Over the weekend I hosted a workshop at an event known as the convergence. The California Student Sustainability Coalition (CSSC) hosts these biannual events at universities across the state. A convergence is an event for students who are passionate about and work in the three branches of sustainability; economics, equity, and ecology. It is a time for students to share their projects, ideas, knowledge, and inspiration with one another.
This quarter the convergence was held at LMU and the theme was “Strengthening Connections: Thriving Together”. They explained,
We are at the intersection of intertwining and complex social, environmental, and economic systems. By understanding how we shape these conditions we can explore new ideas and organizing models that disrupt and replace the status quo. This work will require that we cultivate strong mutualistic relationships with each other to ultimately ensure we collectively thrive and adapt to a changing planet.
This got me excited because the website I work for, OpenFarm, has goals that align directly with the theme. We are a non-profit that believes in the Open Source Movement and putting people first, and the chance to spread the good word of our work was irresistible. There were three tracks a workshop could follow: global, local and personal. I submitted an application under the global track titled OpenFarm: How Plants Unite Community and Strengthen Global Resilience with the following description:
This workshop will facilitate discussion about plants as a globally valuable resource and how we can preserve the knowledge of how they’re grown. Topics of interest may include how plant information is being preserved, why it is important to share this knowledge freely and some of the challenges that we face in a changing climate. The workshop will culminate in an understanding of the website OpenFarm and how anyone can contribute to global plant knowledge.
I wanted to host this workshop following the Popular Education principles that the convergence facilitators recommended to us. I had never given a presentation that relies so heavily upon audience contribution, one where the attendees are vital to the conversation. I had briefly discussed this style of hosted conversation with our team’s other community developer, Kat, who has some experience with popular education and “unconferences“. Without knowing exactly who would come to my workshop, I decided to make a very loose outline of the discussion, and to be extremely flexible (almost to the point of winging it) so I could engage everyone and move the conversation with them.
I felt like an improv artist, incorporating audience cues into my routine and trying to engage them as much as possible. About 15 people came to my talk, and I handed them our call to action postcards. I truly wanted our hour together to be useful and engaging to everyone who attended, and not be a wholly self-promoting advert for OpenFarm. So I started the discussion with some humor. “Hey everyone, I’m trying this idea of popular education. Usually the lecturer knows everything and you all sit and absorb per status quo. It’s very imperialist. Some argue, however, that you know as much as I do and have the same ability to contribute knowledge to our discussion. I really doubt it though since I’m an expert with a degree.” I asked people some easy questions, just to prove that they can indeed be a part of the conversation. “What inspired you to attend the convergence?” I quickly found out who the vocal parties would be, and who I would have to help speak up. I also got a feel for the interests and motivations of the individuals in my group.
Something this convergence planning committee made on the first day was a list of societal issues and a separate list of solutions. I liked this idea as a way toinitiate important discussion, and to identify points of pain and frustration within the community. Ditch the small talk and let’s get to what we came here for…changing the world! So for my workshop I also made two lists. None of the people in my talk participated in making the convergence master list, so they could help make my list without it being redundant for them. We could contribute what we came up with to the convergence master list. Problems my group felt passionate about included: water politics, animal cruelty, deforestation, commercial agriculture, food scarcity and access, invasive species, public health, technology used inappropriately and with poor intention, the private property mentality, and economic systems used for intentional food deprivation. Some solutions we wanted to explore were: education, drip irrigation, conscious diets, restoring land rights, local/community/urban farming, the commons, technology used appropriately with positive intention, improved food access and distribution, and local and culturally specific solutions.
We only had an hour for discussion, so after hitting on these topics, and expounding upon some of them in greater detail, there were 10 minutes left. “Ok Kevin, I’ve gotta start wrapping this up and give some context to this conversation,” I thought to myself. Then I got an underhanded pitch right over the plate, for a home run. “Excuse me Kevin,” a girl in the audience said, ” I’m sorry to draw a tangent but we’ve been talking about all of these problems, and some solutions, but what can we do to actually help? How can one person contribute?” That’s when I offered OpenFarm as a model technology. Not that we are the solution, but I believe more of the solutions in the future will look like us. Open Source, free and accessible. Fun, easy, and social. Community focused, mission driven, and efficient. Any person can take part, and improve our future. Our vision is to provide people with the most liberating advice in the world…how to grow food. And we not only aim to share growing knowledge, but to connect people with each other in their own communities.
I’m glad that I didn’t have a prepared slideshow or presentation for this event. The projectors in a few of the rooms weren’t working, so I was able to give my room up to someone who needed the computer and projector. I think my talk was more engaging overall too. I made a few impromptu jokes that loosened everyone up and made the conversation feel peer to peer. People come to the convergence to break out of the classroom and the status quo method of learning. They come for inspiration and connection, and that’s truly all I wanted to facilitate. My favorite moment was when 50% of the class had all turned to each other and started their own discussion on the pros and cons of technology. They were engaging with each other in a respectful and intelligent way, and I hope with open minds.
There are some things I would change for future speaking engagements of this nature. I should’ve had my contact info displayed on the board, and taken emails of interested parties. It would’ve been good to have a volunteer plan or program should some of them wish to participate with our organization. For the sake of promoting interaction, I would re-arrange seats away from standard grids and into a circle, or get rid of seats altogether and go outside.
I am on the fence about my discussion approach. I think I would’ve liked to host something that was more useful to people, even though our website will be useful. Instead of essentially saying, “hey look at all these problems, well we built a website for a lot of them,” I’d like to leave people feeling more fulfilled. Not the promise of fulfillment, but hands on action leading to it. If I knew what that looked like in workshop format though, I would’ve done it.
If you have any comments, or suggestions for leading successful workshops feel free to share them below!