Q&A with Shared_Studios

Doha Debates
December 14, 2018

Doha Debates is excited to partner with Shared_Studios to amplify a new generation of voices and connect the world to solve global challenges. Shared_Studios is the creative team behind the iconic walk-in Portals, a network of gold-colored shipping containers with video-conference equipment for people to step inside and speak across the globe. With more than 40 Portals worldwide, Shared_Studios is installing a new one in Doha to give Qatar’s population an exciting platform for face-to-face conversations. When you enter a Portal, you’ll see someone in a distant Portal as if you’re in the same room, with drop-in hours and scheduled sessions for curated conversations. We spoke with Shared_Studios’ co-founders, Amar Bakshi and Michelle Moghtader, to hear how Portals work and what’s unique about the Doha installation.

Q: Amar and Michelle, how do Portals fulfill your vision of a connected world, and how do they fit with Doha Debates’ goal of solving global challenges?

AMAR: We believe in the power of diversity and human connectivity to enrich lives. That’s why we are on a mission to connect the world in an inclusive, authentic and truly global conversation. Our mission dovetails closely with that of Doha Debate because it’s only when people from diverse perspectives engage in authentic dialogue that lasting progress in human affairs is possible.

We have Portals around the world at diverse sites, including universities, refugee camps, downtown plazas, museums and tech hubs. And all of these Portals are staffed by people we call Portal_Curators. These curators take the connective technology we have — which too often isolates us in like-minded bubbles — and redeploy it to connect people who might otherwise never meet. We’re creating a purposeful, human-led network to push against the forces driving us into insular groups. Having Doha in this network is critical. We’re thrilled to have a Portal in Doha with Doha Debates.

Q: How can face-to-face, personalized conversations solve crises around the world?

AMAR: So much of how we learn is unidirectional: a YouTube clip, a TV show, a news broadcast. That’s one source of knowledge, but to have an actual dialogue with people reveals so much more. When people are face to face, they strive to find common ground. This makes these conversations, most times, far more productive than unidirectional encounters. This doesn’t mean people will agree, but they will have a very different experience from just receiving information, sitting back and saying, “That confirms my beliefs.” If you’re in a face-to-face conversation, you’re not likely to just tune someone out. You’re likely to engage and open up.

MICHELLE: For many people entering the Portal, it’s the first time they’re speaking to anyone from that other country. The Portal personalizes the encounter and adds that human element that statistics and news stories often leave out. Refugees in Jordan are now friends with hip-hop singers in Milwaukee through the Portal.

AMAR: The Portal forges new friendships, collaborations and alliances. For example, the Portal in Milwaukee, USA, connects to Herat, Afghanistan. In Herat, people have been dealing with tribal violence for a long time. And in the Amani community in Milwaukee, where our Portal is, people have been dealing with gang violence. Through the Portal, local leaders in Milwaukee learned about efforts in Herat, Afghanistan, to mediate conflict. And in connecting to Kigali, Rwanda, residents in Milwaukee learned about how, after the genocide, Kigali implemented Gacaca courts for restorative, community-centered justice. Grassroots leaders in Milwaukee took these lessons and set up a similar system of community mediation. This is what you learn through Portals — solutions from people grappling directly with a challenge every day.

“The Portal personalizes the encounter and adds that human element that statistics and news stories often leave out.”

Q: You have Portals in over 40 locations. What’s unique about the Portal coming to Doha?

MICHELLE: It’s our first long-term Portal in the region, which is very exciting! Just as we were launching Portals, I was based in the UAE, and I would speak to people in Kuwait and Lebanon, asking, “Do you guys want a Portal?” It’s really exciting to see, five years later, that here we are, with a long-term Portal presence.

In one Portal in Washington, DC, we had a drone pilot who’d flown over parts of Afghanistan, speaking for the first time with an Afghan. These kinds of engagements are unexpected and powerful. In Rwanda, we had students getting questions like, “Tell us about the genocide,” and the students were like, “We want to ask you questions, like why do you have all these guns in the U.S.?” And the U.S. students were kind of put on the spot to answer. How do you explain that to somebody who doesn’t live there? What’s one person’s “normal” is not another person’s normal, and it’s important for that to be challenged, questioned.

AMAR: With Doha Debates, we’re keen on recording some of these Portal conversations — obviously with permission of all participants — and creating content that takes a powerful experience and inspires us to engage people unlike ourselves.

Q: The first season of Doha Debates covers politically charged topics that people have passionate feelings about. How can Portals keep the conversations going constructively?

MICHELLE: By telling people to start with a very simple question in the Portal, like “What would make today a good day for you?” We give them this simple, almost mundane prompt, but it’s very personal. I remember this young woman in Iran answered, “If it rains! Rain would make this a good day,” and a girl in the U.S. asked, “Why rain? It’s terrible when it rains,” and in Iran she said, “Well, the city is really polluted and it’s worsened over the years because of sanctions, and we can’t get the proper refined oil in the country, so what we put in our cars makes it really hard to breathe. But when it rains, it finally clears up a little.”

They’re talking about a very complex issue — sanctions, nuclear talks — but in a personal way. Having that somewhat awkward conversation is memorable! You can stay in for 20 minutes, which is important for a nuanced dialogue. We even have violin classes in Portals connecting Colorado and Rwanda, and classes connecting Erbil, Iraq, and Andover, Massachusetts. People may not speak the same language, so we have dance prompts in Portals, like this group in Gaza teaching dance to high school kids at Lollapalooza.

AMAR: What’s so fascinating about the Portal is, when you’re in the Portal, you’re constructing a new norm for the space because its norms are not totally defined. We’re creating them together in this digital-physical space.

On our staff we have people who recently got out of jail, people who live in refugee camps or fled conflict, museum curators, students, entrepreneurs, and they’re all working together every day to create this global community. This has to be one of the most diverse global projects in history.