By Diana Siegel-Garcia
Using my professional development fund, I was afforded the opportunity to attend PolicyLink’s Equity Summit 2018 in Chicago, Illinois this past April. My interest was piqued after reading one of their reports on how the Arts and Culture sector can positively impact equitable urban design and healthy cities. There was a special shout-out to South Minneapolis’ American Indian Cultural Corridor, and how it was intentionally developed to best serve the community through transit-oriented arts programming in the midst of setting up the Blue Line. My academic background is in urban planning and the fine arts, so, I am always excited to see other folks/city planning interweaving these two sectors to move towards creating holistic communities centering cities’ vulnerable populations. Plus, it is better looking than any brutalist architectural design devoid of color (for any architect reading this, please consider designing for humans, not just Architectural Digest).
So in August (I told you I’m a planner, didn’t I?), I decided I would spend my professional development funds to attend a national convening where prominent leaders of diverse sectors, well mainly the nonprofit, philanthropy, political, and policy sectors, came together in the Windy City (it’s obligatory to refer to Chicago as the Windy City at least once when writing about it, and thrice when physically present) to impart wisdom, update the nation as to what is happening in their beloved communities, and truly watch some nonprofit worthy tea be spilled (for a more controversial, perhaps titillating, tale of my time at the Summit, let us spill tea at a cafe).
So why did I bother to attend such a large national conference with a bunch of people that I find to be super intimidating?
Well, dear readers, if you are like me, and love a good listicle, you are in luck!
- Get inspired! How can you not when you are surrounded by a beautiful, diverse mix of people from all over the country, sometimes even hailing from Canada, passionate about their work? Just asking people why they do their work, what brought them to it, and asking why they think you should pursue a similar sector is so insightful, even if you don’t see yourself entering that sector for the long-term.
- If your C3 Professional Development/AmeriCorps funding doesn’t foot the bill, there are usually discounts/scholarships available to make it financially feasible. Why not take advantage of your ability to attain discounts to attend a sweet conference?
- No matter your stance on networking, conferences like these are prime for networking. But be pragmatic and strategic about it! Especially when you are attending a session that is in line with your work, strike up a conversation to whoever is next to you. I mean, you can always do this, no matter what session you’re in, but when you’re feeling low energy, reserve energy for that session that is speaking to your heart.
- Challenge yourself – do you find large rooms of distinguished scholars and knowledge experts (I literally have no idea what that means but I heard someone say it once, so there you go, you are welcome. Now you too can sound like you know what you are saying) intimidating? Do you find small talk/networking an impersonal, yawnful experience? Challenge yourself (while always maintaining your safety, of course) to do a thing that you don’t typically get to do in your day-to-day. Be it the happy hour dance party, or the “small” session of 50 people, or the large panel with 700 people – wherever your comfort zone lives, stretch it.
- Learn something new! Are you super in it with your VISTA position/organization/personal organizing group, and are interested in learning more about a different advocacy group/initiative but feel pressured for time that you cannot take on another thing yet feel guilty that you cannot make the time for all of these other wonderful things that are happening (No? Just me then?)? Conferences are great for assuaging those fears/guilt/anxiety over not doing or being enough! Plus, it’s like the same time it would take to listen to a podcast, read a couple of articles, and process it all over with a quippy meme.
- Explore a new city, or maybe a city you’ve been to before, maybe even St Paul (#stpshade), but now under the lens of whatever conference topic you are attending. It was my first time in Chicago, and a first time in any city can always be a little disorienting and exciting, but going to Chicago while my weekdays were immersed in a conference very much rooted in place and time made my first trip to Chicago memorable in a different kind of way than a trip for vacation. Different details popped out to me and synthesized my learnings within a very real context that only enhanced my explorations.
So there you go! Six reasons why you should go forth and conference! Be confident that your presence is valuable and wanted. Make those connections, absorb new learnings, get inspired, and take care of yourself – conferences are an exhausting marathon, but you got this!