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December 12, 2003

conference culture

Almost a month ago, I was at Wingspread, the retreat center near Racine, WI, to attend a meeting on national and community service programs. This was my second visit to Wingspread. The first was in 1988. Then I was one of two token college students at a meeting otherwise filled with foundation executives and college administrators, including the great Father Ted Hesburgh, President of Notre Dame. The subject was ... community and national service programs. The discussions of those days led more or less directly to George Bush's Points of Light Foundation and then Americorps under Bill Clinton. (I contributed nothing to that history, but I observed a piece of it.)

Two meetings on the same subject, 15 years apart. Since that first memorable experience at a non-partisan, non-profit, professional conference, I have attended similar gatherings on campaign-finance reform, public journalism, civic renewal, digital media policy, Internet research, civic education, service-learning, philanthropy and civil society, economic development and civil society, deliberative democracy, engaged universities, youth digital media work, values in higher education, social capital in Latin America, and many other subjects. There's a whole culture of these events: shared taxi rides from the airport; tables arranged around hollow squares; introductory sessions where you go around the room and everyone says where they're from; "break-out sessions" with "flip charts" and "reporting back" to the full group. The conversations tend to drift, especially once there's a long list of people waiting to speak. Speakers refer politely to previous comments ("Building on what John said, ..."). There are complaints, often highly justified, about the people not represented "in the room"--usually racial minorities, but also youth and (in the circles I travel) conservatives. Participants quickly begin to speak as "we" and to imply a hostile outside world, even though they are often not clear about what goals and values they share. There's always a point when everyone starts talking about "message" (i.e., the need to communicate some simple idea to the broad public).

In short, there are many frustrations. Yet I can't think of any better models, and civil society would be much weaker without these events. Thus I fully expect to be back at Wingspread in 2018, talking about ... community and national service.

Posted by peterlevine at December 12, 2003 05:20 PM


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