AdaCamp, listening and emergent ideas from collective spaces

Last week I attended AdaCamp Montreal. AdaCamp’s website describes it as  “a two-day event dedicated to increasing women’s participation in open technology and culture, including open source software, Wikipedia and other wiki-related projects, open knowledge and education, open government and open data, open hardware and appropriate technology, library technology, creative fan culture, remix culture, translation/localization/internationalization, and more.”

Simon, from our OpenFarm team, suggested that I attend and I am really glad that he did. The unconference was enriching and helpful for me both personally and for my work with OpenFarm.

I have a bit of a geek in me, but I don’t program. So working on a team to build an online platform is comprehensible to me, but a bit out of my field. It was so great to connect and converse with people who are passionate about their work in technology, especially other women.

AdaCamp is an unconference. For any readers who don’t know what that means I will break it down a bit. Unconferences are a part of the popular education and OpenSpace Technology movements. Popular education is non hierarchical method of education and a great tool for community development. I would love to go on about Roberto Friere, and the Pedagogy of the Oppressed right now, but for the sake of staying on point, that is talking about my AdaCamp experience, I will just link some keywords for you. OpenSpace Technology was created in the eighties by organizational consultant Harrison Owen. You can read his thoughts on this format for meeting here.

Some principles of OpenSpace are:

Everyone who comes must be passionate about the topic and willing to take some responsibility for creating things out of that passion

Whoever comes is the right people

Whatever happens is the only thing that could have

Whenever it starts is the right time

Whenever it is over it is over

The Law of two feet: If you find yourself in a situation where you aren’t learning or contributing, go somewhere else. Either mentally or physically.

Unlike more formal, top down conferences, at an unconference everyone can be and is a teacher and a learner. Anyone can offer to facilitate a session, or pitch a topic for discussion. It might sound a bit disorganized, but it is really effective at connecting people and ideas. Especially when you are in a room full of amazing people with varied and valuable experiences.

So on the first day people lined up and proposed topics that they wanted to explore more, or that they felt they could share with the group. Popularity and demand was gauged by applause from the group. The topics were written on colourful sheets of paper, and collectively a schedule mapping topics to rooms was collaged on the wall of the main hall. Then people were free to go from room to room to join the conversations.

Some of the talks I joined were: Careers in Technology: How not to become a manager, Sharing Openness with our non geek communities, Anarchist Feminism and Cooperative Business Models, and the most fun Robot Lab!

My presence in the Careers in Technology: How not to become a manager was a test and a testament to the principle Whoever comes is the right people. Most of the others were women working in tech who are facing gendered biases in their task delegations and career options. Many are finding that while their male colleagues are moving forward in their technical careers, their female colleagues, and themselves, are getting streamlined into management roles, that feminized work of taking care of people. And then there was me. I am studying community economic development and working as a community organizer and developer. I work with people and I want to keep on working with people and get better at it. But holding true to the principle, Whoever comes is the right people I trusted by curiosity and stayed for the whole conversation. At one point someone shared that one of the best things to help her stay out of management was having a female manager advocate for her ability and suitedness for the technical positions she was striving for. That is when it hit me, I knew why I was there. Because I was curious and wanted to feed my empathy with stories and laments from other people. And what better way than to listen to people who are striving for something so totally different from my goals that they are, in fact, actively avoiding becoming me and what I want to be.

In community development you can’t ever remind yourself enough that relationships are the root of it all. Relationships are the lines connecting the nodes in the network. And to build good relationships and you have to have practice and hone empathy, and to do that you have to listen. Listening is as much a practice as it is a skill. Being a good listener, being able to listen to people who don’t want what you want, and don’t want to do what you want to do, is essential. After all you are working to bring these people closer to their goals, not yours. Their goals are not your goals, facilitating their goals is your goal. But in order to do that, you need to be able to understand what it is they are reaching for.

In my work with OpenFarm I am trying to facilitate the goals of the development team to create a platform that is useful. I am also trying to facilitate the goals of gardeners and farmers to connect with each other and share their knowledge. My goal is the successful facilitation and connection of these communities. In order to achieve that goal, I need to be able to listen to what they all want.

My interest in Sharing Openness with our non geek communities was a little more straight forward.I have been learning about OpenFarm, and talking (and of course listening) to food growing communities about OpenFarm. Early on I began to see parallels between the OpenSource ethos of the OpenFarm team, and the ethos of sharing in the sustainability, resilience, transitions and community building communities that I am rooted in. This became the link, the reason for partnership. It has been a big focus in my work with OpenFarm. Illuminating this link to the non tech, or non geek communities, has become my challenge. So of course I knew, this was the room I needed to be in. I was also lucky to meet Alex Bailey from who was in the same conversation, for the same reason. She shared some of her experiences trying to explain to organic farmers why they should choose an opensource platform for sharing and searching for content on growing methods. I offered to her, and the group, the analogy of opensource code to heirloom seeds. We found this fruitful. Someone summarized our conversation saying ‘you gotta find their metaphor.’ When you are working across communities who have different languages, and different cultures and different technologies it is helpful to find the analogies and explain your work in a metaphor that resonates with them. As a community developer it is my job to figure that out. Sometimes I think of my work as translation. And like I said before, it all starts with listening.

Anarchism, Feminism and Cooperative Business Models was a great conversation. As a cofounder of a Solidarity Cooperative, and a student of Community Economic Development, and of course a Community Developer for our very own non profit organization OpenFarm, the topic called to me from many angles. It was really inspiring to hear people excited about their cooperative businesses. But even more, to see how their stories were received by the participants who were not as familiar with non hierarchical business models. I breathe cooperative business models, but often the things that are most dear to us, and close to us we take for granted, and then we forget how to talk about them. I took the task of moderating this conversation. I  took that role because it would force me into a situation where I would not be able to speak, but rather would have to be actively listening to the other people and observing their moods and dynamics. Ironically, I did this because I knew so much about the topic that the best thing I could do was to not talk and listen instead. In the end it was a great choice. Observing how other people explain these things I know so well, to other people, and observing how the other people received that information was a great practice for the work I am about to embark on with OpenFarm. (More of that to follow when I write about the upcoming community events that I am facilitating in Montreal.)

RobotLab. Pure fun. Need I say more?



I want to thank OpenFarm for bringing me on the team, sending me to AdaCamp and helping me connect with my inner geek and the radical communities on what I had conveniently, albeit complacently, let myself dismiss as an apolitical interwebby thing of computers.

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