By Chitra Jha September 2013 Chitra Jha attended an ‘unconference’ and revelled in the chaos and energy of the vibrant environment in which issues closest to people’s hearts were discussed, some solutions emerged, and everyone felt engaged and energised by the process I had learnt about the Learning Societies’ yearly un-conferences, from a Facebook friend, about two years ago, but somehow could not attend any. So this time when I came across their web page – yet again, as though by accident – I decided to make it happen. There were two primary reasons for the quick decision. One, I knew that there are no accidents in this universe, and two; the venue was Mahindra United World College of India, Pune. About a decade ago, I had walked into the hallowed portals of MUWCI with my younger son, Shurjo, in tow, seeking admission for him in their famous IB diploma programme. Shurjo did not make it, but the beautiful memory of that exotic place remained etched in my mind. And here was my chance to spend six full days experiencing its charm, while doing whatever they do at un-conferences! I had no clue about that! Another attraction was the fact that this un-conference was being offered as a gift. Could it get better than that? I have been a proponent and participant of gift economy for almost a year now, offering my healing sessions and workshops as gifts and gratefully receiving whatever others offer in return as a gift; hence, it felt like home turf to me! After sending my return-gift to the organisers, I chose to learn about them and their work. I learnt that this was the 8th un-conference (the earlier un-conferences had happened at places like Himachal Pradesh, outskirts of Mumbai, Udaipur, Zimbabwe, Tehran, Brazil, and Lebanon). The primary movers and shakers behind this un-conference were individuals from Shikshantar, an Udaipur-based people’s institute for re-thinking education and development; Swaraj University, an Udaipur-based university that focuses upon self-designed learning and green entrepreneurship; Play for Peace, a global learning community dedicated to bringing children, youth and organisations together using co-operative play; and Swashikshan – the Indian association of home-schoolers and un-schoolers, who believe in minimally invasive self-directed-education. Their profiles intrigued me. They seemed like rebels who had found their peace in alternative ways of living. My curiosity deepened. Eagerly looking forward to an inter-generational gathering of thinkers, doers, seekers, social activists, spiritual healers, organic farmers, film-makers, artists, artisans, designers, entrepreneurs, barefoot innovators, conscious parents, alternative educators, home-schoolers, un-schoolers, scientists, communicators, wild-life enthusiasts, environmentalists, children, youth, retired folks, and more, I reached the venue the night before the event was to take off. In the eerie darkness, the campus looked even more mysterious than I had remembered. There was a whiff of warm welcome in its air; which was further reinforced by helpful volunteers. The first day was electric. Most people kind of knew each other; either through earlier un-conferences or other similar interest groups. It was interesting to note that quite a few of them could connect my name with my writings in Life Positive, thus earning me many friends amongst strangers. The democratic community spirit was evident all around as people smiled, laughed, hugged, held hands, helped, assisted, and chose their dormitory-mates. The generosity of MUWCI too was evident, as the college had made available almost all its facilities to the delegates. The entire 100-plus acre campus reverberated with joyous anticipative laughter. I did not know what to anticipate, as nothing that I had read/heard/learnt had prepared me for the chaotic, energetic, and opinionated melee of about 500-plus people of all denominations, inclinations, perspectives, nationalities, states, and ages. To add to the drama, confusion, noise, inclusiveness, and playfulness, a couple of canines and felines too participated in most gatherings with great assertiveness and entitlement. Creating spaces for ideas to sprout and disseminateGradually, over the next few days, as the un-conference unfolded and managed itself, clarity emerged from the chaos. Two things that became clearly evident were the power of Open Spaces, and Self-Responsibility. Each day began with community dancing, games, and small group sharing. Later, all the participants would sit together in a large circle without any pre-determined agenda and while connecting with their inner self decide if they would like to offer anything as a gift. This had to be communicated to the entire community through a bulletin board, clearly defining what one wished to offer, when and where. This created a ‘market place’ of many breakout groups/spaces, where the rest of the