Reflections of a Kitchen Table Conference

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Back in October 2013 I conceived an idea that it would be good to host a “Kitchen Table Conference” in my home. It was a concept I came up with during an hour drive from my home in the McLaren Vale wine region, to meet with colleagues in Adelaide. I wrote up my musings at the time, but it took me a while to pull together the courage to go through with it!

9 months later, along with my Engage2Act colleagues, I hosted 33 people in my home for a day of storytelling, dialogue and even a touch of place-making around the piano. I am writing this blog to reflect on the process. And to tell you what a great time I had!

I’d wanted to arrange some kind of ‘showcase’ event for stories of community engagement over the course of a day, but knew I wanted to keep the cost low to enable participation from a diverse group of people. My house is fairly open plan and it dawned on me that I’d happily host friends for a summer bbq, or a mid-winter Sunday lunch, so why wouldn’t I open it up for a group of work colleagues?

The more I thought about it, the more I loved the idea of hosting a conference about community engagement at my home. In the world of involving communities in Government decision-making processes, we all too often refer to the community as if they are another breed or species – when actually we are ALL community! I loved the idea that I could provide a homely, warm and welcoming environment to enable professionals working in the community engagement sector to find their inner-Citizen! As it turns out, they didn’t take much convincing. People arrived at my front door as if they were old friends coming for lunch. I’d say there was a ‘smart casual’ atmosphere both in dress and attitude. Compared to a ‘normal’ conference environment, I immediately noticed how everyone instantly connected, there was very limited ‘awkwardness’ and a lot of excitement in the house!

Kitchen Table Conference

On arrival, people grabbed a name tag (ok ok, it was called a conference so we needed some formality – and I have been known to name tag my guests at social functions too!) and collected their coffee order which was made for them by the fabulous owners of our local bakery who’d set up a portable coffee machine in the kitchen! Thanks to the clever tools of Eventbrite, I’d been able to collect coffee orders as people bought their tickets which helped things run really smoothly!

We kicked things off with a welcome which consisted of me standing on the little step ladder my daughter normally uses for brushing her teeth! One of my local Elected Members, and Deputy Mayor Councillor Gail Kilby gave an official welcome – but note that she’d bought a ticket to attend prior to me asking her to do this! There was something really nice in knowing that the official dignitary doing the welcome, genuinely WANTED to be there!

I’d planned to do some speed networking as part of the warm up but sensed by the high energy in the room that this wasn’t necessary. The energy was already high. People were already networking. One piece of feedback I heard after the event was that everyone didn’t get to meet everyone, and some kind of facilitated networking activity would have helped this BUT it just didn’t feel right to force things in this relaxed, homely environment.

The conference attracted almost a carbon copy of Engage2Act’s definition of people interested in citizen engagement –┬ámotivated citizens, engagement practitioners, community group representatives, students, government, and private sector. I was proud that by offering both a corporate rate ($65) and a community rate ($15) we were able to diversify engagement. As with all Engage2Act events, this was a not-for-profit event with the money we received from ticket sales being spent on the lunch, coffee, fruit, drinks, a printer cartridge (I like signs!) and getting my house cleaned the day before!

As the local caterers, Studio Voodoo, arrived and began preparing our 100% vegan and low Gluten lunch (tip: Save time in dealing with dietary requirements when arranging a conference – just make the whole conference vegan and gluten free!), the stories began. When I put out a call for storytellers earlier in the year, I had 8 people come forward so I decided to run 4 stories in the morning, and 4 in the afternoon. Everyone gathered around in small groups – in the play room (a perfect setting for a story about a breastfeeding consultation, with a 9-month old present!), around the piano, in the lounge room and of course, around the kitchen table.

It occurred to me that I hadn’t ‘vetted’ any of the stories that were going to be told. I didn’t know anything about the quality of the stories, the style of the presenters, or most importantly the quality of the community engagement that was to be shared. It was a big risk but I was comforted that even the biggest corporate money-making conferences don’t vet their speakers or stories – and they charge a fortune to attend! And anyway, who am I to judge whether someone’s story is any good or not?

2What I instantly noticed was the intensity of the conversations that were occurring. The speakers had been briefed that PowerPoint was strictly banned and that things would be very informal. They would tell their story and open up the conversation. People could tell their own stories too. This worked well – and the variety of styles the storytellers brought to the process was refreshing. I loved seeing people lying on the rugs, sitting back on the sofa, putting the kettle on, moving furniture around – making themselves at home.

Over lunch (on the day named as the best conference lunch, ever – a sandwich free event) the conversation continued. Some conversations were about community engagement, others were just about life in general! People spread themselves out around the house and even enjoyed a glass of local wine along with their good conversation. When in Rome and all that!

The afternoon continued with equal gusto and enthusiasm from both storytellers and participants. By the end of the day, participants had had the opportunity to hear about citizen engagement relating to a breastfeeding project, Marine Parks, Deep Creek Conservation Park, rail revitalisation, place-making and participatory budgeting, community development in Darwin, tram lines, and co-design examples. Yes, this conference was in my house. Yes, it was fun. But the quality of the stories shared rivalled any corporate conference in our sector.

We had a dedicated social media ‘tweeter’ for the day (thank you Andrew) who kept the flow of events happening online. The conversations attracted a few gate-hashers (where you follow the hashtag of a conference from a location other than at the conference) and I was able to stream the #engage2act tweets via the TV for all to see. Being one of the lucky few in the country to have the NBN at our house (and home office), we were able to provide free, fast wi-fi to conference attendees via a dedicated network. I also set up a ‘charging station’ for iPhones that lost energy during the day!

Kitchen Table ConferenceWe ended the conference with a quick gathering around the kitchen bench top where everyone was asked to write down the ONE thing that the successful community engagement activity they’d heard about had in common. As a group we then attempted to sort them in to themes – and there were similarities of thought emerging. But this activity was short-lived as I realised it wasn’t essential to round things up in a neat and orderly fashion and declared the conference closed and that it was time to move to a winery for a tasting!

Around 90% of conference delegates joined the car convoy to McLaren Vale Winemakers where we were treated to a group wine tasting and talk from the winemaker, whilst our conversations continued. People told me they’d had a great day, new connections were made, some felt inspired and all sorts of new ideas were being talked about.

So all in all, it was a success. I planned to send out an evaluation form after the conference but my inner-citizen told me not to. Instead I’ll measure the success on the smiles I saw at my kitchen table, the flowing conversations, the follow up projects that are occurring and the tired but happy look on conference delegates faces as they left in their car-shares back to the City.

I’d happily repeat this experience but am not sure I want to. There’s something cool about having a go at something and that being that. It was great. But I don’t expect to now make a thing of this Kitchen Table Conference concept. But it has opened my eyes to ideas of putting ourselves in different environments as part of our working lives as a way of keeping things fresh, innovative and inspiring.

My inner-Citizen is telling me she wants a BBQ at the beach next!

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