Alex La Torre of Camp Equity: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event
Gather meaningful feedback. As I mentioned earlier in the interview, one of the organizations I really admire excelled at connecting with and understanding what their community needed. Working for a newer organization in Camp Equity, we are much more in the process of actively building our community. We have quickly learned to employ the importance of gathering meaningful feedback. And not just post-event surveys, but also in using the polling functions during events. This is such a dynamic and easy way to have your attendees engage and it doesn’t rely on them finding time outside of the event to provide you with the feedback you need to improve.
As a part of our series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alex La Torre.
Alex La Torre is a bilingual educator, administrator, and advocate. She is currently the Chief of Staff at Camp Equity, a virtual camp that educates youth on social justice movements. Alex was born in Lima, Perú and immigrated to the US as a child. She attended Boston College where she studied Secondary Education, English, and Educational Theatre. Alex spent three years teaching, creating, and supervising programs and events in McCarter Theatre Center’s Education Department in central New Jersey. Her work has consisted of centering the arts and storytelling in all she does as a way to help people tell their own stories. Before she joined Camp Equity, Alex freelanced as a project coordinator, working with organizations such as the New York City Arts in Education Roundtable and the New Jersey Theatre Alliance.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I tend to think about my childhood in three chapters. I was born in Lima, Perú and immigrated to the US when I was seven years old. My childhood in Perú is my chapter one. I have so many memories of being surrounded by family and having huge birthday parties and holidays. Chapter two was when I first moved to the States. My family moved to Miami in order for my dad to pursue a Masters of Law at the University of Miami. I lived there for five years and did all of elementary school there. My chapter two was making new friends, learning a new language, and being a very avid reader — most notably, of Babysitters Club books. Chapter three came when my family moved from Miami to New Jersey. In New Jersey, I was in an immensely diverse community for the first time. As I began to enter the teenage years, those last few years of childhood were marked by really beginning to learn about other cultures and communities for the first time. I truly think I experienced more culture shock from Miami to New Jersey than I did when I first moved to the States.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
Education has basically always been what I wanted to do. I went through all of high school seeing myself eventually landing in the classroom. In classes where I found the content boring, I used to keep myself engaged by taking notes on my teachers’ teaching. Truly, I was 17 years old and writing “paces the room a lot instead of staying up at the board” in the margins of my notebooks. When I went to college, studying secondary education was a given. Where I am now is very much born out of the fact that I chose a Jesuit college. And those Jesuits love their social justice; at the core of everything was “being men and women for others.” As I continued to study education as well as theatre, I was constantly seeing where things weren’t fair. And I was in a primarily white environment for the first time in my life so a lot of that unfairness hit me all once. All of those layers came together to create a passion for theatre education, which is what I was pursuing prior to Camp Equity, and social justice education, where I find myself now.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
My student teaching days were prefaced by a lot of well-intentioned, but ultimately problematic, advice about how to “look” teacherly. Everything from wearing clothes on the more formal side, to using makeup, and just doing whatever I could in general to avoid being mistaken for a student. Now, for context, I stand at 5’ 2” on a good day. I had students that towered over me and I was certainly prone to blending in with groups of teenagers. So I thought this was all fair and solid advice and bought lots of pencil skirts and dresses and thought I was going to be one of those teachers whose shoes would click in the hallway so you would always hear her approaching. I don’t know why I thought this would be the case for even a second though because I am also just not a human who does well in heels! Inevitably, I eventually tripped in front of a class. We all had a good laugh about it but it rapidly taught me to just listen to myself. My gut knew the wardrobe I had purchased made for a fun shopping trip but was not authentic for me; I value comfort too much. And I also knew my ability to lead a classroom had nothing to do with my height or appearance. For the record, I’ve done plenty of embarrassing tripping in my life in flats too but it really is much easier to laugh at yourself when you’re living authentically.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
There are so many to choose from! I’m a huge podcaster in particular. One I’ve been loving lately is Code Switch from NPR. Specifically, they did an episode last summer on race and friendship and it changed so much for me. It aired on August 19, 2020 and was titled “Keep Your Friends Closer.” It presented data I found fascinating and personally validating to my own experiences and also told stories that really stretched my thinking. Having spent my adolescence and young adulthood in communities that were not highly populated by other Latinx folks, nearly all of my meaningful friendships today are cross-racial friendships. That episode gave me a tool to use in those friendships. I made friends listen to it so we could talk about it. When I had difficult feelings come up that were motivated by having my culture side-stepped or not acknowledged, I felt like I had the language to label it for what it was. It helped me see the color blindness that had been happening in my friendships and both do better myself and help others do better, too. It is so powerful to feel seen and this podcast did just that.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Another one where there are so many greats to choose from! One that has been particularly resonating with me lately is an Audre Lorde quote about self-care, “I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self-indulgent. Caring for myself is an act of survival.” It’s been really relevant to me as someone who has a tendency to really burn herself out. Which, of course I do! We live in a society that tends to demand that of us. So the reminder that caring for oneself is integral to survival is a very important one to me.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing events in general?
I basically realized I had an event organizing approach to any sort of group gathering in hindsight! I was a stage manager in the theatre world on top of my classroom experience and I realized the way I ran a classroom or a meeting or a rehearsal had so much to do with wanting to create a safe and fun space where people felt engaged and interested in what was going on. This made planning events come really naturally to me. Whether it was a mixer or a celebration of a completed project, my framework was always similar: always asking myself what the purpose was — what did I want attendees to walk away with? And what were ways to create connection amongst attendees?
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
A lot of my virtual event organizing comes from my current work at Camp Equity. We’re an organization that runs “camps” for youth from all over the country on a variety of social justice issues. These camps get lived experience non-profit leaders in front of kids to talk about their work and their story — and it’s all done virtually. Our programs are really about supporting the next generation of social change leaders with an emphasis on empathy and lived experience. So we bring all of these campers from around the country together and they end up creating this amazing community while hearing from these different guest instructors every week who are doing the on-the-ground work. Even though there are overarching curricular goals to consider, we quickly realized that each week and each speaker was its own event. Knowing that so many of our campers were in virtual school and really facing “Zoom burnout” we had to get creative about not making camp feel like some other class or any other Zoom meeting. We definitely tried out a few different things and took some leaps as to what we thought would resonate with our campers but I think the most interesting and pleasant surprise has been using music! My favorite reoccurring thing to see is when an attendee recognizes the song and has their camera on while they fully jam out. We change up songs used every week and get input from our guest instructors so when they hear a song they know and love, attendees immediately make the connection that it’s something they already have in common with the instructor who is about to speak.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job creating live virtual events? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
An organization I deeply admire and whose virtual events I’ve just adored is the New York City Arts in Education Roundtable. Their virtual events were the first I attended during the pandemic that felt like they capitalized on the virtual space and didn’t just try to force an in-person model to fit into a Zoom room. They host a fantastic conference every April in New York for arts educators and administrators and it was rapidly and impressively moved online for 2020. I was specifically impressed by the way each event, workshop, and talk given at this virtual conference clearly responded to the needs of the community. It might seem like trite advice but I think the best way to replicate that is to know your audience. Spend time figuring what they need, not what you think they need. Every event I attended made use of the chat in a thoughtful way, invited such authenticity from panelists and speakers as well as attendees, and ultimately served such a clear purpose.
What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to run a live virtual event? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The most common mistake I’ve seen is trying to go too big. What I mean by that is getting really excited about our newfound ability to reach anyone anywhere and not thinking specifically enough about your target audience. In a pre-COVID world, your event was in a space and that space had a physical capacity, right? That meant you wanted to do a great job marketing to a specific group of people that would literally fit in the space you had. Now, you can host limitless people in a virtual room and it can almost feel silly to not take advantage of that. However, I think that’s exactly where I see organizations tripping themselves up. You still have a target community. I see so many events described really broadly to attract as many people as possible. They’re clearly so excited about expanding their reach but then you show up to an event and it doesn’t feel like it’s really for you. Or the actual point of the event gets all muddled in having to cater to too broad of a group. Just because you can host hundreds and hundreds of people, doesn’t mean you have to. Taking the moment to really ask yourself, what does a successful event mean to me? What would it look like? Is reach the most important thing (which for the record, totally valid if it is) or is creating a smaller but more curated space more important to me? What am I actually trying to do with this event? I’ve attended events where it was clear no one slowed down enough to ask those questions and I think so many errors could have been avoided by that.
