A Lesson in Resilience

Left to right: Director of the Peace and Justice Institute Rachel Allen, Administrative Manager of the PJI Community Will Jefferson, Keynote Speaker Kenneth Ginsburg and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

By Rachel Allen, Director, Peace and Justice Institute

The second annual Creating a Resilient Community: From Trauma to Healing conference scheduled for Tuesday, April 21, 2020, was certain to be a success. Our first conference the year before drew 500-plus participants representing a cross section of our region. Ever since then, the conference planning team, led by the Peace and Justice Institute (PJI) had been making plans for this annual event. With guidance and direction from the resilience network of Central Florida, a multi-sector network of professionals and community members, the conference promised to be a meaningful experience for our community.

On Friday, March 13, 2020, with the emergence of COVID-19, we found out we would not be returning to work after our Spring Break, and that other states were shutting down and enforcing stay-at-home orders. In addition to not returning to work, we were informed that all face-to-face events at the College would be canceled.

The Resilience Conference — scheduled for just six weeks away — appeared to be yet another casualty of this virus. During the first staff meeting of PJI, we nodded our heads at one another, via Zoom, and agreed that we would most likely need to cancel the conference.

And then, quite simply and unexpectedly, a member of the PJI Advisory Council, Sue Foreman, asked me the following day during our weekly Brain Trust meeting, “What are you going to do with all of the people planning to be with you in the 21st?”

I was left to pause. What? Was she expecting us to carry on? Could we carry on? And then the pause and reflection went deeper … wait a minute … we are experiencing a global pandemic, a collective trauma … and we have a conference titled, “Creating a Resilient Community: From Trauma to Healing” scheduled. Should we be canceling this? Can we, in good conscience, as a Peace and Justice Institute, cancel?

I turned to wonder

I called Conference Coordinator, PJI Facilitator and part-time faculty, New Student Experience Kelsey Visser, and brought these reflections to her attention. Knowing she is a spiritual woman, I suggested she and I both practice slowing down, open ourselves up to the universe, and allow time for deep reflection, trusting that knowing how to move forward would emerge. We would give ourselves time. No decision would be made.

These were emotionally overwhelming days for all of us. Our children were home from school, all work and College classes were moving online, and the uncertainty of this disease controlled every decision. While experiencing the early days of this collective trauma, my brain was not fully functioning. Work was challenging. Self-care was the priority. Home, safety, food, health and wellness came first.

A conference? Really? Online? How?

And yet the messages from the universe could not be clearer. Yes. Yes. YES. This is needed. This is the work. Now is the time. The message that came to me in the middle of the night was the message of equanimity. This Buddhist idea teaches me to find calm amidst the storm. Peace is not the absence of conflict; it’s an ability to move through the conflict skillfully.

We were in a community conflict, a national conflict, a global conflict. This virus gave us the opportunity to see conflict through the transformative paradigm through which PJI lives, an opportunity for growth and transformation. The conference allowed an opportunity to find peace amidst the storm, to bring equanimity to our community, and to build resilience collectively.

Yes! We would do this. YES. We could do this.

We approached our community partner, Karen Willis, chief executive officer of the Early Learning Coalition of Orange County, with our rationale for continuing with a virtual conference. She was 100% supportive and immediately said, “I’m in!” This positive response empowered us and gave us the fuel we needed to move forwarded.

We spent two weeks finalizing the decision as a PJI team, talking through all of the details. What about the registration fee? So many things were being presented free of charge since the coronavirus crisis. Should the conference be presented for free? What about those who have already paid? What about our keynote speakers, Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg and Dr. Wendy Ellis? How would they feel about delivering their content virtually? Would we need to renegotiate their contracts? Would our sponsors continue to support us?

Making Our Case

The next steps were to bring the conference planning team to the table, as well as the event sponsors, to make the case and assess feedback. Would our title sponsor, Orlando Health, a major hospital system in Central Florida at the center of this crisis, have the ability to continue to support the work? Would the conference planning team, consisting of members of the broader resilience network of Central Florida, the multi-sector group of professionals, believe we could do it?

Both groups had mixed responses. Many people felt postponing was the best decision — there was too much uncertainty now. The group questioned if people would be willing or able to stay online for an all-day conference? Surely it would need to be shortened into a half day, offered over the course of several days or postponed until the fall. All reasonable thoughts. And yet what I had to personally return to, over and over, was the sense of responsibility PJI had to our community and to the work of building resilience.

When we made the case to Orlando Health, we could not have been more thrilled when they got behind the effort and supported our decision to move forward. We were on our way!

Conference Planning

Once that decision was made, we had 11 working days to revise and pull the conference together on a completely foreign platform — a Zoom webinar.

