After years of running Cucalorus Connect, an annual conference that explored the intersection of technology and startups with social justice and humanity, Cucalorus is shifting the conference to focus more on conversations around pressing social issues and less on technology.
The current events surrounding racial injustice encouraged Cucalorus planners to approach the Connect conference through a different lens.
“What I’m most proud of is that we’ve been reflexive and adaptable and willing to change what Connect is, and that’s been driven by the changing nature of the world around us,” said Dan Brawley, the festival’s head. “George Floyd and the movements that are happening all around us, around undoing racism, certainly inspired us to take this evolving container within Cucalorus and be responsive to what’s happening. And luckily we had this container that was adaptable.”
This year’s Cucalorus Connect conference, Nov. 16-20, will be virtual because of the coronavirus pandemic. The theme “Community Conversations on Race” will explore how racism impacts people on an everyday basis and how storytelling and action can create change.
The conference will include one session every day via Zoom at 2 p.m. The format for some of the sessions will include the screening of a film at the beginning followed by a discussion with the community.
The conference will be like the Community Conversation series Cucalorus started earlier this year.
“Instead of a panel where you listen to a quote-unquote expert, what we want is folks from the community to be able to come together and talk to each other,” he said. “There will be policymakers there. And the hope is that policymakers will have a chance to hear from people in the community and that the outcome will be a shift in the way policymakers think.”
The lineup includes “From Hardship to Hope,” featuring the screening of Negros led by Ebony Golden; “Housing Justice” and “StoryShift Accountable Storytelling,” both led by Working Films; “Impolite Conversations about race, education, justice and health,” featuring a panel of local leaders; and “Leadership: Today’s Decisions, Tomorrow’s Reality” with the screening of Future Ancestors.
This year’s schedule was curated by Kevin Maurer, author and director of community engagement for Cape Fear Collective, and Rebecca Trammel, advocate and community organizer with Community Conversations and other organizations.
“In the midst of confusion and division, Cucalorus is creating space for perspective and proximity. We are zooming in on the problem of racism, the people who are most directly impacted and to policymakers who can affect systemic progress in our community,” Trammel said.
While the conference is stepping away from technology and entrepreneurship, it does not mean the topics are out of the Cucalorus frame.
Two popular Connect sessions, the 10x10 Challenge, which paired startups with filmmakers who were challenged to create a promotional video, and Rocket Pitches, which introduced innovative startups to an audience, may be moving to a separate event in the spring, Brawley said.
“We have a strong partnership with UNCW CIE [Center for Innovation Entrepreneurship] doing programs throughout the year together,” he said. “I think it’s an ongoing conversation about what that could look like next year to have 10x10, the Rocket Pitches and maybe some of the other more business-focused aspects of what we’ve done at Cucalorus Connect over the last five years in a different container.”
Cucalorus added the Connect conference in 2015 and focused primarily on startup ventures its first year. The transition to its emphasis on social justice has been years in the making.
“The bigger move was probably last year when half of the events really shifted from being around entrepreneurship and technology to being more about social justice,” Brawley said. “And this year we’ve just completed that transition.
Furthermore, Cucalorus is hoping to make the three sections of the festival – stage, film and connect – more seamless, he said.
“The other thing that we’re hoping is that the boundaries between film, stage and connect become blurred. We have a keynote that’s almost part of our stage program this year,” Brawley said.
This year’s keynote speaker is Kristina Wong, a comedian, theater performer and actor who delves into themes regarding race, sex and privilege.
“Our goal is to hold an engaging conference that galvanizes the Cucalorus community around change,” Maurer said. “We want to open up the minds of the Cucalorus community to inequity and systemic issues plaguing our nation to create the foundation on which we can build future Connect conferences, using this year as the beginning of a multi-year effort to strengthen connections towards the long-term goal of undoing racism.”