Peace Island Conference

December 10, 2008 | Leave a Comment

Category: Activism

I attended the Peace Island Conference (PIC) that took place in St. Paul during the Republican National Convention.  Marcia, Laurel and I, as co-directors of the Peace, Justice and Environment Project, attend several conferences over the course of the year.  We are usually tabling, sometimes conducting workshops, occasionally speaking.

The usual format is speakers and workshops.  Workshops are usually constituency-based with topics designed to appeal to the folks attending the event.  Often there are eight or more workshops running concurrently, resulting in several with 2 or 3 people attending.  It is not uncommon that workshops are created to encourage a particular group or interest to attend the event.  Far more workshops are created than is reasonable to beef up the attendance numbers at a conference.  For example, 40 workshops can mean at least 40 more conference attendees conducting workshops.

At the Peace Island Conference, there were no workshops.  Instead there were breakouts.

The unique way (in my experience) that the PIC was designed was that a speaker’s section with four speakers was followed by breakout sessions with each speaker assigned a room.  In the speaker’s session, one person was assigned about 45 minutes to talk, followed by three additional speakers talking for about fifteen minutes.  One theme was carried through all presenters, sustainability, for example, which then got carried into the breakouts.  The breakouts were very well attended.  As many as 300 people might attend the main assemblies; then, they were broken up into four groups.  As many as 100 people might attend a breakout.

Thirty-one exhibitors surrounded the room where lunch was dispensed and breakout sessions were offered.  This format was fantastic for exhibitors.  Too often, exhibitors are placed in a room separate from proceedings, creating a negative experience for all those tabling activists and organizers seeking integration with the activity of the conference.  In addition, the exhibitor section was shut down during the main assemblies.  Thus, exhibitors were able to attend events.  By contrast, while tabling at the Netroots or YearlyKos conference in Chicago, we were isolated far from the conference events, compelled to stay with the booth during those events.

An outstanding assortment of presenters gathered in St. Paul because the demonstrations allowed the organizers of the conference an ability to create a powerful lineup from visiting luminaries.  Yet, attendance could have been larger.  The conference was poorly promoted outside the Twin Cities, not alluded to from the stage events of the demonstrations and there were no handouts that I observed distributed to the thousands of demonstrators gathered on September 1.  In one breakout of 100 people, one person was from Wisconsin.  Almost everyone else was from Minneapolis or St. Paul.

Conference organizers offered themselves the opportunity to artfully arrange themes and presenters in ways that complements and contrasts were allowed to play off each other.  Designing a conference that focused on peace, justice and sustainability issues, they placed sustainability early in the program, establishing a cooperative, positive vision of the future as a foundation for the event.

Until attending this conference, I was not aware of how flexible conference format was in allowing design to manifest in experience.  Talking to the organizers, I found that what emerged was the result of numerous discussions, not so much what the organizers had observed at other conferences.  I wonder what other unique conference formats are being used that I am not yet aware of?


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