Detroit Center for Civil Discourse
Wayne State University student fellows meet in the Before Times to hold civil discourse. (Photo: The Detroit Center for Civil Discourse)

After nearly eight months of in-person meetings, the fellowship was forced to move online.

In its first year, the Detroit Center for Civil Discourse Fellowship had to reconfigure its entire operation. But one participant says it did so with ease.

How do you move a class online when the entire premise revolves around sitting at the same table in the same place? Well, if you’re one of the leaders of the Detroit Center for Civil Discourse fellowship, you may just do it with ease.

That’s right, ease.

The Detroit Center for Civil Discourse
Wayne State University student fellows meet in the Before Times to hold civil discourse. (Photo: Detroit Center for Civil Discourse)

After nearly eight months of in-person meetings, the fellowship was forced to move online. The fellowship, comprised of Wayne State students and based at Wayne State University, is one of the many ways that DCCD executes its mission, which encourages deep civic relationships between diverse people with diverse points of view through respectful dialogue.

The way it was initially designed, 20 fellows from a variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds would sit around the same conference room table, face-to-face, with an opportunity to engage with one another.

So how was this all supposed to transition to a presumed Zoom call?

“The shift to online meetings came at a time after the cohort already built a foundation of trust and camaraderie,” said Ariana Mentzel, managing director of DCCD.

Each session would feature a topic, usually with a speaker and guided discussion. Over the year, the cohort had difficult conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, participated in anti-bias training with Anti-Defamation League staff, and learned about Judaism and Islam in cultural and religious ways.

During the first Zoom meeting, the conversation focused on the novel coronavirus; no one was disappointed. “The topic of COVID-19 lent to a timely discussion on family, fake news, holidays, and the power and necessity of cooperation and collaboration,” Mentzel said.

While the fellows had spent the year sitting face-to-face, speaking over Zoom allowed people to keep their cameras off while they spoke, which provided a different experience.

“It is obviously less than ideal for us to be meeting online rather than in-person, but we’ve turned the difficult situation into an opportunity to support one another and have even more interesting discussions,” said Nisim Nesimov, a Wayne State University senior and DCCD fellow.

The move online also gave Mentzel, WSU Professor Saeed Khan and Rabbi David Polsky an opportunity to change the cohort’s participation outside of Zoom sessions. Over the course of the year, there were numerous “bonus opportunities,” which included speakers and events throughout the community that touched on topics the fellows discussed.

Rather than scrapping the idea of these bonus opportunities, new “online bonus opportunities” were offered, including TED Talks, podcasts, conversations and interviews with author Yossi Klein Halevi and more. These hands-on activities gave each fellow an opportunity to learn about something or listen to someone they may not have otherwise.

Overall, the online transition received a positive response. “It’s kind of alienating how far apart we are, since the point was to come together and share space with each other,” said Eriq Carey, a WSU junior and DCCD fellow. “However, the purpose of the group doesn’t seem to be lost, and we still share common goals and objectives.”

Following the last few meetings of the year, the plan is for the fellows to continue working on group projects. The hope that they’ll be able to reunite again and have a year-end social gathering.

Jeremy Rosenberg is a senior at Wayne State, and was a 2020 DCCD fellow.