It Started with a Conversation: Looking Back at a Year of Brainstorming

Getting People Talking

By Ryan Woodard

The goal of the South Dakota Humanities Council’s Brainstorming: The Human Connection, launched in July 2020, was to get people talking.

In cooperation with longtime SDHC scholar Lawrence Diggs, SDHC launched the weekly discussion program to address civic unrest and racial bias in the wake of the George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis — and to create connection for the quarantined, a forum for open conversations with active listeners.

So, did it work?

Idea Hatched by Radio DJ Diggs

The program was proposed to SDHC by Diggs (pictured above), an inimitable former San Francisco radio DJ with a knack for bringing people together and “out of their shells.”

The longtime member of the SDHC Speakers’ Bureau and frequent visitor to South Dakota prisons believes in establishing relationships before attacking problems. Through his SDHC Speakers Bureau programs, such as “Erasing Imaginary Lines” and “Connecting Communities,” he coaxes out what’s in the heart before trying to unwind what’s in the head.

“Humans are feeling beings that think, not thinking beings that feel,” he said when the program launched.

With Diggs’ guidance as host, people talked. Then they talked more. Then they learned about each other and considered new ideas.

Now, after a year made less lonely by nearly 50 discussions, Brainstorming has grown beyond the boundaries of a mere conversation, the first of which was held July 23, 2020.

It’s a bond between people, their lives intertwined by ideas, perspectives, shared experiences — all foundational to the human condition and essential to friendship and connection. Watch the video below, which includes clips from the past year, to see how the Brainstorming bond was formed.

Brainstorming: The Human Connection Video Highlights

A Go-to Place during the Pandemic

As can be seen in the video above, participants quickly created deep and meaningful connections by sharing intimate moments in their lives during crises.

“In the time of sudden isolation and pandemic, the Brainstorming group quickly became a scheduled go-to place where I could focus on interesting topics and always new people with so much to offer,” said Betty Sheldon, a regular participant. “Over the course of the year I have benefited from those contacts, the information we discussed and the links to expand my knowledge.”

A member of the South Dakota State Poetry Society who recently won the 2021 SDSPS Chapbook Contest, participant Todd Williams became hooked when he tuned in to see fellow poet Dana Yost, a 2020 Festival of Books presenter, talk poetry.

“I tripped across the discussion when it crossed over into the poetry community one week, but really enjoyed coming regularly because of the types of discussion that were going on,” said Williams, a former South Dakota journalist who moved to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia 10 years ago. 

“The Zoom chats were remarkably important over the past year. Being isolated with no chance of returning home, it allowed me to still find a way to be among fellow South Dakotans and people I would never have met before.”

COVID-19 quarantine left many people with uncomfortable, unshared experiences. Brainstorming: The Human Connections was catharsis.

“It was a dose of what’s still real,” said Thea Miller Ryan, an outgoing “people person” who, as the former director of the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Outdoor Campus - Sioux Falls and current director of Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at USD, is most comfortable when with people. Brainstorming, at the height of a frightening and politically charged pandemic, provided Ryan with a much needed dose of humanity.

“In a time when we weren’t sure if what we were hearing was the truth, Lawrence would lead us through many topics and real people would answer with how they felt. There were some stunning moments when people told their stories. It grounded me. It made me know people were still out there feeling things and just being, under the covers of COVID.”

Journalist and author Lee Shippey said, “The right book at the right time, may mean more in a person’s life than anything else.” It could be said that the right conversation at the right time holds similar value.

Finding Common Ground in Conversation

SDHC is a statewide non-profit whose purpose is to provide humanities programs for South Dakotans. Those programs always involve conversation, a vital starting point for achieving understanding.

Encouraging civil conversation is part of SDHC’s mission, and Brainstorming participants find the informal format an easy entry point to humanities study.

“I think the value of regular, sustained conversations on topics concerning the humanities and related fields are even more valuable in the non-academic setting,” Williams said. “I really enjoyed the wide range of voices, and the electronic conference calls have opened up avenues to basically anyone with a mobile device or computer.”

Brainstorming has featured myriad discussion topics falling under the umbrella of social justice and politics, humanities and arts, people and relationships, and much more. With distinguished guests in fields such as academia, law enforcement, art, social justice, writing and much more, the program is an introduction not only to the humanities disciplines but those who work in and around them.

“I feel I am now connected with many people who, when I do happen to meet them somewhere, will feel I can connect easily,” Sheldon said. “Authors, poets, historians, artists, humanitarians, movers and shakers in many areas of life…it feels to me as if we have already rubbed shoulders.”

Sheldon and others are spreading the word about the humanities and the value of connecting with others throughout South Dakota — and some are teaming up to do it.

“(Fellow participant) Nieema Thasing and I have become fast friends! We will actually meet in person soon, I expect,” Sheldon said. “She joined SD League of Women Voters and we will be working together to launch a new chapter in her area. The two of us share many common interests which will be enjoyed and explored in the coming years.”

Fast friends are welcome in a world that quickly become uncertain as people were shuttered in their homes.

“After a few weeks, I felt like I’d known some of the regulars for many years,” Ryan said. “They inspired me, we found common interests, we admired each other for our accomplishments. I care about those people.”

Connections: Crucial for Difficult Conversation

Formed to unite the public during civic and racial upheaval in Minneapolis and throughout the country, the program has tackled many difficult subjects. The friendly atmosphere of Brainstorming was crucial as participants navigated uncomfortable topics like death, family relationships, police violence, social injustice and more. 

Representatives from Muslim, Native American and other minority groups were featured, including Taneeza Islam, Executive Director of South Dakota Voices for Peace. She had a safe space to discuss the problematic formation of anti-Muslim hate groups in South Dakota.

A minority herself, she astutely summarized the root of America’s racism problem during her presentation. “I can’t build a relationship with someone who hates me.”

As the title of the program indicates, it’s the human connection that is perhaps most important. Therefore, it appears Diggs proved the supposition he posited a year ago: heart before head.

“The motivation we feel to connect with others comes more from what we feel about them than what we think about them,” he said.

Much work remains, but Brainstorming is a start.

“There is much to be learned and experienced going forward,” Sheldon said. “The Brainstorming Group has added a lot to my life.”

Subscribe for More Information 

SDHC welcomes new participants to the free program. Each weekly session is focused on a particular topic. Participants will also brainstorm ideas for facilitating civil conversations in their communities.

Sessions are held on Thursdays at 10:30 a.m. CDT.