As per our tradition here at Dot Connector Studio, we reached out on the shortest day of the year to share news of what we’ve been up to, and invite our colleagues and clients to join us in setting an intention for the year to come. 

The ritual is simple if you want to try it: Grab a sheet of paper and a candle. Rip the sheet of paper into two. On one half write a word or phrase that expresses what you’d like to leave behind; on the other, a word for what you hope to cultivate. Burn the first, and post the second somewhere you’ll see it regularly.

Personally, the word I’ve chosen to focus on for the next year is “deeper.” For myself, I’m hoping to spend more time on writing and creative projects. With clients, I hope to be more deliberate in absorbing and applying lessons we glean from the work.

Slowing down and taking care

Last year’s word, “onwards,” expressed both our shift to more futures-related work, and an impatience many of us were feeling to get out of the pandemic doldrums.

But in talking amongst ourselves and those we work with, we discovered that the transition back into hybrid life has been pretty fatiguing. We were not simply swapping our quarantine Zoom habits out with face-to-face encounters but piling them on top of one another while simultaneously grappling with a cascade of difficult headlines.

That’s why none of us was surprised to hear that Google searches for the phrase “I’m tired” had reached a peak around the world. Internally, we resolved to deal with this by revamping our meeting culture. Read this set of tips that our co-founder Katie Donnelly assembled on how we’re freeing up our calendars, setting more boundaries as a team, and making sure meetings are not just necessary and productive, but even enjoyable!

For the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, I wrote about a larger set of trends related to fatigue, burnout, and the politics of rest: “Over the course of the past few years of pandemic chaos and social unrest, calls for paid opportunities to rest and recuperate have grown louder — especially among activists and care workers who are Black and were working on the frontlines of multiple crises.” Check the piece out to learn how the foundation’s Pioneering Ideas for an Equitable Futures team and other funders are investigating sabbaticals for activists and nonprofit leaders as one solution.

Care for ourselves and others has also been a central focus for our Dot Connector Collaboratory. This is an ongoing practice that Evan Walsh and I established to make space to focus on our own creative and social impact projects outside of client gigs, and partner with others to launch theirs. Over the course of the year we expanded out from our initial Fun with Futures Collaboratory to encompass a broader array of initiatives that center community, encourage experimentation, and cultivate belonging. These included:

  • The Emergent Expression(s) fiction writing program: In the spring, Bristol Baughan led this in collaboration with Evan and Rob Sinclair. The process centered futurism, personal transformation, and regeneration.
  • The Salon: Evan has been spearheading this series of gatherings with Pola Pucheta and Irynka Hrmotska to build care and connection among 50+ emerging LGBTQIA+, BIPOC, and women-identifying visual artists, documentarians, facilitators, cultural organizers, producers, editors, educators, art administrators, and futurists.
  • The Care Collaboratory: Inspired by our own collaboratory process, jesikah maria ross cooked up this series of sessions and reflections in partnership with Jennifer Brandel and the Future of Local News Camp. Check out the beautiful zine they produced with design support from Dot Connector Studio’s Carrie McLaren, chock-full of tips for bringing care into newsrooms and communities.

Finding hope in a dark election year

Care is particularly paramount right now given the terrifying headlines about the escalating threats to democracy both here in the U.S. and around the world. That’s why I have been pleased to collaborate over the past year with Suzette Brooks Masters  on her work to imagine better futures for American democracy, not simply oppose authoritarianism.

Purple cover of Imagining Better Futures for American Democracy by Suzette Brooks Masters and Ruby Hernandez

Last year, I served as a thought partner on her influential report on the topic. This year, I was happy to help design a convening she organized for the Democracy Funders Network.  The event brought together futurists, funders, democracy innovators and reformers, and narrative change experts to reflect on the prospects for remaking our system to be more just, participatory, and responsive to the many challenges our society faces.

Speakers showcased strategic foresight skills (including horizon scanning and scenario planning) to both stretch the imagination and build resilience at a time of rapid change. Seeking inspiration? See this collection of bright spots that our research team—Katie plus associate Jenna Rines— helped Suzette to produce for the gathering. 

Newsletters galore!

Speaking of bright spots, one of the most energizing projects we produced this year explored the possibilities for tapping into online fandoms and digital communities to bolster narrative strategy for pluralist movements. Evan and I collaborated with Tracy Van Slyke—Pop Culture Collaborative’s Chief Strategy Officer—to develop and produce Digital Waves. The project is part of an overarching field resourcing strategy the Collaborative is leading.

To create this learning journey designed to help the Collaborative’s field members and philanthropic partners navigate the currents of news about digital communities and culture, we worked with a crew of curators-in-residence. Together, we produced over 12 themed e-newsletters and 62 posts spanning more than 31,000 words.

During this time, we identified trends, spotlighted emerging strategies, and asked burning questions, all to build a shared understanding and urgency about tech evolutions, right-wing narrative strategies, trending digital conversations, and fandom formation.  Highlights from our team included Evan’s magnum opus on how the right is succeeding (and the left is struggling) at mobilizing video game communities, plus many-a-deep-dive that I took into technology, including the ever-changing world of AI and the rapid decay and fragmentation of digital platforms

With Mark Glaser, we’ve also continued to seek out silver linings for journalism amidst grim tidings for the industry. Subscribe to the News@Knight newsletter he curates with the foundation to learn how local nonprofit newsrooms are experimenting with new ways to grow support, experiment with technologies, and more authentically represent the communities they serve. 

This year in local news was led by the ambitious Press Forward initiative, with Knight and 21 other funders committing to spend $500 million on local journalism in the next five years. All newsletters related to Press Forward were widely read and shared. Also, Knight senior director of journalism Karen Rundlet announced plans to leave to help lead the Institute for Nonprofit News in 2024. 

For your listening pleasure…

In November, I was pleased to support the launch of Living Data, a new segment that I’ve been helping Farai Chideya and her team to incubate as part of the Our Body Politic podcast. Over the next year, this initiative will use survey research to “craft a deeper contextual understanding of Americans’ differences—emotional, regional, racial, religious, economic—and what binds us together.”

Abstract digital art, many colors, organic shapes

Another great listen from our collaborator Jennifer Brandel: an episode of Radiolab illuminating the concept of the “interstitium”  that she and I have been poking at for the past several years. As Radiolab co-host Lulu Miller explains, the episode covers “the story of what this mysterious body part is, what its name is, what it might be doing, why we missed it, how knowing about it might change our lives, our health and maybe even, like, society a little bit.” Intrigued? Read more about why we are both “interstitionaries”—and you might be too—in Jenn’s piece for Orion

Now your turn…

We want to know: What have you been up to over the last year? What’s wearing you down, and what’s giving you hope? Who are you collaborating with? What’s your vision in 2024, and how can we work together to bring it to life? Drop us a line.