I went to a radical grassroots organizing conference & lived to tell the tale (Part I)


To be 100% honest, when I signed up to volunteer and attend RootsCamp (#roots12) in Washington DC I didn’t know exactly what to expect.  I knew it was run by the New Organizing Institute (NOI) and would be bringing together community organizers and creating opportunities for cross-issue discussions and idea sharing.  Because there is no pre-set agenda, and no schedule posted from last year (that I could find) I didn’t know the breath of topics they would cover.  However, when a community organizer friend of mine suggested I join him at the conference he did mention that there would be plenty of techy sessions, and that is enough to get to me to go to ANY conference.

Volunteering at the conference served three purposes for me:

1. Allowing me to go (it was sold out!)
2. Giving me a purpose when I knew I would feel a little out of place
3. Getting a ‘behind the scenes’ perspective of the conference.  If I learned nothing else, I wanted to see how UNconference was run.

roots12 volunteers

At our volunteer orientation I got my first taste of the diversity of our attendees. Environmentalists, political campaigners, occupy supporters, new media managers, international activists, cultural group community builders and many more.  The likelihood of one person repeating the same activity or organization as the next was as likely as…

As an aside – Cool new icebreaker is asking for folks to say 3 examples of “what kind of people are you?”

I am geeky/tech loving people
I am LGBTQ activist people
I am Panera loving people

UNConference Organizing: Dos                                       

From an organizational perspective, I had already learned from the NOI team that if you are going to pull off something this huge, you should do a couple things:

  1. Have one of your interns/office students call every volunteer twice.  Call once to confirm a volunteer is on board and that they are receiving your information email information (I wasn’t, it was going to my SPAM folder) and the second time the day before the event to remind them of the volunteer info session.
  2. Bring everyone in the night before for an orientation.  The morning of the conference sounds like a good idea in theory, but there is always running around to do, and our orientation the night before was much more relaxed.
  3. Break everyone into subgroups for more direction.  I really liked that we started out as a big group and then after introductions, a tour, and a general overview, broke into subgroups.  This let us get to know our smaller teams better and be assigned specific tasks.
  4. Organize a thank you for the volunteers before the event begins.  By having one of their sponsors take care of free drinks at a local bar the night before the conference, it made us feel special before the work begin.  It gave us an additional reason for coming the night before, and it allowed us to get to know each other better.  In knowing each other, I think we have a better system for supporting the conference attendees, and we felt more a part of the team.
  5. Set up gender-neutral bathrooms and make sure everyone knows where they are.  Besides “Where is x room?” the number one question you are likely to get is “Where is the bathroom?”  I think it is great when volunteers have not only been told where the bathrooms are, but also shown.  After all, you only remember 20% of what you are told (more on that later).  In this case, the conference was on 3 floors, and one of the floors had two gender-neutral bathrooms.  While I think that may have worked out okay, I would suggest having them on the middle floor of a conference when you set them up, or as could have been the case in a conference like this, switch it up, and have only one separate-gendered bathroom and have all of the others in the building gender-neutral.  I recognize that not every organizer has the ability to set this up, especially if they are sharing space with others, but when you can, the more gender-neutral bathrooms, the better!

UNConference Organizing: Don’ts

I do not want to nitpick the conference staff too much, but for the purposes of this blog, I figured it would be helpful to note my insights so you can think about these things when planning your own UNconference.

  1. Have the building staff uninformed. When we arrived we headed downstairs because the guard thought that was where we were suppose to go, despite the direction being different in the email.  There was no NOI staff in either of the two places so the volunteers organized themselves to figure out where we were suppose to be, and then told the building staff what we figured out so others would not be lost.  Clear signage is key, even pre-conference.
  2. Have the staff team come in late or disjointed.  We started our icebreaker with only the volunteers, and then the NOI staff slowly started trickling in.  We didn’t really know if they were late volunteers or staff and I think it would have been nice to know whom our go-to people would be the following two days if we had questions.
  3. Assume we know what’s going on.  In general I wouldn’t suggest asking a question such as “Does everyone know what rootscamp is?”  This is similar to asking the question “Does everyone know what Transgender means?” in a session.  No one is going to want to raise their hand and be the only one who admits that they don’t know.  Just tell us what you want us to know, or if you really want to gauge your audience, do a “thumbmomoter” or “five-fingered check in.”
  4. Not be on the same page as your volunteer coordinator.  As I mentioned before, I was super impressed with the fact that I had been called TWICE before the conference even started.  On the second call, we talked about which shifts I would want to work, how that might conflict with going to sessions, switched shifts around, and confirmed my volunteer assignment.  I felt well cared for and well communicated with.  However, after the general volunteer intro, we were asked, “Who wants to work on logistics?  Who wants to work on AV?”  This was SUPER confusing since I thought we all already had our assignments. Tip: Once you have everyone assigned, have those assignments out for people to review on paper as they check in & that way you know if you need to re-adjust personnel times or teams.

As a geeky side note, people probably should’t refer to the volunteers as “red shirts,” since we might equate that to mean disposable/about to be eaten or shot by an unknown alien species. ;)

I have way too much to say to limit it to one post, so this will be a “to be continued” reflection.  I hope that these insights help folks think of planning a UNConference of their own one day.  And if you do, call me up, I’d love to be a volunteer :)


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