If we were together in person, offered Daniel McKanan in the closing moments of the 2020 Camphill Research Symposium, this is the time when we would sit down and start to digest the things we had heard and experienced together. This is the time when the questions, the insights, the heated debates and enthusiastic future visioning would start to form. But here, in this virtual space, we hadn’t yet come to terms with how to support that emergence without the architecture and choreography of embodied encounter. There is a certain intimacy and vulnerability in a room as it gradually empties, and a breathing-out that happens when linear rows of chairs shuffle into scatter plots across the floor, littered still with notepads and emptied coffee cups. The event is over; we begin packing up our baggage. The event is not-yet-over; we begin unpacking the baggage we brought with us.

This was the third Camphill Research Symposium I had been involved in curating, having participated in the annual event every year since its inception in 2015. This was by far the most dramatic departure from its prior iterations. Even the 2019 Symposium, held jointly with the triennial conference of the International Communal Studies Association, was more familiar despite the relative scale and complexity of the event itself. The 2020 Symposium, like all things 2020, was an experiment in what it means to maintain traditions in radically new circumstances. The content of the event focused on Daniel McKanan’s new book Camphill and the Future: Spirituality and Disability in an Evolving Communal Movement. Held over three weeks in November, each session brought together international panels of community members to reflect on the three main sections of McKanan’s text—generational transitions in Camphill, the various constituencies that comprise the movement, and the contemporary contexts which Camphill lives within today. 

Each of the three sessions is available for viewing online thanks to the support of the Camphill Foundation, and I encourage you to go and view them for a sense not only of the breadth of McKanan’s research, but also the stunning diversity of the movement itself. What our virtual event lacked in intimacy it made up for in reach and representation, the first truly international Camphill Research Symposium. Moreover, because the event had a single orienting theme there was a cohesion and clarity that helped to ground the diversity on display. The event was also notable in that, unlike previous symposia, it largely featured “Camphillers” rather than academics. While a number of the panelists are researchers in their own right, their primary vantage point was as “insiders” responding to an “outsider’s” research and distillation of the history and potential futures of their movement. It therefore had the feeling of being, somewhat paradoxically, more “internal” and more “expansive” than any symposium before it. 

There was also a notable absence. As plagues many academic events (and our previous Symposia) we failed to adequately address barriers to inclusion for many community members: the event was heavy with academic language, only minor visual accompaniment (other than the speakers’ faces), and the absence of built-in accessibility features (closed captioning, translation, clear outlines or even plain language accompaniment). That is not to say that the event was entirely exclusive: the second panel in particular featured a number of disabled community members sharing their experiences, and panelists took the initiative to accompany their own presentations with imagery. Reflecting on the event I personally have learned so much about accessibility and what needs to be in place for such a virtual event (or any event!) to be truly welcoming and inclusive, but I regret that I had not learned these lessons earlier. 

The biggest barrier, however, and one which needs a more substantive, perhaps non-technological remedy, is time. For community members with or without disabilities, the segmenting and shrinking of time that occurs in virtual space makes it nearly impossible to wander, to meander through dialogue. In community events we do this quite literally—we wander in and out of the room, catching snippets of conversations, moving in and out of scheduled discourse. We wander together, observing, noting, reflecting, laughing, and dreaming in a way that the rigidity of virtual communication does not—in my experience—easily support. The after-event that Dan invoked—the conversations that bubble up after the schedule has emptied—allows responses, questions, and imaginations to arise without the clock pressure of the “question and answer” segment. Many of us struggle to verbalize quick, succinct, spontaneous responses, especially when the questions touch on things as deep as inclusion, community, belonging, and what the future might hold. One of the most significant questions I have held with me since the Symposium is precisely this: what can we put in place—virtually, in person, surrounding and within an event, that enables all community members to be co-creators? This raises an even more fundamental question—what is the intention, the purpose, behind such an event for us as community builders?

The Camphill Research Symposium began in 2015 as an initiative of the Camphill Foundation in North America. The Symposium has since been an opportunity for academics and the Camphill movement in North America to meet and learn alongside one another, as well as provide a forum for new and emerging research about the Camphill movement to be received by an informed audience. From my vantage point as a participant, presenter, and organizer, it has been a tremendous privilege to learn from colleagues in and around Camphill. Likewise, the opportunity to hear from external researchers, those not connected to Camphill, invites us to examine our assumptions and practices from an outsider’s perspective, one which doesn’t take our inherited narratives for granted. I have been enthusiastic to hear from these researchers over the years precisely because they challenge, confuse, and even confront my own beliefs. My perspectives on their work have evolved—I have variously gained a deeper appreciation, overcome initial negative reactions to develop a more open and nuanced take, become critical after initial enthusiasm, and in some cases not fully grappled with the resonance of their work until much later. Thanks to the space created by the Foundation for the annual Symposium, we have been given the great privilege to bring these ideas into dialogue with our own, as an opportunity for learning, communication, and transformation. To these ends, we left the Symposium asking how we can keep these conversations going. What forums do we have already available, and what processes might need to be newly created? I hope that the Correspondence can serve as one of those outlets into the future.

The three sessions of this year’s Camphill Research Symposium, featuring Camphill communities in the UK, Botswana, the US, Argentina, and beyond are available online via the Camphill Foundation https://camphillfoundation.org/research/ and the Camphill Research Network https://research.camphill.edu/. For more information and open access to Dan McKanan’s book, see https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520344082/camphill-and-the-future . If you wish to purchase a physical copy, please do so directly with University of California Press. If you represent a bookstore or wish to make a bulk order, please contact Dan McKanan at dmckanan@hds.harvard.edu, as discounts may be available.