If you want to see what’s going on at the United Nations, you have to log in and watch the proceedings virtually. Some of its meetings have been held in person, but spectators are not being allowed right now because of the coronavirus pandemic.
For the annual Model United Nations conference, held Nov. 16-17 in Jackson, an exercise in diplomacy for high school students from around the region, there were some parallels. There were no in-person meetings during the event; instead delegations convened virtually, a new experience.
Secretary General Annika Peacock, a Jackson Hole High School senior, gave a keynote speech in which she spoke of the importance of maintaining the Model U.N. in the face of such challenges. In a world that can seem more divided than ever, its implicit lessons carry even more value.
“Model U.N. teaches everyone to compromise and listen to other people and validate everyone’s opinions,” Peacock told the News&Guide. “So, I thought it was really important to make clear why we’re doing Model U.N. online.”
In a typical year, students from Wyoming and Idaho flood Jackson Hole High School, spreading out in classrooms for committee meetings and filling the auditorium for the General Assembly. Committees draft resolutions, hashing out the details of thorny global problems, and bring them to the assembly for votes.
For the virtual format InterConnections 21, the Jackson nonprofit that organizes the Model U.N. conference, chose to use Gatherly, an online event platform in which people can break out into small groups or come together in main “rooms.” Using Gatherly instead of something like Zoom was meant to allow the proceedings to feel as normal as possible.
“We chose this so that the students can flow in between groups with each other when they’re trying to form their alliances and put together their resolutions,” said Lindsey Ehinger, executive director of Interconnections 21. “So that way it kind of mimics an actual conference.”
On the first day of Model U.N., Gatherly worked great, Ehinger and Peacock said. Students navigated the format easily, and they were able to bounce between the areas they needed to.
But Tuesday was a different story.
“Tuesday, things really fell apart,” Peacock said.
With Gatherly dysfunctional, committee chairs and the rest of the student senior management group threw an audible, moving everything onto Zoom. Though it wasn’t perfect, they made do and finished the conference with the General Assembly, where they voted on a number of resolutions.
One of the main tenets of Model U.N. is fostering connections between students at different schools and developing a sense of global citizenship and compromise. That’s certainly easier when participants can sit face to face and discuss issues like nuclear treaties or combating vaccine hesitancy in person.
“In past years I’ve always enjoyed being in person and really getting to know other people’s countries, opinions and positions,” Mountain Academy senior Erica Bowditch said. “Instead, it was just, I feel, a little bit more removed, but still very much enjoyable.”
Switching gears on the fly does help simulate the way diplomacy happens. International affairs are rarely linear, so having to scramble is an apt corollary.
For students like Peacock and Bowditch, the virtual format this year worked fine, but even as they prepare to graduate from high school this year, they hope those who come behind them can return to the in-person conference, with regional students in their finest duds, as soon as possible.
Either way, the students next year will have their chance to conduct global business — unpredictability and all.