Building Community: Reflections on Conference Going
by Michelle Reed June 29, 2017
This week applications opened for OpenCon 2017, which will take place November 11-13 in Berlin, Germany. OpenCon, now in its fourth year, is an annual conference intended to empower students and early career professionals to advance open initiatives in scholarly publishing, data, and education. Last year the organizing committee received over 10,000 applications from 176 countries. In November, 230 of those applicants, representing 60 countries, gathered together for three days in Washington, DC. Many others attended virtually, and over 30 satellite events were hosted around the world.
I was a late addition to the attendee list thanks to a travel scholarship sponsored by the Association of College and Research Libraries. I’d heard from colleagues who attended OpenCon in previous years that the experience was “life changing.” I arrived in DC with high hopes and great expectations, and— aside from Nick Shockey’s refusal to play my song at the after party—I wasn’t disappointed. In the wake of a presidential election in the United States that left many in attendance feeling unwelcome, disenfranchised, and outraged, the conference provided an opportunity for a global community passionate about equitable access to share experiences and discuss strategies for taking action to advance common goals.
I’ve long thought the most useful conference experiences are the ones that occur off stage, away from microphones and crowds—those that happen at restaurants and in hallways, sitting in hotel lobbies and walking down sidewalks, when we’re more likely to share the hard truths of our professional lives. We share successes in these spaces, sure, but, more importantly, we talk openly about perceived failures and shortcomings. When presenting becomes discussing, the more that we can do is realized.
Collaboration breeds in these spaces.
This, for me, was the whole of OpenCon16. For three days we sat shoulder to shoulder with kindred spirits and talked open. We dug deep into the crevices where we disagree. We identified partners and allies from places we may never get to visit. We listened to new voices and stories that too frequently go unheard. We learned. We became better. Better advocates. Better builders. Better doers. Better people.
My OpenCon experience took me to London a few short months later for OER17, where I had the good fortune of presenting alongside Beck Pitt, researcher for OER Hub and fellow OpenCon alum. As a result, my perspective on open education and what open practices can and should do shifted to become more sophisticated, more nuanced, and more thoughtful. My network grew stronger, larger, more experienced. These things were made possible because of OpenCon and the community building the conference facilitates.
Many people shared comments about the importance of community during our three days together at OpenCon16. One that I’ve continued to carry with me came from David Wiley in response to a question about sustaining motivation when success seems elusive:
“Surround yourself with other people who believe in the cause and who are willing to be your partners and work together. Because they’ll be depressed on some days when you’ll be feeling good, and you’ll be depressed on some days when they’re feeling good, and if there’s enough of you there’s always somebody who is feeling happy on that day, and you can encourage and lift each other up.”
These are my people, I thought, moments into OpenCon16. Traveling to conferences is a privilege, I know, and in-person events always omit some voices. But, when it’s possible to gather with your people in the flesh, seize it. The experience may very well change your life.