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Beta Members Lead Civic Hall Open House "Unconference"

BY Jessica McKenzie | Wednesday, January 21 2015

Session on "measurable emotional resonance," led by Deanna Zandt (Marina Villela)

From 10am – 3:30pm yesterday, Civic Hall was a hive of activity. Around 300 people attended the open house: taking tours, dropping in on one of the dozen or so “unconference” sessions, and then settling in at desks or the new couches. When it came time to clear the space to prepare for the evening event, many were reluctant to go.

After attending several of the unconference sessions, many of which were run by Civic Hall beta members, a theme emerged. Feelings.

Deanna Zandt explained the importance of “measurable emotional resonance,” which is what she and Sonal Bains help organizations create as the co-founders of Lux Digital. Kerri Kelly, who has launched a new startup called CTZNWELL, asked participants at her unconference session to meditate (literally sit back in your chair with your eyes closed and meditate) on what really matters to them—personally or professionally—and then why they feel that way. Kelly then asked everyone to share with their neighbor.

Jim Gilliam, founder of the hugely successful organizing software NationBuilder, led an unconference session on what it is like to run a tech start up as a community builder. He explained that the most important thing in building community is trust. And to build trust he recommends sitting in a circle quietly—no, silently—until someone feels moved to speak. “Talking shit” outside of the circle is forbidden. And this painful process of sharing is continued until people begin to “empty” themselves.

Although I wasn't expecting to be asked to meditate midday—not that I minded—the overall emphasis on people, on feelings, shouldn't be so surprising. Civic Hall is the “new home for civic tech,” and yet, perhaps because technology has suffused nearly every aspect of our lives, the conversation has shifted. Not to exclude technology, but to take it—for the most part—as par for the course, and to recenter the conversation around people, around community.

Some of the speakers faced skeptical pushback. One attendee at Gilliam's session said his experience with NationBuilder was entirely around fundraising for politicians, and asked point-blank where the community-building was in that.

“People come to us because they have a very specific need,” Gilliam replied. “Like they need to raise money...[but] having a website where you can accept donations doesn't raise money. Building community raises money.”

More tangible subjects were not entirely absent from the unconference. There was a time and place for conversations about tools and policy as well.

At his unconference session, Tim Karr shared his experience doing international advocacy work at Free Press. He observed that when connecting global democracy movements “there's a lot of commonality, at least in the principles, if not in the laws.” And he pointed out that online organizing has cleared the way for unprecedented levels of cross-border organizing.

David Moore, who's with the Participatory Politics Foundation, spoke about his efforts to bring Councilmatic to New York City. He briefly mentioned other government engagement tools, like Loomio and HeartGov, both of which we've covered previously at techPresident.

Other sessions included one by FutureAir's Simone Rothman about the importance of brand guidelines; a DataKind guide to facilitating group collaboration; and Daniel Latorre explaining the smart city 2.0: “The Wise City.”

Disclosure: Civic Hall's COO, Heidi Sieck, is CEO of CTZNWELL.