an innovative conference format

At least week’s Frontiers of Democracy II conference, we tried a new format. I don’t think it was perfect, and I welcome feedback, but it does seem promising. According to preliminary evaluations from the conference, 61.8% said the new format was ideal (and zero percent didn’t like it at all), so it obviously had some fans.

We asked three people to speak at the beginning of each session. Each one gave a talk, strictly limited to 10 minutes. We asked them to rehearse and told them we would tape their talks for rebroadcast later. These were not dry, academic presentations, but they varied wonderfully in style as well as content. Some were personal and emotional; others more dispassionate.

They were very loosely clustered, so that the talks that began each session would likely have common resonances and themes; but the sessions did not have headings or official topics. We did not take any time to introduce the speakers or allow any Q&A at the end. All other participants sat at tables of eight and talked as soon as the featured speakers were done. The speakers were encouraged to stay for the whole conference and join table discussions. Tables were given suggested discussion topics (broad ones, like “Is there a global civic awakening?”). At each new session, everyone was asked to sit at a new table.

The idea was to use the prepared talks to inspire conversation and to inject into the discussion some carefully honed arguments, experiences, or ideas–but to take the focus off the featured speakers once their 10 minutes were up. We wanted to avoid bilateral exchanges between speakers and members of the “audience.”

Some people who have completed evaluations so far suggest that we should organize the talks more, so that each session has a clear focus. I’m open to that but I liked the relatively serendipitous connections that emerged in the loosely defined sessions. For example, no one could have predicted that Martha McCoy (Everyday Democracy) and Eric Liu (Guiding Lights Network) would both emphasize organic metaphors in talking about citizenship.

In the very first panel, three speakers who used radically different styles pointed to three totally different kinds of engagement. Kristen Cambell (National Conference on Citizenship) talked about belonging and joining as sources of economic resilience in US communities. Jamila Raqib (Albert Einstein Institution) laid out a strategy for peacefully overturning governments. And Amii Omara Otunnu (UNESCO Human Rights Chair UConn) advocated loving people around the world. If we could somehow combine social capital and community participation with revolutionary disruptions and global agape, we would really have something.

The conference format is available for imitation and improvement: just call it the “Frontiers model.”

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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