Most conferences have a long ramp-up period before attendees fully start to engage with each other. This was not the case at Feedback+San Juan. By the time I had taken in the beautiful view of the ocean from Indigo Room A (where our plenaries took place), I was pulled into an affinity table discussion about the challenges of collecting and analyzing feedback. In essence, that was the theme of the gathering–difficult, challenging, and collaborative discussions made slightly less challenging by the stunning expansive blue water. At my first affinity table, we asked each other about our biggest challenges when collecting feedback, asked for advice on how to deal with large volumes of feedback, brainstormed on how to be inclusive, and bonded over the seemingly endless challenges we face as practitioners in the feedback space. It was immediately obvious to me that this conference was not going to be a passive one. It would be filled with energy, catalytic interactions, out-of-the box questions, and provoking solutions.
The most engaging part of the whole conference was the Labstorm. I had the privilege of going to see La Conde Project. La Conde is a community of local activists trying to rebuild a school and community center on a school property that was shut down by Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Education. The fearless women leading the project took us on a tour of the property, spoke about the past glory of the site, their innovative plans for the future, and their participatory design process. After touring the community garden, the former school, and the former community center, we sat down to discuss specific challenges the organization was facing.
The most compelling part of Labstorms is the free, unencumbered sharing of ideas and experiences among a diverse group of people. Experts in fields ranging from photography to educational philanthropy were speaking about the nuances of community engagement. In multiple languages, across multiple sectors, and through multiple experiences, we were able to come up with three concrete feedback collection methods that La Conde can take to design their space. Over fresh grapes and watermelon, we nodded, “hmm”-ed, shared, and learned.
I work in the startup world. Consumed by the fast pace of entrepreneurship, it’s hard to slow down, take a breath, and open the floor to new and innovative ideas from others. Collaborations like Labstorms are important because they foster a candid conversation and see all participants as equals in their expertise and problem-solving ability, where everyone can share, and where everyone can learn. There’s no imbalance of power in Labstorms; it’s a true brainstorm where a diverse group of people put their stories together to advance a cause or organization. I’ve truly never seen anything like it before. And, I will definitely take this model with me when I find myself in a room of varied expertise and a problem to solve.
This Labstorm taught me that it can be fun to ask for help, that I can gather a group of strangers of all ages and backgrounds, and they will engage, ask questions, and offer guidance to each other. Moving forward, I will make sure to pose challenges I face in my work as questions–this way I can ask for experiences that will inform solutions from those that have faced similar issues. I can also learn to see feedback and collaboration in a more joyful light.
After we finished our session, underneath the sun with fresh fruit in our bellies, looking out across El Yunque, leaders at La Conde led us in a dance. It was a dance of celebration, with upbeat music, laughter, and smiles. I left the LabStorm dancing, feeling that brainstorms and collaboration are celebratory. No matter how steep the challenge you’re facing is, you can always come together, learn from each other, and find a moment to dance.