Terrible as the pandemic has been, it also has allowed us to discover Zoom. And like a rose poking out from a slag heap, ClassACT’s Zoom Forums have emerged, with their timely, entertaining and substantive discussions on topics such as health, politics, social justice, the arts and sports. The technology has allowed the Forums to cast a far-flung net, not only in terms of moderators and panelists but also in attracting audiences composed of classmates and interested outside parties.
ClassACT’s first Zoom Forum featured Jono Quick ’73, on March 23, 2020, and discussed COVID-19 just as it was beginning its rampage through the nation. The most recent, June 10’s presentation, Gerrymandering: Our Democracy at Risk, was the 13th in the series. (It is available for viewing at the webpage provided soon.) That’s a dozen plus one in less than 15 months. For a complete list, take a look at our website here. That would be a dizzying pace for anyone, but it’s especially so for the tiny, all-volunteer, behind-the-scenes band producing them. So, we’d like them to come out from behind the Zoom curtains. Ladies and gentlemen...introducing:
Executive Producer: Marion Dry '73. The Zoom Forums were the brainchild of Marion, ClassACT Board Co-Chair. She has been the sustaining force through the challenging transformation and rapid expansion of ClassACT’s outreach and educational efforts. Marion’s leadership and her investment of considerable time was critical to building the Forum Team and teamwork was essential to the ability to produce such an extensive Forum series.
"ClassACT had planned several regional events for summer and fall 2020,” she says. “We wanted to continue to build community, and with the success of the first Forum it seemed a no-brainer to keep at it."
“What I didn't expect was how meaningful the Forums would become to our audience and to our mission or how much they would expand and diversify our community. The core group working on them reached out to classmates far and wide, many of whom had had little connection to ClassACT beforehand, to help us with program development and to recruit panelists. Now many of those folks are core contributors to our work. All of us who have worked together on these forums have found a new sense of community and endeavor. It really has been thrilling. I have met and worked with classmates whose names I had never heard before. They are extraordinary people and I am grateful that I can count some of them now as my dear friends. This is the magic of ClassACT as witnessed in the development and production of these Forums.”
Casting Directors: Donna Brown Guillaume ’73 and Therese Steiner ’73. Led by Marion and working with others such as Steve Milliken ’73 (who corralled the panelists for this past March’s Forum on Racism and the Criminal System) and Becky Miller Sykes ’73 (who invited the panelists for the Education forum in November), Donna and Therese—both veteran TV producers—brainstorm topics and then with the help of the ClassACT board and others seek expert moderators and panelists from among classmates and outside experts. Basically, it’s Networking 101. “How do we cast them? It’s largely who you know,” says Donna. “We’ll just start throwing names out there while we are ruminating about the subject matter. People just pitch in if they know someone and that’s their field of expertise.”
Steve, a former judge in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia and founder of JusticeAid, notes how much care goes into panel-building. For the grouping on Racism and the Criminal System, he recounts, “We needed a D.A.’s voice but we wanted to get a progressive voice [New Orleans’s Jason Williams]. We needed a defender’s voice but I needed it to be somebody who has really pioneered holistic defense as Neighborhood Defenders Service and Rick Jones have done. We needed to have a community organizer’s voice, and that was Gina Clayton- Johnson from Essie Justice Group. And we also wanted to have a police voice…I wanted it to be [Georgetown Law’s] Christy Lopez who has been working with police forces around the country on bystander intervention and other reforms. We took four progressive voices who represent the pillars that constitute the criminal system….So that’s how we approached the composition of that panel and then I went and reached out to people I have known in each of those walks of life.”
“We have made it a mission to have a woman and a person of color on each panel,” says Therese. “After the first three panels, we really started broadening the scope. We expanded to the Zoom Webinar format, so we can get more people involved. Now the Forums have become something that a lot of people outside of ClassACT and even outside of Harvard have been interested in.”
“You want expertise, you want representation, you want participation, and you want a broad audience to be listening,” says Donna. “I think that as Ivy Leaguers we sometimes fall into the pattern of just talking to ourselves and each other. That can be very stimulating but I don’t think that necessarily advances the goals of ClassACT. If we’re really trying to achieve change together we really have to talk to people outside the Harvard/Radcliffe Class of ’73.”
Producers: Sarah Ulerick ’73 and Sara Greenberg ’73, Andrea Kirsh ’73, Jacki Swearingen ’73 and Marion Dry ’73 (Executive Producer). Without these five, the Forums would not have happened. When the pandemic hit, Marion reached out to what was then the ClassACT Event Group and asked them to pivot from producing in-person regional events to producing Zoom Forums. They jumped in with both feet and we should now really call them, along with videographer and designer Rick Brotman ’73, and production crew members Diana Lobontiu and Katie Marinello, the ClassACT HR73 Forum Production Company! They have demanded excellence of themselves and their product and the Forums keep getting better and better.
Staff Production Crew: Diana Lobontiu and Katie Marinello. Diana, ClassACT’s dauntless executive assistant, sweats the details. She’s the person who, with the assistance of Sarah, Sara, Andrea, Jacki, and Marion, is in charge of making sure the show sticks to the script and follows the minute-by-minute schedules known as “run of show” that are a godsend to the moderator. (As a former moderator, believe me, I know.) She also guarantees that everyone has the information he or she needs. That includes posting panelists’ bios and relevant links in the Chat area.
Diana shows up in so many places, including moderating each Forum’s Chat discussion, that at first I thought there must be two of her. And then I found out that in a way, there are! She has a twin sister, Ioana, whom she has involved in the process. “We did the first few [Forums] without a checklist,” says Diana. “Then last summer we all got together and made a checklist. We have an elaborate system. My twin sister emails us with reminders twice each week.”
(Says Donna Brown Guillaume: “The fact it plays as well as it does—all praises to Diana.”)
As time went on, a process emerged. “We figured out that we had to standardize things,” says Katie, who is the maestro of ClassACT’s social media initiatives and live-tweets each Forum. “We should be playing from the same playbook. What information are we gathering from the panelists? Let’s put that in one document. What do our runs-of-show look like? Do the panelists need to see the runs-of-show? And the other thing is that the checklist is only as good as the people who use it.”
With so many safeguards, what could go wrong? “Several things have already happened,” says Diana. “I lost control of the host command and couldn’t turn a panelist’s video on so he just didn’t go on. I recorded a whole panel but my computer shut down so we lost the whole thing.”
Videographer and Designer: Rick Brotman ’73. In addition to overseeing the Forums’ visual presentation, veteran video guru Rick creates a pre-show “teaser” designed to bring folks into the tent, then edits the show afterward for later viewing.