Changing the Nature of Conferences and Gatherings in 3 Easy Steps

Over the past 6 months I have been to several conferences. Actually, over the course of my life I have been to a silly number of conferences, some of which I have helped organize. I have had moments of deciding they were a total waste of time, and I was never going to another one.

Until the next one which I have to attend for reasons either political, financial, or for outreach, or just cause I need something to off-set the sometimes isolating reality of being hopeful.

So, I want to write up some stuff I have observed about how to make conferences and gatherings more effective and transformative, since we need to come together.

I particularly want to speak to this having very recently come from the first  visioning session for the 11th Annual Allied Media Conference, which will be in Detroit July 16-19, 2009. The conference planners as a group were selected by Utne Magazine as one of 50 Visionaries. It is a hands-on, do-it-yourself conference with a fully functional media lab that has become an annual migration for cutting edge (or frontline) social justice communities to meet and explore media tactics. Young people, and folks on the margins of power, are the community of the conference. The goal is to increase their capacity to communicate horizontally, to tell their stories, outreach, and ultimately transform their communities. They walk out of the conference with tangible skills – how to create a low power FM radio station, how to facilitate, how to create a website, how to accurately survey within your community, how to tell digital stories.

It’s not a perfect conference, it’s a learning conference. It’s amazing for beginning and intermediate organizers who recognize the need for media to enhance their impact. We’re still figuring out how to support and evolve the work of advanced media organizers; and also on getting folks to understand that popular education is a political process, not just an interactive workshop.

The process we use to develop the Allied Media Conference is really exciting, because we engage deeply with communities and organizations who have come before, and groups, individuals and networks who we want to engage in the future. These groups have something to offer to the folks already there, and/or something to learn from the folks already there. The types of folks who come tend to be folks who are doing long-term work as a community and need ways to communicate with each other, and are hampered from communicating by economics, environment, or socialization.

We are all socialized towards communication that flows one way. At conferences, we are often victims of that socialization. The usual flow is that the planners get VERY excited about their conference’s potential, about the ideas that are going to be discussed, and they invite experts on the ideas, and set up panels and keynotes. The other flow is that gatherings are designed to increase a particular skillset, the planners identify experts at the skills, and those experts come to teach folks how to do their skill.

The result of this is that people, brilliant people who need to collaborate, build and learn with and from each other, instead come together to sit and consume, either someone else’s thoughts, or someone else’s methods. And sadly, experts are not necessarily compelling speakers, or inspiring, empowering trainers or facilitators. Occasionally there are small groups, but when these aren’t well-guided and facilitated and set-up, it just ends up like a tease with a report-back.

The way this feels when a group of amazing people come together in a format of panels, lectures, meetings is like being thirsty, and facing 50 or 100 or 4000 clear, seemingly unopenable containers full of water. We don’t have to do this anymore!

Here are 3 Easy Steps I think could improve EVERY conference or gathering in existence:

1. See facilitation as a GIFT

Facilitation is a really precise gift that some people have, and others can learn. Facilitation is not getting up and speaking at people, it’s not moderating, its not just asking questions…it’s actually holding and directing the energy of the room, and the energy of the conversation. It is a facilitator’s role to know what people want to walk away with, and not let them leave without it!

2. If people are together, give them something to do that they couldn’t do by phone, email, or snail mail.

This is becoming increasingly hard – folks can talk on the phone, folks can see a video of a speech, skype each other, tweet each other, folks can read a strategic plan or treatise that is complete. What they can’t necessarily do is really FEEL someone, be in direct conversation with an expert (peer, elder or younger), and have that beautiful and organic co-creation process. In the planning process, ask: could folks do this without us? This is a question that can really help open up the world of possibilities, and assess the need for a session, conference, or gathering. Make your offering unique and remarkable or don’t waste the resources (time, people, money, hope, interest).

3. Popular Education

Popular education is deeply related to and sometimes used interchangeably with the terms direct education and experiential education, depending on who you learn from. Pop ed is not just a cool tactic to spice up a workshop, its really the education model of the ancients and the future, as it proposes that humans are not empty vessels waiting to be filled, they are complex containers of experiences, tragedies, joy, learnings and skills and needs. When bringing people together in a space, if you do not treat them as empty vessels, then you will find they have much to pour into the space, much to exchange. While recognizing that we need space to share our experiences (the things that make us experts) appropriately, it is time for us to evolve to using popular education models when bringing people together.

And not faking it! Random networking sessions, or forced dialogue or pairings, that’s not it. Really setting an intention and building an agenda that is shaped around the potential and needs of the group is liberating for all. Especially when it makes the most of the time available 🙂

Open space technology, to me, is one way to try on popular education that can help a group start to identify the wealth of knowledge in their midst and prioritize which precious knowledge they want to prioritize.

There are sooooo many ways to improve gatherings, and it’s past time we did so. Holla with input, questions, I am serious about wanting to raise the general effectiveness of all gatherings.

“Together we are a genius,” but not if we don’t unleash it!