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
So personally, I’ve really grown to love and feel comfortable with Zoom. For me, the ease of using breakout rooms, changing the chat limitations easily while a meeting is live, recording, polling, etc. All of those are tools that have definitely served me and served us at Camp Equity really well. It’s not perfect and I’d love to see accessibility functions be more user friendly but it has absolutely helped us bring everyone together virtually.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
I do love that Google Meet’s captioning functions are so easy to discover and use. The ability on Zoom to pre-create breakout rooms has also been one that has saved me a ton of time once I discovered it. For larger events where you may want to create breakout rooms randomly in the moment or even have attendees self-select into rooms, Zoom also makes that pretty intuitive. Can you tell how much I love breakout rooms? I also always recommend event organizers, especially first-time organizers, take the time to play around with all sorts of settings — even if you don’t think you’ll use them. Screen sharing settings, audio sharing, screen sharing from a phone, captioning, recording, etc. I haven’t yet connected with someone who was doing the same amount of virtual events pre-pandemic so that means we’re all always discovering and trying new things and that’s part of what I love about the virtual event space.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. An in-person event can have a certain electric energy. How do you create an engaging and memorable event when everyone is separated and in their own homes? What are the “Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Ok! Let’s get into it.
1.) Spend time workshopping the title and description for your event. Titling your event well and clearly is something that is often overlooked — you want your attendees to accurately self-identify that your event is an event for them. Creating that “buy in” before the event is all the more important in a virtual space. Before, people had to get in the car and drive or choose to spend time on public transportation to get to events. This naturally created an opportunity to ask, “is this something I really want to go to?” Now, it is all too easy to just register for something because it sounds fun and doesn’t take much effort and then choose to not actually log on because you think, “well they’ll probably share the recording” or you’d just rather finish binge-watching the latest thing to drop on Netflix (totally understandable!). Creating a dynamic and accurately titled and described event helps encourage that follow-through from registration to actually attending.
The last program we ran at Camp Equity was titled “Celebrating Black Lives: Examining History, Uplifting Joy, and Building Power” — this set such a clear expectation for what would be happening throughout the program. The campers that attended were eager and ready to do just that. It set the expectation for the joy and community but also that we’d be getting into some hard things and really looking closely at history and a variety of Black experiences.
2.) Use music! And not just any music. Choose music that is meaningful to the host or speaker. Music by artists aligned with your cause. Music that gets people wiggling in their own desk chairs. This is such a phenomenal way to create instant connection for those who may know a song or curiosity for those who don’t. Play it as people come “into” your virtual space and during transition moments like going into breakout rooms or waiting for all panelists to log on. Make sure music is adding to the event and helping you establish a tone.
My favorite moments that have been born out of this is watching the chat explode as people recognize a song or guess who the artist is. Set the example as the host by having your camera on and lip syncing along — encourage your staff to do the same! If you’re going for a more serious mood, share why this song was important to you in the chat. This can lead to a really wonderful point of connection and discussion if jamming out at your event doesn’t work for you.
3.) Make the most out of chat. Which doesn’t just mean “use chat a lot.” We’ve all been on a virtual event where the chat just gets to be overwhelming. Texts goes by so quickly that we stop bothering to read the responses and some folks can’t simultaneously engage with what’s happening in the chat and listen to what a host or speaker is saying. This means be specific about when you prompt attendees to use the chat. Maybe you want them to say where they’re logging in from when they sign on? Or share a fact about themselves? When you ask folks to engage in the chat, be mindful of giving space to engage with it. If you want people to share longer responses or stories, maybe pop some music back on to give attendees a moment to read what other people are saying. Also, don’t be afraid to turn the chat function off strategically. Chat is such an important tool for accessibility so I don’t like to recommend turning it off for the entirety of an event. But you might find turning it off for a few minutes can help you further curate the energy of your event.
It took me a while to learn the beauty of chat, especially when I so craved the visual and audio cues of engagement that I had come to rely on for in-person events. I wanted to hear people laughing or see people smiling to know they were interested. When attendees had cameras off or looked like they were multitasking, this made it difficult to gauge whether or not things were going well. My favorite chat story came from a smaller event — maybe only 20 or so people? I was getting some visual feedback from the few folks that did have the cameras off but there was one young person who would turn their camera on and then immediately turn it off as if changing their mind. All of a sudden, they are in the chat with the most thoughtful questions and reactions to what I was saying. It was so simple but really helped me redefine how meaningful chat could be. Their contribution triggered a conversation I never could have facilitated on my own. It was a wonderful moment of creating community.
