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Notes from our First All-Team Calls

All members of the 2008 conference planning team were asked, if possible, to participate in one of two introductory conference calls. The calls took place on January 17th and 21st, and a total of 41 people participated in the two calls. The calls allowed me to talk to everyone about how NCDD conferences are different from typical conferences and to share some of things I think will make NCDD 2008 our best event yet. They also allowed planning team members to hear each other’s voices and learn a bit about what each other does and what their hopes are for the event.

Both calls went surprisingly well for such large calls, and it was wonderful to start hearing people’s ideas and hopes for the Austin conference. Below are some notes I prepared for my segment of the call, and I’d appreciate it if all planning team members who couldn’t make it on one of the calls (or who just joined us!) could take a few minutes to look this over.

We also have PDFs of the notes for each call, and these focus on what team members had to say during their introductions and during some brainstorming/Q&A time, so please look these over as well.

The notes from the January 17th call can be downloaded here, and the notes from the January 21st call can be downloaded here.

Here is the gist of what I said during my introductions:

The NCDD conferences all have one basic purpose: to unite and strengthen the dialogue and deliberation community. Our 2002 conference was the first attempt to bring people together from all of the streams of practice in this field. Practitioners and scholars who came from an organizational development background spoke a different language than those who came from a deliberative democracy background. Those with an intergroup dialogue background were aware of completely different figureheads and resources than those coming from a background in e-democracy or online dialogue.

We held that first conference to bring these people together so we could learn from each another and start developing a common language about this work – and we’ve made a lot of headway since.

What planning team members should know about NCDD conferences…

– They are not your typical conferences, with long keynote speeches and dry panels. NCDD conferences are highly participatory, and highly innovative. We like to try new things every year – featuring different leaders in the field, using new methods during the plenary sessions, featuring different kinds of arts and artists, finding new ways for people to feel welcomed, safe, and inspired, etc.

– We are very conscious of balancing the streams of practice (exploration, conflict transformation, decision-making, and collaborative action) at the conference. This means trying to balance the number of workshops that fall into each stream, featuring leaders from each stream, and using large-group methods from as many of the four streams as possible. This also means making sure we present things in ways that people from all four streams can identify with and appreciate. We don’t act too new agey or the academics in the deliberative democracy stream are turned away; and we don’t speak in overly academic terms or we lose the folks on the other side of the spectrum. Keeping things from getting too “new agey” or too “ivory tower” also helps us stay accessible to people who are newer to this work. In other words, we try to keep things real, and keep them relevant.

– We also try our best to attract, reflect, and respect diversity at NCDD conferences. Not just racial and ethnic diversity – but also political ideology, international diversity, and age diversity. We focus a lot of effort on ensuring that our conference participants are as diverse in all of these areas as possible. We also do our best to make sure the people at the front of the room are diverse – especially in terms of ethnicity and, if possible, political perspectives. Most of the known leaders in this field are white and liberal, so it’s a challenge. And we try to make people feel as safe and welcome as possible in a variety of ways – like having Listeners available at all times to provide an understanding ear and a connection to the planning team.

Some of my thoughts on how we might make this conference different – and better – than previous conferences…

Building on Past Conferences
In different ways, we’ve asked participants at the past 3 conferences to think about who we are as a community, what we need, and where we should be going. I think it’s time to move forward from that, since we have a good idea of what needs to happen to move this field forward. We need to focus more on evaluation (proving to funders, public officials, and others that this stuff actually does work); we need to figure out how to bring this work to the mainstream, rather than keeping it in the margins; we need to improve the relationship between research and practice – and researchers and practitioners; we need to help regional D&D networks to form. Given this, I’d like to see us use our plenary sessions (and ideas like the threads I’m about to talk about) to make some real progress in these areas.

Conference Threads
Some people on the planning team are already thinking about how we can allow people to concentrate on specific issues and areas at the conference through “threads” or “tracks.” Racism/social justice and environmental issues like climate change are two areas of interest for a lot of people, but other field-specific issues such as evaluation and mainstreaming D&D are other examples of potential threads. We haven’t attempted this in the past, and this could make the 2008 conference a more meaningful experience for people – and a more productive event for the field.

Austin Component and Network
We already have a large, active Central Texas sub-team, and that team is committed to making sure conference participants not only learn about and from what’s happened in Austin, but that we find ways to make sure that Austin benefits in a real way from the conference being there – including by establishing a strong local D&D network. We haven’t had a local coordinator in the past, and we have Diane Miller and her team this year. I’m hoping that what we do with the Austin community can be a model for what we do at all future NCDD conferences.

In closing…

Our conferences tend to be very high-energy; often you can feel the sense of excitement in the room – and people are always extremely appreciative of the work we put into the conferences. They also can be highly emotional, with people sometimes reacting to things more passionately than you might expect (both positively and negatively). The people in this field tend to feel as if they have the fate of the world on their shoulders, and we try to make the conferences as safe, warm, productive, and fun as possible for them.

And it should be said that no matter how innovative we think our programming is, the thing people always appreciate more than anything else about NCDD conferences is the people who attend them. Every two years, I am bowled over by how warm, intelligent, passionate, and just great the people in this field are.

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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