Pondering ‘public engagement’ as Beltane Online Resources Intern

Beltane Online Resource Intern, Maggie, at TEDxUniversityofEdinburgh

Beltane Online Resource Intern, Maggie, at TEDxUniversityofEdinburgh

The beginning of June I commenced my internship as ‘Online Resources Intern’ for Beltane, alongside fellow undergraduate student Jakov. As I familiarise myself with the Beltane Public Engagement Network, I’m constantly asking myself “what is the relevance of public engagement to my life?”

“what is the relevance of public engagement to my life?”

I recently finished my third year studying International Relations at the University of Edinburgh and first heard about Beltane through my experience as Volunteer Co-coordinator for TEDxUniversityofEdinburgh. In delivering TEDx to the University of Edinburgh on 22nd February 2013, Beltane partnered with EUSA Global and the Global Academies to provide advice, resources, and the know-how to form a truly memorable TEDx experience. The speaker training coordinated by Beltane and revealed in a Masterclass prior to the big day gave me the impression that ‘public engagement’ signifies conveying your knowledge through speech. On the behind-the-scene organising side of TEDxUniversityofEdinburgh, I felt notably inferior to the heroes on stage speaking at the event. The speakers were the ones that lived and breathed public engagement, and they alone were the ones that made complex topics understandable to the public.

I was mistaken. Now in the post-event reflection stage, it is clear to me that ‘public engagement’ is individual. As much as knowing the methods of how to engage with the public, through speech as one example, it is knowing how and for what purpose you want to foster connections between yourself and others around you. While I wasn’t the hero on stage at TEDxUniversityofEdinburgh, I was able to contribute to a team that, through collaboration, achieved its goal of generating ideas and enthusiasm around the theme of ‘Global Challenges, Grounded Solutions’.

Throughout the organising process, it was undoubtedly empowering to contribute to a team of like-minded and highly experienced individuals. However, it wasn’t until 22nd February, when months of hard work culminated in the big event, that I fully understood my individual role in public engagement. My task was to lead the team of volunteers, allocating jobs and ensuring that they were carried out. I would hardly say coordinating volunteers went without a hitch, but it was a true learning experience. More than telling people what to do or making sure everyone was in the correct location, it was fundamental that all involved felt some sense of purpose and place. In this sense, public engagement is something that must stick. It must leave all involved with, as I said, a sense of purpose and achievement. That means that public engagement does not hinge only on those speaking on the stage at a large event, but also on the process of planning and event development that transforms individuals and the team as a whole.

As such, public engagement, while being individual, is also public. A seemingly obvious observation, but no less pivotal. This is where post-event reflection proves even more important. While speakers and organisers must reflect on the process and end result, audience and volunteer feedback is what completes the chain of public engagement. Now having agreed to take on the role of Event Co-coordinator for next year’s TEDxUniversityofEdinburgh event, I find myself constantly considering how to improve the experience of all, and especially how to extend the ethos of TEDx beyond the day-long event, embedding it within public engagement initiatives at the university, and beyond!

In interning with Beltane this summer, I am not solely looking to revamp Beltane’s webpage, as my job title suggests. I am hopeful that I will learn how to apply my learning from the role of Volunteer Coordinator to the development of initiatives for public engagement that are more accessible and inspiring for all. In doing so, I hope to translate my experiences with Beltane’s network to others that similarly mistake ‘public engagement’ as exclusive to the heroic speakers on stage. Public engagement is individual as much as it is public.