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Richmond Shipping Container Offers Opportunity To Connect with the World

Richmond's Andy Stefanovich speaks with facilitators of Mexico City's Portal
Inside a gold shipping container currently located in Monroe Park, Richmond's Andy Stefanovich speaks with Ciela Herce and Ezra Ruiz, facilitators of Mexico City's Portal. (Photo: Louise Ricks/WCVE) Louise Ricks/WCVE

A shipping container in Richmond’s Monroe Park offers residents a chance to meet people in places like Nairobi, Gaza City, Oberlin and Ithaca. Organizers say the Portal Project is a bridge to understanding, dialogue and unique collaborations. WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

Learn More: Find details about the global network of Portals run by Shared Studios and the schedule for Richmond's Portal


On the outside, the RVA Portal is a shimmery gold. Step inside the converted 8 x 20 shipping container and the sounds of Monroe Park fade away. In the darkened box, you come face to face with a life-size video connection to people thousands of miles away.

Portal founders wanted to create a way to strengthen global human networks. (Photo: Louise Ricks/WCVE)

Andy Stefanovich: How are you guys? So, we hung out in Mexico City...

Richmond’s Andy Stefanovich greets Ciela Herce and Ezra Ruiz, who facilitate Mexico City’s portal.

Stefanovich: Where we are right now is very different from where they are, they’re on one of the busiest street corners in the world.

I introduce myself and ask how people are using the portal in Mexico City.

Ezra Ruiz: On the weekends, we have a lot of families, they bring their children….

Ruiz says families and children come to practice their English; people talk about political issues in the US and Mexico; and musicians and dancers have performed.

Ruiz: So basically what we’re trying to do is get people to share their art, their opinions, their feelings and create this cultural exchange with people. This is something that was unthinkable 20 years ago, and now people can have a real conversation with someone from the U.S., meet new people, new mindsets, new friends even.

The portals are in about 40 cities around the world, and the idea came from two former journalists at CNN, Michelle Moghtader and Amar Bakshi. They started by connecting a portal in New York and one in Tehran. Moghtader says this was when the majority of news about Iran was about nuclear negotiations and sanctions.

Portal Founders Michelle Moghtader (left) and Amar Bakshi (right) and Jake Levin, COO (center). (Photo: Louise Ricks/WCVE)

Michelle Moghtader: So it’s exciting to be able to connect artists and musicians and have people speak about daily life and people came out and they were crying, some people said it was like therapy and so we realized there was this demand to have these intimate, organic conversations with people.

Amar Bakshi: When we launched it, we had this intuition that people felt alone and disconnected, that technology was driving us farther apart not together. That when we met people it’s to get a date or get a job, but not to fulfill a kind of basic human need. And so with Portals we see this, at a very human level people want to feel connected to those around them, they don’t want to live in a world where difference is a source of threat, and not strength and joy. But most people don’t get the benefits of globalization.

The project grew into Shared Studios with portals in more than 40 places, including cities in Germany, Sweden, Honduras, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and a refugee camp in Northern Iraq. There are portals in Texas, California, Colorado and Massachusetts. They’re staffed by “curators” who look for new ways to bring people together who might not normally meet.

Bakshi: We have a portal in inner city Milwaukee, highest Black male incarceration in the world and another in Greenwich, Connecticut which is one of the wealthiest zip codes. And those sites connected a fair amount and forged pretty unexpected friendships. So our curator in Milwaukee spent a good amount of time in jail, and is beloved by these young girls in Greenwich. And the way these groups see each other or when we connect to Iraqi displaced people and there are folks here who connect to them who were wearing Make America Great hats, you have people who you wouldn't think would meet do and they find ways to have these incredibly meaningful conversations.

The Milwaukee portal has facilitated conversations about race and policing, learning from people in Rwanda and Afghanistan.

Bakshi: It's another way of thinking. We think of expert knowledge coming down from a research paper, but people who live these things have these stories, have the knowledge to share with one another and connecting them, that yields I think the kinds of innovations we really need at the community level.

The portal's floor-to-ceiling video screen makes it feel like you're sharing the same physical space. (Photo: Louise Ricks/WCVE)

After experiencing a portal in Vancouver a few years ago, author and consultant Andy Stefanovich put the wheels in motion to bring one to Richmond. He says it’s a way to inspire the community.

Stefanovich: By virtue of bringing inspiration in from the world. Also, what I love is the idea of we can export our inspiration from this magical town with these great people and tell the world a little bit more about us because we deserve that message too.

Technology is often used to divide people. Stefanovich says these real-time exchanges across borders, cultures, and backgrounds show people they have more in common than they realize.

Stefanovich: I talk a lot about and I believe deeply in that there are ideas of the time and this is an idea of the time -- Emotion runs through me when I think about how powerful and how important it is for people to feel. And I think this gives feeling to people and so allowing people and children specifically to wander in and not know what they're going to experience but walk out having felt is nothing more important.

The Richmond portal is working with schools and nonprofits to develop creative ways to connect with other sites. There are open hours several times a week and themed conversations. Coming up is a drawing class with Mexico City, artists in Los Angeles discussing new work honoring Paul Robeson, and discussions with people in Berlin and Kigali about monuments. The Richmond Portal will stay in Monroe park until late April, then it will travel to another part of the city. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.

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