The Joy of Unconferencing

I went to my first-ever unconference last weekend.

Though, regardless of the format, I would have attended the event for the group that I would find there: Women Who Get Shit Done.

A quick overview on what an 'unconference' is:

An unconference, also called an Open Space conference, is a participant-driven meeting. The term "unconference" has been applied, or self-applied, to a wide range of gatherings that try to avoid one or more aspects of a conventional conference, such as fees, sponsored presentations, and top-down organization.

(Thanks Wikipedia!)

I had my eye on this unconference since I first saw it in my #FlickLife Friday emails sometime around the first one back in June 2016. I applied for the Bay of Plenty event but didn't get in so I tried again for the Wellington one and was stoked to be invited along!

I understood the concept of an unconference but still wasn't quite sure what to expect. The organisers were very detail-oriented (yay!) and a few weeks prior to the event we began connecting with each other through the attendee Facebook group. With about 100 participants, there was a huge range of perspectives, backgrounds and knowledge.

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After arriving at the venue and playing some creative people bingo, I had met women who ticked these boxes:

  • Lives on a farm
  • Has a PhD
  • Works for a nonprofit/charity
  • Speaks Te Reo
  • Plays Piano
  • Is an Artist
  • Works in Tech
  • Studied Science at University
  • Works in Public Service
  • Practices Yoga
  • Is a Teacher
  • Is a Knitter
  • Isn't on Twitter
  • Knows How to Sail

And I didn't even fill my card up! We all gathered for an introduction and then were split into our Whanau groups. There were about 16-18 of us in each group and we had a leader who had been to a previous WWGSD event. It was a great way to connect with others in a smaller circle before the weekend kicked off. We would connect in this group for check-ins a couple more times which was great because it meant we could touch base again and there was ongoing feedback happening too.

After dinner, we got to the session planning. It reminded me of startup weekend in that if you had a session you wanted to run, you pitched it to the group. This allowed everyone else who had a similar idea to band together to create the session. It also gave us a glimpse of what was to come!

The sessions are a reflection of the group in attendance and there were no specific topics that were set out ahead of time. Some that made my shortlist but I didn't get to attend were:

  • How to Get Published
  • Finding Your Flow
  • Martial Arts in Everyday Life
  • Cultural Apporpriation
  • Macho Culture
  • Youth Engagement
  • Subtle Racism

With at least 60 time slots across the weekend, there were plenty of options to choose from! After we filled all the slots (and then some), the organisers took to arranging them over the next two days and the attendees chatted further, went to an advance screening of Waru (an NZ film due out this month), or - if you were like me and wanted to rest up for the coming days - went to bed.

Saturday began with free coffees from Ripe Coffee (big ups to them!) and breakfast. Sessions began at 9am and there were 5-6 options for each time slot. There was a lot to choose from, and being a classic Gemini who loves to learn it all, I often hit up a couple sessions in each slot.

The day was packed full with 9 session slots as well as a Whanau group check-in. Then after dinner we had a round of Lightning Talks followed by election coverage, quiet time, another screening of Waru and a dance party (attendees were free to move between the spaces.)

A few of the standout sessions from the weekend for me were:

  • Data Ethics
  • Self-Care
  • Embracing Failure Through Improv
  • How Language Shapes Identity
  • Life Without Kids

I can't think of another event where I would have a chance to learn about and discuss such a range of topics!

What I'm finding really interesting about the event is that a week has passed and there's been lots of connecting going on since through the Facebook group. And there's been all sorts of follow-on - women are sharing info, leaning on each other, asking for advice and support, and finding that the fruits of this weekend will be growing from here on.

The great thing about an unconference is that no two could ever be the same so when the next WWGSD event is up, even if there are some of the same people attending, the conversations and sessions will all be what's relevant for attendees right then and there.

Though I thrive with well-defined structure, I really got a lot out of the unconference. Being based out in the regions, it's awesome to be able to attend an event like this and break out of the routine a little. And now having a wider network of women to keep in touch with, I feel empowered to get more shit done!

It's great that there are a lot of strong supporters on board (shout outs to silver sponsors Talent Army, Silverstripe, Codemania, and the Punakaiki Fund) because making the event accessible to a wider range of attendees really enriches the group. My only regret is that I missed out on the cool pencils!

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