It was a unique opportunity for dialogue. Two and a half months after Britain’s stunning vote to leave the European Union, the Washington, D.C.–based Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) held its annual European conference. This was the first CASE Europe conference held outside of the United Kingdom, where most of CASE’s European members are based. Instead, in a fitting geographical twist, the location was Brussels. And as they met in the EU’s capital city, conference attendees — who work in higher-education fundraising, alumni relations, and communications — had a chance to discuss Brexit with peers from 35 countries, and to expose themselves to different viewpoints.
“Most of the Britons I talked to were devastated,” said Maarten Vervaat, director of university outreach and advancement for The American University of Paris, and a panelist on one of two Brexit sessions that CASE Europe’s London staff added to the conference. “It was almost an expression of the first stage of grief: shock.”
Yet for many continental Europeans like Vervaat, who hails from the Netherlands, that shock made it difficult for UK participants to look beyond their own perspective — which is why conversations like these are so essential. They force people to think differently. At the CASE session, one audience member noted that at the university where she works, many of the students voted for Brexit. “We can’t assume that everyone is on our side,” she said, “because they’re not.”
These discussions are vital in an increasingly divided world. Think about it: In a period of less than six months, not only did the United Kingdom vote to leave the European Union, but the United States and Russia flirted with a new Cold War, the migrant crisis ignited discontent throughout Europe, and Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign included calls for building walls and enacting travel bans.
Indeed, the U.S. presidential election is a microcosm of society turning against itself. How polarized have things become? In 1976, about 27 percent of Americans lived in “landslide counties” — a county where one candidate won by 20 points or more. Today, that number is 60 percent, according to research by Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. And the more clustered we become, the more “ideologically inbred” we are, Bishop said in an interview, which further intensifies partisan animosity. The last 20 years bear him out. From 1994 to 2014, a Pew Research Center survey found, highly negative views of the other U.S. political party more than doubled.
In this hyper-partisan, over-agitated, righteously angry environment, every action is a political statement. Vote for Brexit? You’re a xenophobic dinosaur. Support Hillary Clinton? Feminazi tool. In favor of Syrian refugees? ISIS sympathizer. Concerned about Russia? 1962 called.
Remember when it was cool to accumulate Facebook friends? Now it’s better to block — to shut out or shout down anyone who disagrees. So that’s where we are. Unfriending is the new friending. Fake news is news. Outrage is in, discourse is out.
And conferences may be our best hope for creating change. That means your job is more important than ever.
International meetings, conventions, and other business events are melting pots. They’re one of the few settings where people from different parts of the world with potentially different beliefs come together for a shared purpose — a professional interest, a hobby, a cause or mission — and actually, you know, talk. And that leads to unexpected interactions. Like the guy from red Iowa chatting over lunch with the woman from blue New York. Or the dinner group that gathers strangers whose countries might be enemies for an evening in an unknown city.
“Trade shows and conferences always bring people together for a common purpose, even though they may come from uncommon backgrounds,” said John Graham, CAE, president and CEO of ASAE. “What’s different now is that people are further apart.” Because of that, Graham wonders if attendees will be more willing to discuss current events, or anxious to avoid conversations involving politics and policies.
A conference’s professional environment might encourage dialogue. Conversations that cross political divides occur more regularly in the workplace than in other locations, according to Diana C. Mutz, director of the Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics at the University of Pennsylvania, writing in a paper for The Journal of Politics. That’s because employee interactions don’t occur by choice. As Mutz notes, you can’t choose coworkers or customers the way you pick a neighborhood or church. At work, we engage with people who have differing opinions, which may increase our tolerance for opposing viewpoints.
The same thing happens at conferences. People talk. The downside is that those interactions are limited. “The problem is that conventions are episodic,” Bishop said. “Okay, you get together for a weekend with a diverse group of people. But by Sunday night, you’re back home. So many of our communities are like that now — from Burning Man to biker meet-ups to book groups. They lack continuity or commitment, or shared responsibility over time. We come and go as we please. There is no necessity to get along.”
Mutz agrees that sustained interactions help us to better know people. But there’s still value in convening temporarily. “Just knowing that people you like and respect hold differing views encourages greater moderation in political views,” said Mutz, the author of In-Your-Face-Politics: The Consequences of Uncivil Media. “You know there are well-meaning people out there who hold views you may despise. But you are less likely to say scathing and provocative things about those people as a result.”
