One of the trends I’ve noticed recently with my student groups is an increased desire in hosting small and medium sized conferences and meetings of peer institutions to discuss a wide breadth of topics. Most recently, this trend led to my involvement in a topical conference that would not generally be directly affiliated with our office…Sexual Assault. In the past, our office had been seen as the housing and activities office, not necessarily the office you go to, to work on such a meaty and heavy issue. Needless to say…I was elated!
To think that the cultural shift on campus now provided us the opportunity to have a hand in addressing this very serious issue, which impacts all of our institutions in one way or another, was very exciting to me. Working collaboratively with two stellar students, we coordinated a small regional conference, who’s topic became the issue of consensual relationships…thus…ConsentFest was planned.
Students from 6 colleges, from as far away as Chicago, invaded campus for a 24 hour conference, conversation, and critique on the issue of consent. The products? Hopeful, inspirational, inviting, and above all, meaningful to both those in attendance, and the campus population in general.
This topic is something that touches the lives of all students, whether they know someone who is a survivor of sexual assault, or if they themselves don’t really know the meaning of “consent”. Consent in itself is by no means the end all be all of developing a campus culture with no sexual assaults. As those of us working in student affairs know, it’s an uphill battle that requires immense resources, structured policy and protocol, and a shift in the psyche of the entire student population. But what this small taste of a conference did do is help begin to frame the conversation for the people in the room. It gave a construct from which a seed can be planted on each individuals’ campus. From there, with appropriate nurturing and attention, who knows what can grow?!
So why write a blog post about this? Well, in the process of entering into this meaty world of meaningful mini-conferences, I learned some very important logistical and developmental tidbits, and I want others to both learn from my mistakes and successes so that you too can feel increasingly comfortable tackling these sorts of issues in a similar fashion.
- Develop the most thorough outline and check list you ever have! With all events we do we have a plan of attack most likely, but when you begin to envelop these very direct, sensitive, and necessary conversations and dialogues into the system, making sure it all goes off without a hitch is even more important. Stumbles and trips along the way can lead to a more significant impact in a more negative way than when it’s a fun and games sort of event.
- Extend your timeline to an unconventional level. Along with your checklist/plan of attack, think beyond your normal timeline, beyond your assessment forms at the end. Think 6 months out; a year out. What is the goal impact of you helping to coordinate this conference? Is your hope that this will be a one-off or perhaps a recurring annual event? Do you plan to follow up in a reflective manner with the participants? Should you help to facilitate an ongoing dialogue via the use of a website or listserv? Obviously the ultimate goal of a topical conference is to impact a broader issue in a positive way, and although steps can be taken on a short timeline, true action and sustainability needs to be tracked and provided administrative traction. Keeping that bug in people’s ears alive can do more than you may suspect.
- Imagine you have $0. I have used this mentality since I can remember, because many times I did have $0. It was matter of arguing a point and fighting for my cause to get money from others. In this, I don’t mean that you should be underhanded and not pay your keynote, or that you shouldn’t feed participants; rather, think of what is most valuable for this conference. It’s most likely the inter-group dialogue and exchange of ideas among participants, which in reality is free. It’s the peripheral niceties that help to collect these people in a place, at a given point in time, with a powerful presenter. So focus on the priceless core of the program, and fight for the money to build the layers that hold it together.
- Tap those who have come before you. I’ll admit I went a little over zealous initially with this one, and I learned from that mistake. Although this event hadn’t happened at my institution before, it HAD happened in various incarnations at other places. Plus, there are INCREDIBLE folks working in higher education who have been tackling the issues at hand for decades. This is where networking year-round comes to your rescue. Build relationships with all types of people in all types of places, because it’s to your advantage and theirs to have a working relationship before either one of you needs to tap it as a resource. Consult the experts who have been doing this longer than you.
All in all, these new-fangled mini conferences I’m becoming increasingly familiar with are teaching me a lot about my own abilities, limitations, passions and values. I’m sure many of you are experiencing the same sort of process, and I only hope that these tidbits offer a glimmer of something new, different, and valuable for you.
Does your campus have student run conferences? What best practices would you share?