The History of the Interactivity Foundation

May 30, 2024

The Interactivity Foundation was first incorporated in 1965 by Jay Stern, a West Virginia businessman, whose significant contributions continue to fund the Foundation’s activities. In 1987, the name was changed from the “Upper Ohio Valley Self Help Foundation” to the “Interactivity Foundation.”

Jay’s career as a banker ended dramatically in 1981, when he donated his majority stake in the Wood County Bank to the U.S. government in protest over what he thought were usurious interest rate policies by the Federal Reserve. Born to German-Jewish immigrants in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, Jay also worked in the family’s chain of retail stores, Stern Bros., Inc. He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1935 and met his future wife, Margaret Grant Robertson, a native of Sydney, Australia, while serving in World War II.

Read more about the story of Jay Stern’s life in his biography, here.

Julius “Jay” Stern: A Biography (Hopkinson, 2010)

After several experiments in the 1990s, IF refocused efforts in 2001 and hired a cohort of Fellows to manage developmental discussion projects to produce “citizen discussion guides.” Employing the IF Exploratory Methods Approach, these discussion projects brought together discussion panels of experts and generalists to imagine the far-reaching implications of various, emerging topics of public concern. From fresh water to K-12 education, from agri-culture to the media, these discussion projects explored collective concerns and envisioned possible pathways forward.

More than 20 years later, IF has managed over 50 discussion projects and produced dozens of discussion guides. These guides have been used to help structure hundreds of discussions across more than 40 states and abroad. Today, IF continues this experiment through the Sustained Discussions Program. In 2024, IF relaunched this program with a new cohort of Visiting Fellows. However, instead of creating “citizen discussion guides,” IF continues in the spirit of experimentation, a core value of the Foundation, and now focuses on crafting more innovative and interactive discussion tools and resources.

In addition to the Sustained Discussions Program, IF also advances two additional mission initiatives: Collaborative Learning & Community Conversations.

In 2005, and under the leadership of Jay’s successor, Jack Byrd, Jr., IF began focusing on educational initiatives. The role of education in developing engaged and whole citizens was a core focus of Margaret Stern and a topic she discussed regularly with Jack. Honoring her legacy, IF began developing curriculum for student-centered classrooms and student facilitation training. IF hosted a series of Summer Institutes for faculty and administrators, offered campus trainings, and partnered with dozens of universities and colleges.

Today, the Collaborative Learning initiative focuses on developing interactive learning materials, such as the Path to Purpose: Interactive Journal. This educational initiative also supports the Collaborative Discussion Project, a community of educators working together to advance collaborative intelligence through innovative learning activities, workshops, and certificate programs. IF is also experimenting with K12 partnerships and working with community-centered institutions of learning to help advance cultures of dialogue beyond the classroom. Current IF President, Shannon Wheatley Hartman, continues to work regularly with Jack and a growing community of educators to advance this initiative.

In 2007, IF initiated a third mission initiative: Community Conversations. Employing discussion guides and other innovative discussion tools, IF began conducting exploratory discussions through community-focused partnerships. With the support of local libraries, museums, retirement communities, and civic organizations, IF has hosted, and helped others to host, hundreds of community-based discussions on emerging topics of public concern. Unlike the Sustained Discussions Program or Collaborative Learning Initiative, these community conversations are designed to offer an opportunity for people to come together in more casual spaces. This initiative supports community members to explore topics together and, consequently, build the civic infrastructure necessary for everyday democratic discussion. IF has worked with specific communities over the years to offer facilitation training, resources, and consultation to help communities come together and figure out what matters most to them.

Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of the Interactivity Foundation. For six decades, IF has focused on engaging everyday citizens in the work of democracy building. IF has experimented with different ways of doing this over the years, developing new processes, pedagogy, and methods. IF has also expanded from one core program to three flagship programs. Despite incredible growth, IF continues to remain humbled and honored to advance the core values and aspirations of its founders, Jay and Margaret Stern.

Learn more about What We Do.