In the process, we may find that our similarities are deeper than we think. The problem is not necessarily that people are more politically polarized, Mutz noted, but that our political discourse is more toxic. Which makes creating a conference program rooted in free, open, and respectful dialogue all the more vital. “I think perceptions are driven more by incivility,” Mutz said, “than by actual extremity of positions.”
Giving Back, Getting More
At more and more conferences, especially those produced by associations and other nonprofit organizations, community-service projects are as expected as exhibit halls and award ceremonies. According to a 2014 survey by Convene Green — then a business unit within ASAE, today owned by HIP Network — 39 percent of association meeting professionals schedule at least one community-service or legacy event at their meetings. Likewise, most European conferences offer community-service projects to help people in developing countries, according to Sarah Storie-Pugh, executive director of the International Association of Professional Congress Organisers (IAPCO), headquartered in Freshwater, England.
What does that mean when it comes to navigating the world’s cultural, political, and ideological standoffs? The benefits of volunteer projects are numerous. An organization increases connections with its members. Members in turn feel more connected to their organization, and to the host city. A worthy project benefits from free labor. Busy people who normally lack the time to volunteer have a chance to give back. And community service helps groups connect with Millennials, whose ethos is already influencing business events, and will only grow in importance. “It’s something the new generation coming into the workforce expects to see,” Graham said. “They expect that the people they work for, and the conferences they attend, are going to leave the community in a better place than they found it.”
But there’s another intangible quality to volunteering that often gets overlooked. People are talking to those whom they would never talk to otherwise. I discovered this as a short-term volunteer in six countries. You’re working on a specific job — in my case, everything from teaching English in Costa Rica, to working at a special-needs school in China — but the personal interactions frequently have the biggest impact. Because when people work together, laugh together, and sweat together, stereotypes are shattered. You learn about them and they learn about you. And this happens among not just volunteers and locals, but your fellow volunteers as well.
“I absolutely believe that conferences or any program where people meet ‘the other’ can be incredibly valuable,” said Steve Rosenthal, the founder of Cross-Cultural Solutions, an international volunteering organization based in New Rochelle, New York. “People realize that we are not all that different, and that builds bridges. I think this is one of the most powerful weapons we have for good, and for extinguishing the ignorance that breeds mistrust.”
The opportunities for community-service projects are broad. For 16 years, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons has built playgrounds in the cities hosting its conventions. It’s a logical fit: Members treat the fractures and injuries that occur on playgrounds, and they appreciate the opportunity to build safe play areas. In 2016, the Risk Management Society held two community-service days at its Annual Conference & Exhibition in San Diego. Volunteers helped a nonprofit child-care program, and prepared packages for Blessings in a Backpack, which provides children in need with ready-to-eat food. IAPCO always has a community-service component at its Annual Meeting and General Assembly — from 2008, when 40 members planted 40 trees in Auckland, New Zealand, to celebrate the organization’s 40th anniversary, to this past year, when members built a water-efficient, self-sustaining garden for a community in Cape Town, South Africa. The event company i-Entertainment, which creates programs for businesses and associations in the Dallas–Ft. Worth area, offers a “Bikes With Benefits” activity. Teams build bicycles for underprivileged kids, with a catch: The parts are mixed up between different teams, so each group negotiates with the other to successfully build the bikes.
The common denominator: People contribute to something larger than themselves. And in the process, strangers stop being strangers. “People like to give, to share, especially those in the conference world,” Storie-Pugh said, “because communication and sharing knowledge is what conferences are all about.”
‘I Want to Thank You’
At the end of a conference in Oregon, an attendee hugged Adrian Segar. As the founder of Conferences That Work, a Vermont-based consulting company, Segar had facilitated the event, called Fixing Food: What Ails Us & the Economy, a peer conference that examined U.S. food policies. Attendees included government officials, academics, farmers, chefs, students, and migrant farm workers. Several participants were urban gardeners. Attendees were interested in their work, so the gardeners presented a few sessions — which led to the emotional encounter with Segar.
“On the last day, one of the urban gardeners came up to me and said, ‘I want to thank you,’” said Segar, the author of the books The Power of Participation and Conferences That Work. “I asked him why. Tears came to his eyes and he hugged me, saying that his group had been to many food-focused conferences before, but they had never been asked to present. Because the peer process uncovered what his group had been doing, people finally realized the importance of urban gardening.”
Those connections represent the real power of conferences. The power to bring people together. The power to spread information and ideas, and to tackle new challenges. In an age when face-to-face encounters are less frequent, when our divisions seem inescapable, conferences offer an essential service: the chance to break free from our bubbles.