participants were free to flow/move around; learning, contributing and generally ‘shopping’ for information, experience and ideas. It was interesting to see how the agenda would be created, each day one day after day, without any direction or facilitation, and more than 50 breakouts, customised sessions, would be offered at any given time. The subjects of the sessions were as varied as the delegates themselves. I could not note down all that was offered but my list reads topics like massage therapy, acupressure, yogic breathing, bird-watching, trekking, sharing personal stories, creating free websites, natural farming, seed collection, environmental protection, sustainable development, alternative living, agricultural communities, intentional spiritual communities, crochet work, community radio, free make-up, free hair-cuts, interpretation of dreams, healing relationships, past-life regression therapy, non-violent communication, finding happiness, gift culture, Kabir, re-cycling, restorative circles, parenting, painting, origami, top spinning, hoola-hoop dancing, empathy, mind mapping, fire meditation, soul power, solar power, renewable energy, early childhood learning, sexuality, attitude of gratitude, gender violence, gender healing, strategies for unlearning, influencing policy-making, hyper-male centrism, unravelling the gift of conflict, re-imagining universities, discovering yourself, neuro-plasticity, sustainable designs, re-designing urban spaces, ‘live’ sign-posts, democratic schools, alternative schooling, home schooling, unschooling, enriching the learning experience, lavani dance, behaviour design for health and rapid learning, conscious spirituality, livable-lovable-affordable architecture, education for life system, Swaraj university, Bhoomi network college, sustainability education, coping with death, guided meditation, finding your voice, experiencing silence, drum circles, belly dancing, high thinking-simple living, conscious eating, magic tricks, game-athon, building values in communities, exploring sensuality, deepening dialogues, possibility-thinking, relevance of knowledge, Sadhna forest, welcoming the un-guru within, alternative kitchen, one-month alternative to two-year MBA, expressing self through body, possibility in every seed, poetry writing and recitation, internet marketing, vegetable dyeing, organic textiles, exploration-based schools, importance of honeybees, radical ecological democracy, tarot reading, social justice, ecological sustainability, ethical business practices, self-directed learning process, identifying your heart’s vision, manifesting your visions, unique learning paths, right livelihood opportunities, strengthening leadership capacities, creating portfolios based upon one’s experiences, healing from diploma disease, making bio-gas at home, love, marriage, pain to laughter, co-learning, intuitive play, celebrating the human being, re-thinking urban lifestyles, challenging the monopoly of conventional schooling, nurturing diverse learning communities, vernacular traditions, and inter-cultural dialogues. Besides these, there were LSuC talks (a la TED talks), dances, games, acrobatics, singing, and jamming. In short, it was a never-before-experienced jamboree! The guiding principles for each open space were: 1. Whoever comes to a meeting are the right people. 2. Whenever the meeting starts is the right time. 3. Wherever the meeting happens is the right place. 4. Whatever happens in the meeting is the only thing that could have happened. 5. When the meeting is over, it is over. We also followed the ‘Law of two feet’ or the ‘Law of mobility’, which states that if you find yourself in a situation where you are neither learning, nor contributing, use your two feet to go someplace else. Thus, all participants had the right and responsibility to maximise their own learning and contribution, which only they could judge and control. This law facilitated the ‘butterfly’ approach, whereby the participants flitted from one session to another; while also encouraging the ‘bumblebee’ variety, who stuck to one particular session until the very end. It created a vibrant environment in which the issues that were closest to people’s hearts were discussed, some solutions emerged, and everyone felt engaged and energised by the process. I was amazed by all the complexity, issues of concern (and ideas worth discussing), diversity in terms of skills and talents, genuine care for all creatures, and a high level of urgency to act. My first collective experience in harnessing and acknowledging the power of self-organisation made me understand that it mimicked the process of life itself. Life, too, offers us sufficient richness in the points of views to achieve novel solutions. It also exposes us to passion, creative juice, focus, and power to move things along. A regular
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