I had the honor of joining the annual Scratch Conference, held this year in Amsterdam. I’ll post some reflections about the conference shortly.
In the meantime, here are the notes from my talk about how learning events can unlock the creative power of your community and make positive social change.
From birthday parties to board meetings, from weddings to annual conferences. We human beings have events in our blood.
As educators and activists, events are a powerful tactic. They can be designed for learning, for creativity, for social change. And as we’ve all experienced, sometimes events can be dull, disempowering, even detrimental to the cause.
Today I’d like to share some reflections about events.
How can we deliver them in a way that embodies our communities’ values? That transforms learning through creativity, that challenges and redistributes power, and strengths the real relationships that will sustain and grow our efforts?
Transformative Power of Events
Events have been pretty transformative in my own life.
About 10 years ago, I heard about an online community. They were attempting to write an encyclopedia. It was going to contain all the world’s knowledge, in all the world’s languages. And it was free for anyone to read and contribute to.
At some point, this online community decided it wanted to meet in-person. So I convinced my mom to take me on the train to Frankfurt, for the first Wikimania.
And over coffee with Serbian mathematicians and workshops with Kenyan health educators, I met the community—the real people—who were making Wikipedia.
I felt inspired, connected, purposeful.
That in-person event compelled me to get involved in internet activism.
I joined Creative Commons, and later the Mozilla Foundation.
Events became an important tactic for my work in those organizations.
From large festivals to annual campaigns, to local learning groups and facilitator trainings, events are an essential are a way to engage, to grow our efforts.
To begin, I observed how other groups did events.
For example, people organizing for social justice pay close attention to the power dynamics of their events.
They design events to be inclusive, participatory. They facilitate instead of lecture. They create space for others to grow, to mentor each other, to become leaders in the community.
I later learned that this is what progressive educators do, too.
More and more, I’m learning from communities like Scratch and practitioners like yourself.
I’m still relatively new to the education scene. But I see deep alliance with social activism and teaching the web and digital skills.
Allow me to share some things I’m learning about organizing events for social change and creative making.
Anatomy of an event
The anatomy of an event is very simple: At a minimum it’s two, or more, people who meet for a reason.
These are your participants and your agenda.
Let’s talk first about participants. These are human beings, after all, and there are two or more of them. That means you have to think about the power dynamics between them.
Whether we like it or not, all humans enter social interactions with a status, perceived or expressed.
Forgive the crude examples, but image a king holding court starts off high status.
Then a jester makes public a joke about him, thereby lowering the king’s status and raising the jester’s own.
Or a TV song contestant enters the stage with a perceived low status, and then begins to sing in the most beautiful of way, elevating her status and lowering that of the judges who had at first dismissed her.
A status isn’t directly related to someone’s economic or social position, although it often correlates.
And status is not always pegged to factors like class, race, age and gender, although those definitely contribute to perceived and expressed status.
Status shows up with you at the door, but it’s also fluid.
It depends on context, on the others in the room. On your actions and theirs.
Status can be exchanged.
A great teacher, just like a great event organizer, knows how to exchange status.
You masterfully calibrate your own position—from authority to jester, from sage to n00b, from entertainer to servant, and everything in between.
These calibrations help to elevate and transform the status of your participants, your learners.
The shifting of status is central to good, creative learning event. It’s what gives it momentum and purpose.
The transfer of power—that’s your agenda.
A case study: Mozfest
As progressive educators, these techniques are no doubt familiar to you.
Through your conferences and meet-ups, through your classroom that’s flipped, across all directions, and through how you participate in online communities,
You know we’re always exchanging power. And we can channel that in positive ways.
I’d like to share a case study for how I’ve tried to play with these power dynamics at events with the goal of unlocking the creativity and collective power of a community.
For the last six years, I’ve curated an event called Mozfest. It’s the Mozilla Foundation’s largest public-facing festival.
We gather educators, activists, and technologists of many stripes, to grow as leaders by teaching each other and their communities how to read, write and participate on the web.
I’m most proud of the fact that last year, out of the 2000 participants who attended, 1 in 4 of them facilitated a session. That’s 500 facilitators at one event.
There’s no way a single person or one central organizing team can support hundreds of facilitators. So for this model to succeed, we had to distribute leadership.
That meant cultivating over 50 community curators, who in turn helped coach and mentor all of the session facilitators. and thereby honed their collective facilitative craft, together.
This is how you can experience leadership development. You get better at facilitating by facilitating. And you get even better at it when you have to teach it to others.
And as organizers and educators, we have a huge opportunity to bring experiential learning to our communities— especially as a way to develop the leadership skills by teaching our communities to teach each other.
It’s more work, but it’s worth it.
My experience of doing this at Mozfest means that power is transferred from the few—such as the institutional hosts, the organizers, and the keynote speakers—to the many.
We create space for all facilitators to improve their craft, which in turn improves the experience of their sessions’ participants, who then can take that learning home to their contexts as well.
And no doubt, as many of you know as well, changing the power dynamics is a lot of work.
It means more preparation. More intention. More self-monitoring. It also means letting go.
At a creative learning event, be it your classroom or a big community conference, you are creating a framework to distribute power.
Your learners and participants are discovering and developing their own agency—so their status will increase the more they participate.
Importantly, you can prepare your learners to support each other. Invite them to mentor their peers. To take on facilitative responsibilities. Challenge them to take ownership of the event, and of their learning.
As their own capacity becomes unlocked, as they begin to bend and brake your model, beautiful, unexpected things will emerge.
You will have to adjust. You will have to adapt. Your best plan will fly out the window. Yet if it’s truly right, you will also be able to let go.
To conclude, Id like to share with you three tactics.
Whether you are an organizer, an educator, or just someone who wants to affect a positive change, may these tactics modestly serve and help you in your work:
1. Design for transformation.
To interact is to be human. Being human means exchanging power. Know that and harness it constructively in your learning events.
That means asking the quiet participants to step up, the loud ones to step down. That means being prepared for your status to change, as your learners grow.
2. Distribute, distribute, distribute.
Every event is an opportunity for your community to grow as facilitative leaders.
A quick rule of thumb: invite 20% of your participants to take on more facilitative responsibilities at the event.
Identify those emerging leaders beforehand, and coach them in supporting others. And if you get that humming along, challenge those leaders to identify the next emerging leaders and become allies for them.
3. Adjust, adapt and let go.
A plan is the first causality of an event.
So you will inevitably have to adjust and adapt. That’s a given, so be prepared for it and embrace it.
And when your distributed leaders are in full swing, helping transform their peers and the generation after them, then you are ready to let go.
Experience it yourself
I invite you to experience this yourself.
Come to Mozfest this year. It takes place in London, from November 6 – 8. All are welcome!
You can also see how Mozilla applies this approach beyond the festival, through our network of educators and activists.
We have curriculum to teach web literacy, including some activities created in collaboration with Scratch educators. As well as leadership development programs and advocacy work. Check it out at teach.mozilla.org..
Lastly, join in a conversation about facilitative leadership. How do you train and support leaders in your community? What resources and toolkits would you like to see? What other groups can we learn from and model after?
What can we do together for unlock the creativity of our communities at live events?