4.) Clearly outline who does behind-the-scenes tasks. First, make sure you understand what your behind-the-scenes tasks will be. Will you be using music? Does a presenter have to screenshare? Are you utilizing a waiting room? Will the chat be on or off? Are you doing live captioning? Using breakout rooms? What if a speaker doesn’t show — who will reach out to them? There are so many questions to consider and it’s really important to create a team that can adequately support your virtual event. If you’re a one-person-band, that doesn’t mean this is impossible — it just means you have to do a lot of thinking ahead. Either way, these questions need to be considered. When you find yourself asking these questions during an event, you end up learning these lessons in somewhat stressful ways.
Doing this work makes a huge difference. For example, when I was originally brought on to the Camp Equity team it came out of realizing that more support was needed during events. We worked together to identify key roles that had to be covered: who was emceeing, who was creating breakout rooms and providing technical support, and who was playing music and monitoring the chat and ensuring attendees stayed engaged. With a larger staff, we would be making different choices; with a smaller staff, we might have needed to pare down on some of what we wanted to do during events. Clearly outlining who was in charge of all the small details of running the virtual space completely changed the flow of the event. We did that by creating a script/detailed outline of what is happening and when. It allowed the person talking to not have to deal with other distractions and it allowed attendees to get their voices heard much more quickly, keeping them all the more engaged.
5.) Gather meaningful feedback. As I mentioned earlier in the interview, one of the organizations I really admire excelled at connecting with and understanding what their community needed. Working for a newer organization in Camp Equity, we are much more in the process of actively building our community. We have quickly learned to employ the importance of gathering meaningful feedback. And not just post-event surveys, but also in using the polling functions during events. This is such a dynamic and easy way to have your attendees engage and it doesn’t rely on them finding time outside of the event to provide you with the feedback you need to improve.
I’ve used the polling functions for everything from time management (do you want to spend more time on this topic?) to gathering metrics on the audience that showed up (maybe you want to know the age groups present to compare them to the age groups that registered for your event?) to asking silly get-to-know-you questions — if you really want things to get heated, ask a group of people if they’re team soft shell tacos or hard shell tacos. In my experience, you’ll see laughing faces on screens and read very emotional defenses about crunch factor in the chat. (Team hard-shell tacos, all the way.)
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a live virtual event that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
I would recommend they start with what I consider to be the hardest step — ask yourself, why is this event necessary for my community? How do I know that? We are living in an age where screen fatigue is rampant. The fact is, if your event idea is not truly going to offer something new or needed to a group of people, it might not be the idea you end up following through on. Stopping to ask that question could completely validate your exciting idea or it might make you see that there’s actually another need to be met. If your virtual event is working to meet a need — whether that’s to educate or entertain or anything else — you are already set up for success in a way that many aren’t. After you’ve asked those questions, the fun stuff can start! I always recommend you find at least one other person to help make the event come alive. Having a second brain will help catch things you might not see and offer other ideas for what attendees might consider fun and engaging. With a solid goal in mind and at least one person cheering you on and supporting you, you will undoubtedly be on your way to a successful live virtual event.
Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Big question indeed! I think I would lead a movement that ties back to the Audre Lorde quote I mentioned earlier. I really do believe that true self-care is radical. But really it would be a movement about destigmatizing mental health issues and making mental healthcare accessible to everyone and a genuine priority for not just individuals but companies and governments. There is so much mental health talk nowadays but what are people actually doing? What are the actual practices or options available to folks? Are you allowed to take a mental health day at your workplace? Are people still saying “therapist” like it’s a bad word? Is your local school district prioritizing mental health resources for their students? Or are they telling them they support them while also having no school counselors or extraordinarily overburdened ones? If we can’t take care of our brains and access rest and joy, then what is any of the other stuff we’re doing even for? I see first-hand how all of this also affects and trickles down to our youth and think there incredible good to be found in talking about mental health in authentic ways.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
So many folks I DREAM of meeting. Can I sorta cheat and say a duo? I would love a conversation with Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens. They are the co-founders of the Conscious Kid which is a truly fantastic organization and Instagram page that I really think has been on the forefront of anti-racist youth work. The two of them have built something really special and they do phenomenal education, research, and policy work also. Most notably for me, I think they model the fact that there is no “right” way to do this work. That we’re going to make mistakes. And that the best way to work with youth and have them develop a really healthy racial identity is by modeling that it is an ongoing process that the grown-ups don’t have all figured out either.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.