Shared Studios, a nonprofit in New York, sets up face to face conversations with people around the world -- but no one has to travel a mile.
They do it through something called Portals. They’re small spaces connected by life size video. There’s a single portal in Virginia, and for two weeks it is outside a high school in Henrico County.
The portal sits outside Freeman High School in Henrico. A sign out front advertises upcoming connections in Afghanistan, Honduras and Mexico.
“It is a big golden shipping container with one entrance… pretty dark in there and there are lights,” describes curator Hicham Benhallam, who helps run the space.
Inside a projector on one wall connects people in the small space to others just like it around the world. It’s an intimate experience, each person cut off from their surroundings and standing life-size in front of someone else.
“I’ve had like some of the most meaningful conversations of my entire life in the portal,” says senior Emily Carder. “I’ve learned to salsa, danced with refugees from Congo, someone rapped in French to my best friend.”
Carder was inspired to bring the portal to her high school after using it multiple times at its former location at Monroe Park in downtown Richmond.
“I remember walking out absolutely shocked that I could communicate and relate so deeply to someone in such a short period of time across the world,” says Carder.
On a recent morning that across the world connection is to a couple people in Herat, Afghanistan. About a dozen girls, members of a female mentorship club, are here to connect to another young woman in the Middle East.
“Just one more question for you guys,” the young woman on the other end of the connection asks the crowd. “What comes in your mind when you hear Afghanistan?”
Jala Bennett, a senior at Freeman, pipes up. She thinks of family and hospitality. One of her best friends is from Afghanistan.
“They’re always so welcoming and I love the food,” she says. Everyone laughs.
This is just one moment in an hour of conversation. They talk about food, but also politics, social media and women’s empowerment. At the end they gather in front of the screen to take a photo together. Just as if they were in the same room.
After it’s all done the group of students goes back to a classroom to debrief about the experience.
Bennett, the senior who raved about Afghan food, says she felt a strong connection with the young woman in Afghanistan. She talked a lot about how she wants to be a leader in her community and Bennett related.
“That’s how I am!” Bennett says excitedly. “With black culture! I want to make sure students feel comfortable in any environment and go out in the world and just feel like their best self at all times.”
Fostering those connections and building empathy is exactly the point of the portal, explains resource and innovation instructor Jessica Ciokan.
Before she helped organize the portal to come here, Ciokan surveyed Freeman’s 1,800 students. She found out that more than half of them have never been outside Virginia.
“We can fill students' heads with facts and they can regurgitate them back to us, but providing them with an opportunity like this... just increasing their world view enables them to relate to others who are not like them,” Ciokan says. “The world needs more of that.”
The portal will be at Freeman High School through the end of the month. It’s open to the public this weekend with connections scheduled for Honduras, Nigeria and Rwanda.