We were intentional about every detail. Recognizing the challenges of being online all day, we knew we had to be creative and open to new ways of doing things. And the creative ideas flooded in.

We would practice mindfulness to support our emotional selves during the day. We would introduce music to open our hearts and connect through the arts. A suggestion to work with a local arts organization, Central Florida Community Arts, was embraced. The organization’s director, Josh Vickery, was on board and even suggested a music therapy session, which we scheduled over the lunch hour. Dance Department Chair and Professor of Dance Suzanne Salapa offered a session of chair dancing as an opportunity for much-needed physical movement at lunchtime as well.

Administrative Manager of the PJI Community Will Jefferson and I would co-facilitate the day from our living rooms, with no pretense of trying to project a slick and glossy image for participants. In the middle of a global pandemic, we wanted to be authentic and vulnerable so as to invite others to be the same.

The collaborative, resilient, amazing team of professionals from PJI who worked together over those 11 days made miracles happen. Institutional support from our College leadership helped us ensure we had the technology necessary for success including a new webinar platform, an entire East Campus tech team to masterfully support the all-day event, and marketing support to revise assets, get out the press release and radio spot, market on social media channels and online newsletters, and communicate with constituents. Without the tech team, marketing team, graphic designer, and Kathleen Plinske, executive vice president and provost, we would not have been able to achieve what we did.

The conference planning team wanted to be sure community resources were available to support people during the COVID-19 response. We wanted to hear from our mayors, Buddy Dyer and Jerry Demings, who were leading the Central Florida response. A “Lunchtime Learning” presentation was put together to display partners, sponsors, conference presenters and community resources. College leadership was present and our Principles for How We Treat Each Other laid the foundations for a day that supported and nourished us, intellectually, physically and emotionally.

Knowing the challenge would be to engage people fully in technology that is distancing, we approached the conference like a theatrical production, assigning roles and parts, and drafting a script to follow. We held tech rehearsals, brought in facilitators and presenters for dress rehearsals and technical rehearsals. We practiced the online platform with our keynote speakers from Philadelphia and Washington. D.C.

The Conference

The virtual “production” was turned over to the stage manager and conference organizer, Kelsey, in the final days, as she would be running the show “backstage.” Throughout the conference day, Kelsey texted with presenters and facilitators, having them “stand in the wings” before they appeared online. Teams monitored the chat and Q & A. The tech team, led by Director of Campus Technology Keith Hill, handled the webinar technology, and a social media team posted on Instagram throughout the day.

Central to the work of PJI, and building resilience, is reflection. During the musical presentations, which were living room performances of Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me,” Joe Cockers’ “Up Where We Belong,” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” conference participants were invited to respond to journal reflections and share them in the chat. This gave people the chance to connect the emotions we have been feeling during these unprecedented times and connect with one another by sharing and reading the feelings and reactions of others. Each of these added elements were meant to ground participants in their bodies and hearts, deepen the learning experience, energize us and bring hope.

The PJI team was nimble and remained flexible up to the last minute. Seeing that the first annual conference in 2019 attracted more than 500 people, we wanted this year’s conference to be equally well attended. With so little time to get out the word, we continued to register people until the day before the conference. When we watched the registration reach 505 people on the day before the event, we celebrated!

The day flowed, the speakers made us cry, participants appreciated the chair dancing and mindfulness practice. The music therapy brought minutes of peace and comfort into such uncertain times, and the speakers challenged us with their wisdom and practical tools, as well as policy strategies to make systemic changes toward a more resilient community. To view the conference, click here.

And the participants responded. They lit up the chat with appreciations for the singers, saying “Preach it!” to the speakers who spoke truth to power, appreciations for the unexpected joy of chair dancing, and gratitude for the hope that the day brought to so many.

As I was in the role of facilitating the online day, I could follow the chat and sense the appreciation, and I could hear the power of the speakers and sense the impact. And yet when I clicked “Leave the Meeting,” at the end of the day, I felt a vast emptiness — a void. Did that happen? Was there an impact?


We had worked for a year to bring this about — an incredible group of sponsors, a conference committee planning team, a large sector group supporting the work, community leaders, college leaders and an incredible team at PJI, and yet I was alone — at home — not sure of the impact. I felt sadness. After such a big day, with such intense planning and effort, there were no hugs, no warm bodies to share physically together in the seeming success of the conference. This was a foreign experience.

An hour debrief with a colleague helped to assuage the sadness. And the following day, after many phone calls, the reality set in. The conference had made a real impact. People felt hope, connected and energized to act and move forward to make a difference for our community in the midst of the storm of COVID-19. They felt renewed and inspired. It was just what they needed. It was what the community needed. RESILIENCE.

I want to thank the remarkable staff at PJI, the large resilience network of Central Florida and the dynamic conference planning team for their work to bring this conference to life.

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