Second time attending but first time delegate, last week I had the pleasure and privilege to be at a retreat in the magic coast of Ixtapa Mexico with other 400 hundred change-makers. Leaders in the non-profit; impact investing; socially responsible enterprises; journalists, academics and other modalities of “cool” folks met to discuss poverty alleviation strategies, to “convene, connect and catalyze”.
If you have never heard of an un-conference, for someone with over two decades of academic and practitioner work, this is quite an innovative and refreshing approach. The format here is intentional peer to peer connections. From the name tags that display your first name (as opposed to your degree and rank, bye bye PhD or vice-president of this or that). You can be in line at the omelet station with an investor worth a half a billion dollars or the leader of an NGO that is using alternative strategies to poverty alleviation in Kulkata, India. You can spend your time in air conditioned rooms the whole week, or nap, kayak and paddle board to your hearts content. It’s your dance.
We have been trained to attend conferences where we listen to the “experts” and network in between coffee breaks. Well. Forget about the expert talked-at sessions and imagine this the longest coffee break experience. There is a structure provided (and to us newbies that is great), we have two hour mandatory sessions in the morning aimed at exploring personal and key themes such as poverty, systems and other “light” fair. After that you can choose to attend, network, swim or walk on the beach.
At first, I was both fascinated with the horizontality of it all. Then, I started to feel a bit “outside” this dance that was going on (or I think it was going on). Some people were in pursuit of (contacts, funding opportunities, media mentorships). Naturally, some people were being chased. I wasn’t either chased or chasing. No one was looking for me (ouch, had to treat my ego to extra beach time to appease it) and I couldn’t quite figure out how to “fit in”. But it was all lovely. Still, I was watching from outside a thin layer and I wanted to belong!
What happened next is that I continue with this un-comfortableness until it happened. I attended a kick-ass session taught by human-centered design expert who provided really relevant and cutting edge tools for my current work. I then asked her to meet and we ended having lunch and jumping from a trapeze together. Just like that, I felt like I was no longer watching from outside anymore. I also met a lot of PCDN members and had a chance to talk more how to improve PCDN in the future #memberlove. I met new amazing people and had great conversations with fellow latino attendees who are dreaming of having sessions in español (¿por qué no?)
I marvel at the organizers ability to evolve based on the feedback from each years conference. For example, I was part of discussions where the format of the “unconference” might be culturally inappropriate for some people from other latitudes. Not everyone can have an M&E conversation while sipping margaritas on the swimming pool. Oh no, I can. But its not so true for women from other cultures. Or this “American” style of asking about feelings in public and articulate (seemly coherent thoughts) about vulnerability in a group of perfect strangers is incredible difficult for many from whom the boundaries of the personal and the professional are more clearly delineated.
I welcome how I was able to freely express that I think some people who are born in the Global South are not as lucky to learn a second language (English) like I had the chance to. And the contributions that I can imagine from people who cant speak English might only increase the power of this gathering. How do I know this? Because I know quite a few of them.
At the end I think that part of my un-comfortableness speak more about my insecurities as an individual than the (un)conference itself. No, I didn’t get discovered by a wealthy benefactor that will invest 1 million dollars in my cuteness, but that is not the point either. You meet who you are supposed to meet, you meet other individuals you never thought of meeting (and liking) and you unwind and dance.
Speaking of dances. I taught my group how to dance salsa in 5 minutes of less. The last night we danced until our legs said no more and all in all, you feel like you spoke. Unlike regular gatherings were you are told, at OppColl you speak. And dance.
If you want to know more and if you would like to attend next year please check this: