Who says we can’t change the world?

Posted on 25 May 2021

By Denis Moriarty, group managing director, Our Community

One of the things about a global upheaval is that afterwards things that were once taken for granted suddenly have to be justified. Take conferences, for example. I’ve been running the annual Communities in Control conference, aimed at the not-for-profit sector, for 18 years now, with the 19th just coming up. Yet I haven’t asked myself the big question for nearly two decades: Why am I doing this?

Our Community group managing director Denis Moriarty

As conferences go, this is good as it gets. There hasn’t been a year since we started that I wouldn’t have been glad to swap our panel of speakers for the Cabinet of the day. This year, for example, we have Grace Tame, Penny Wong, Uncle Jack Charles, Hugh Mackay, Jess Hill – it goes on. The people who come enjoy it, and are informed, and say they’re inspired. It’s not a big earner, but even in tough years for the sector it breaks even financially – sometimes.

I have to ask, though: is that good enough? Does it justify, collectively, spending more than a year of my life on it?

There are two possible flaws in the picture.

One is that old-school conferences may have been overtaken by technology. Having actual tactile bodies in the same room, being talked at by a breathing meatsack – isn’t that a bit Neanderthal? Are we going to be swept away by the irresistible tide of iPhoneisation that’s eliminating whole sectors of the economy?

It’s not as if we haven’t tried. Last year we held the conference all-online, without a coffee cart, a vegan sandwich or a beer between us. It worked well enough – and people enjoyed it, and were informed, and said they were inspired. The talks were of a uniformly high quality. I was afraid that people wouldn’t hang on online through a whole hour’s worth, but I was wrong. It was much easier for interstaters to attend than ever before, which is important. So why not leave it there? Why come back out of the cloud?

The other possible drawback is that we’ve been pointing the way forward for 18 years and we are, nonetheless, where we are. Our communitarian ideals – indeed, any attempts to suggest that society’s status quo isn’t necessarily right – are still dismissed by Canberra as sentimental utopianism. We’ve tried evidence, logic, and persuasion – what will it take?

Well, more of the same. The historian and sociologist Max Weber once defined politics as ‘a strong and slow boring of hard boards’. The public mind can shift, and has shifted. Coffee does promote the exchange of opinion, and even the changing of minds, and conferences do make strange lunchfellows. New linkages emerge. New alliances are generated. New possibilities open up.

We’re not bigoted. This year’s conference is a hybrid. If you can’t come along in person, you can link up online and chat on social media. Are we getting the best of both worlds, or watering both forms down? Let’s try the experiment.

I’m optimistic. That’s why I do it.

Communities in Control ran from Monday-Tuesday, May 17-18, 2021 in Melbourne and online. Read a summary of the event.

Denis Moriarty is group managing director of OurCommunity.com.au, a social enterprise helping Australia's 600,000 not-for-profits.

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