheriff in Flint, Michigan took off his helmet, laid down his baton, and began marching alongside protestors.
President Donald Trump’s disapproval rating climbed to 54 percent — higher than any other president at this point in office — as Americans stirred. Police violence was merely the impetus of an entire uprising that was uncovering the major systemic injustices that had been underway for racial minorities in the U.S. and across the world for centuries. Finally, it seemed, we were reawakening to the fact that these communities — those comprised of our socially constructed have-nots — were, as the system has always been designed, the ones being hit hardest in the face of this pandemic.*
By early June, thousands of citizens in the U.K., Germany, Italy, Canada, and New Zealand joined the movement — despite country-wide bans against mass gatherings in the name of Corona. Thousands of demonstrators in Europe kneeled in solidarity, while a member of Parliament broke social-distancing measures to join them. In France, the death of George Floyd reignited demonstrations for Adama Traoré, a 24 year-old Malian French man who died under police custody in 2016.
As reported by The Independent, his sister, Assa Traoré, spoke to the crowd at a recent demonstration in Paris:
“‘Today we are not just talking about the fight of the Traoré family… It is the fight for everyone. When we fight for George Floyd, we fight for Adama Traoré. What is happening in the United States is an echo of what is happening in France.’”
Four nights after the death of George Floyd, I received a Facebook message from a friend in Sudan: Sara and I e-met nearly two years ago, as participants in a virtual exchange program, and we’ve kept in pretty close touch ever since. She had just watched the video that was uploaded by Trevor Noah for The Daily Show, “George Floyd, Minneapolis Protests, Ahmaud Arbery & Amy Cooper,” and she wanted to share it with me.
“I just watched this video by Trevor, and I immediately thought of you,” she wrote:
I’ve been watching with concern what’s happening in the U.S. and thinking of you. I hope that you and your family are safe during these troubling times.
I also want to ask you about your opinion of what’s going on amidst the riots and calls for actions against racism in America. I realize it’s a very complicated topic, because we have racism as one of the biggest problems here in Sudan. I pray that things will end well for everyone soon.
Within a matter of minutes, I was able watch the Trevor Noah video, gleaning an entirely new perspective of the “social contract” that we have taken away, ripped up, and tossed aside — time and time again — for our racial and ethnic minorities. Not only that, I was able to share with Sara a piece of an email that had been sent to me by Melissa, a Black woman in Brooklyn, who I was, perhaps not surprisingly, working with to develop an exchange program of another kind.
“It’s really incredible what is happening around the country right now,” Melissa wrote:
What is happening to the [B]lack community, especially with the police, is very concerning and violent, but I do not believe that violence should be met with more violence.
What I think I can do is to make the future a little bit better, and I think this program will shed some light on not only the African American experience, but also the experience of the African people of the Diaspora.
Within a matter of seconds, Sara responded from Sudan:
I completely agree with you and Melissa about not meeting violence with violence.
Discussion and patience are needed in these situations, along with peaceful protests, to ensure the change and justice people seek. And of course, everyone is responsible for the integrity of the society, [B]lack or white, and together you can come to a satisfying conclusion that will enable you to live in peace together. I’ll keep praying for all of you.
As we begin to pay more attention, and we witness each other’s stories coming to life all over the world, we begin to realize the interconnectedness of not only the earth’s systems, but most importantly, its people. This is the power of virtual exchange. And this is precisely why I believe it’s what is going to allow us to keep coming together, apart.
Globalization is a natural by-product of us moving further and further into the Digital Age. This is modernization. This is progress. And there is no going back.
The bizarre thing is, attitudes of nationalism, ethnocentrism, and racism have never served humanity well in the past. So, why are we still defaulting to them now? And even worse, why do we expect them to carry us into the future?
Experts estimate that we have another 15–21 months of navigating the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic ahead of us. We are all in this. We always have been, and we always will be.
So, let’s make this journey to restoring balance count. Let’s step forward, together.
*Donations may be made to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) here. Through litigation, advocacy, and public education, LDF seeks structural changes to expand democracy, eliminate disparities, and achieve racial justice in a society that fulfills the promise of equality for all Americans.
Abigail Faires (@abbyfaires_lnks) is a freelance writer, international educator, and the co-founder of Learn2Link: a global learning network that inspires youth-led community development and emerging 501(c)(3) organization.