For years, Jodi Eichelberger has been the face of Story Story Night. During his tenure, he has been its front man and innovator, staging story slams for adults, and themed slams based on the elements and constellations. “Staging” is the operative word. Nothing could have prepared him for putting on SSN events in the age of COVID-19, but true to form, he views the challenge as a chance to make changes for the better.
“Whatever we can do to make the show as interactive as possible and feel live—that’s what we’re shooting for,” he said.
The medium is the hard part, but when he spoke with Boise Weekly, the task before him was a form fit for an event that showcases true, heartfelt stories told by the people who’ve lived them. On Tuesday, Oct. 20, Story Story Night was the centerpiece of the “Build Empathy” portion of the sixth-annual Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Summit put on by the Boise Sky Institute and Boise State University.
The segment, named “Libra” after the astrological sign, features storytellers Nikki Leonard, Alex Mwibey, Rachel Emenaker, Steven Snow and Steve Eaton, and is presented by moderator Dr. Lynn Owens. Before them, Eichelberger said, is the question of “when did the scales tip for you?”—a reference to the astro sign, the emblem of which is a set of scales.
It’s a question one could just as easily ask about the conference itself. Conducted in the midst of a pandemic and social unrest following a summer of high-profile racial violence, as well as in the middle of a national election, the summit is timely. And though it and its organizers are strictly non-partisan, the politics are hard to miss.
In the summer of 2019, Republican members of the Idaho Legislature took issue with Boise State’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, accusing them of increasing tuition to offer students a left-leaning educational experience at the expense of reading, writing and ‘rithmatic.
Those claims were false (in fact, all of Idaho’s four-year universities froze tuition for the then-coming school year), but the coals of controversy have continued to glow. Following the police murder of George Floyd in late May and a subsequent wave of social unrest, public and private entities alike looked to diversity and inclusion programs as a way to engage the issue of racism. A glance at the DE&I Summit’s sponsors, including KeyBank, Boise Cascade, Clearwater, HP, Micron and both of Boise’s largest medical systems, speaks to local, national and even international interest in the topic. Despite President Donald Trump issuing an executive order curbing D&I efforts at many public entities (including the Gem State’s own Idaho National Lab) in late September, the overall conversation continues to revolve around how Americans can find empathy for others, address bias within themselves and fight systemic inequity—which is precisely the mission of the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Summit.
“It’s primarily here to educate, and educate beyond the Boise State community—educate all stakeholders. That’s how we approach it,” said Blue Sky Institute Program Manager Kodi Romero. “This is our largest outward-facing event that we do every year, and we want to leverage that platform and give an opportunity to a diverse community that might not always have a seat.”
In addition to SSN’s rather humanizing presentation were breakout sessions that ranged from the broadly conceptual (e.g. white saviorism, disrupting bias) to the immediately practical, like identifying and combating microaggressions at work and voting rights; and a panel discussion about igniting change moderated by Blue Sky Fellow Shannon Rush-Call and featuring Nate Jorgensen, Hao Ngo, Adan Callsen, Cherie Buckner-Webb and Whitney Mestelle.
Like a lot of events, the summit had to reinvent itself this year. It went virtual, and organizers sought to mine the strengths and side-step the weaknesses of the computer-screen-as-forum. Romero said the virtual forum has been tailored to give participation as close to an in-person feel as possible, and the new format can focus and streamline the flow of events. But in at least one way, the summit has retained continuity with years past. In 2019, participants asked organizers to strengthen its focus on skills attendees can take with them out into their homes, social circles and workplaces. It was something she said she and others at the Blue Sky Institute took to heart.
“One of the things we heard last year from the summit was that they really wanted to have tools, resources and strategies that they could take immediately and implement,” Romero said. “Our theme was really built around what we heard from stakeholders last year.”
Building those skills, however, begins with empathy; and while much of the summit has been structured around proven best-practices, working knowledge and data-driven analyses of the big problems of the day, Eichelberger, in designing the SSN component of the summit, leaned into something a little different: creativity.
“The challenge of creating a feeling of unity is a big challenge, and that’s how I decided in a way to ‘dumb down’ the technology,” he said. “I think part of it for me is, how do we feel like we’re together? That’s the experiment: doing this in a way that puts the featured storytellers in the same place as the people attending the summit.”