How to build connections in a virtual world: be visible, be vulnerable

A few months ago we had a team get together in Manchester. We are a small, remote team and our opportunities to be together in person are highly valued and carefully planned. We live in Belfast, Edinburgh, Guildford, Hertfordshire and the Wye Valley so we are always conscious of the cost (in money, carbon and logistical energy) of meeting up in person. But we weigh this against the importance of connecting with each other, the joy of actually seeing real, physical people, in real life! The importance of hugs! 

We’re also thinking more about where we meet up, rather than always defaulting to London. Our project work spans the UK, and we’ve started to be a bit more intentional about how we talk about and demonstrate that. 

So, back to Manchester. We chose Manchester because we wanted to visit Platt Fields Market Garden and connect with MUD, partly because it was a brilliant alternative to sitting in a rented office all day, but also because of the wider insights, knowledge and motivation that a place like MUD spotlights. We also spent some time at Bridge 5 Mill, Greater Manchester’s leading sustainability venue, home to groups, events and ideas that make Manchester greener, healthier and more equitable. 

When planning what we want to get out of our get together days, we always balance strategy with social. We value just being together, without a rigid agenda, for at least part of our time. In Manchester we decided to experiment with ‘opening up’ some of our social time to the wider food community – as a way of embedding ourselves in the place and putting ourselves out there. We realised that it’s important to be intentional about visibility, to clearly say ‘We’re here, we’re listening, we’re interested’. 

And so the Food Citizen Social was born. We picked a place and a time, and put out a couple of tweets inviting people to join us. In truth we really didn’t know if anyone would come. We made a conscious decision to be comfortable with that – it was an experiment. There’s a vulnerability in making an invitation in this way, but another aspect of vulnerability is openness. We leaned into that. We didn’t ask for sign ups or RSVPs, there was no agenda or preparation necessary – just join us if you fancy. And a few people did! Delighted is not a big enough word. 

The following month, our exec director Dan was in Belfast for a couple of days so we planned our second Food Citizen Social, in the gorgeous Sunflower Public House. 15 people came to this one! The sun shone and the conversation flowed from topic to topic – food, power, accessibility, care and community. 

The Belfast Food Citizen Socials are becoming a fixture. We’ll do them every two months while there’s interest and energy for them. And we’ve also decided to hold impromptu socials whenever we meet up as a team or as a Council. Our AGM in October will take place in Coventry – watch this space for a Food Citizen Social there.

The success of the socials has been a stark reminder of the appetite and need for informal time with engaged peers to explore ideas, make new connections, empathise with and motivate each other. Inspired by this, I’ve started a monthly series of Food Citizenship Drop Ins on zoom. These have a bit more structure but the ethos is pretty similar. A place to explore, connect and share with others working in the food system at all levels. 

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that it takes vulnerability to be visible, but it takes visibility to form community. Be open. Be visible. It’s okay if nobody shows up. It’s brilliant when they do. 

Thank you for reading this – I’d love to know if any of this resonated with you. And do join us for the next online Drop In on 9th August if you want to join a collective of people and organisations exploring shifting power in the food system.