I have so much I want to say about OpenCon.
I wondered when I was getting on the plane, if it was going to be like going to see that movie everyone you know has raved about. If I was bound to be disappointed.
In this case, OpenCon was everything I was told it would be. Everything I expected. And more.
What made it so awesome? Well, I think I’ve narrowed it down to three things...
First let me say that the majority of "international" conferences I have attended have largely been dominated by North American cis-gender white dudes. It was immediately clear that OpenCon is different, with people from 62 countries spanning 6 continents represented in the room. This in itself is incredibly important. Sometimes, when we talk about “open," it can be taken for granted that only the West (and/or Global North) is represented, and thus the conversation has already excluded important and critical voices. The amazing effort of ensuring diversity in participation was immediately evident.
And these people are doing incredible things. In one of our first sessions, we told the stories of how we came to open. I met a young entrepreneur engaged in bringing digital learning experiences to Bangladeshi children; an early career researcher who had established a lab using discarded equipment that brought community members together for "citizen science"; and a doctoral student and educator working to contextualize and decolonize the work and to bring the best of open back to his home country. And there were others representing organizations such as Software Carpentry, the Centre for Open Science, and PLOS. Each story was unique, and each person's path to OpenCon was varied and inspiring. We had been warned in the morning by a previous participant that there would be heart-fire...and it had already started.
Throughout the next 3 days, I felt consistently humbled by the company I found myself in. Each hour, each panel, each unconference session, each coffee break, was punctuated by another incredible human advocating for the shared belief that opening access, education, and data, is a critical social justice movement.
The most amazing takeaway (other than tangible ideas for "what's next" in terms of my personal advocacy) is a whole community of thoughtful, wickedly smart colleagues.
On our last night, a large group of us sang away the evening in Berlin. I smiled so hard that night my cheeks hurt. I look forward to working (and singing) with these colleagues in the days, weeks, months, and years to come!
The work is diverse. While my primary work area has been focused on Open Education, I learned so much more about the complexities and pursuits of Open Access and Open Data initiatives. It was clear that traditional ways of knowing, being, doing and sharing are no longer sustainable. The open web together with the rapid and ongoing evolution of digital spaces, means that it is critical that our institutions shift and afford researchers improved, more ethical and inclusive ways of communicating their work.
The work is nuanced. Each of us, in our own efforts as individuals, and in our roles at our institutions or organizations, will likely only make small inroads at first. The work will be a meditation in patience. There will be pitfalls and frustrations. It will be hard. But the sustained and united effort will make a difference. As Lorraine, one of the organizers, reminded us with this quote:
We have two choices. We can be pessimistic, give up, and help ensure that the worst will happen. Or we can be optimistic, grasp the opportunities that surely exist, and maybe help make the world a better place. Not much of a choice. -Noam Chomsky
And so, I’m ready to move forward and refuse to be anything but optimistic.
The work must also be thoughtful of multiple contexts. It is for this reason that we split off into groups on the second day to work on "problems" relevant along geographic lines.
Working from a design thinking approach, our room was tasked with answering the question, "How might we navigate and change power structures within academia to support greater openness?"
One of the highlights for me was the realization that many of our challenges (in North America) are very similar. We discussed multiple definitions of power, and the discussion underlined many complexities - including an examination of the traditional "roles" on our campuses, the identification of external influences, and more, a broad call out of the underlying systemic and oppressive ideologies that permeate our culture - we have some work to do.
Splitting up in this way, however, also revealed to me how little I understand the challenges outside of my own context. So I need to keep listening, keep challenging my own biases, and keep expanding my own knowledge so as not to perpetuate the power structures we discussed.
The third day was a "do-a-thon". We used GitHub to organize projects and/or challenges, and each person was free to come and go and make contributions along the way. At first this was paralyzing for me. I wanted to do it ALL. In the end though, I contributed to a podcast (after turning the coat room into a make-shift recording and transcribing studio), an OER repository (moving beyond textbooks), made connections with humanists and social scientists wanting to provide more space and support for their disciplines in the "open" conversation, and made some super-awesome GIFs. All in a day's work.
Storytelling felt central to the conference. From the story circles mentioned above, to the narratives that were woven throughout the three days, each of us had a story. Some of our stories were just beginning. Some were emotional. All were compelling.
With this theme in mind, I found two things particularly resonant.
The first is the necessity to conceive of new ways to tell our stories. How can we better support early career researchers in telling their stories? How can we better mobilize our knowledge to ensure meaningful impacts and interactions? How can we ground our efforts in what we already know about transmedia practices and multimedia literacies toward new fluencies for scholarly communication and output? How can we use these same tools and techniques to tell the story of open itself? These questions offer us a place to start in terms of laying the groundwork for what comes next. If we get better at telling our stories, our advocacy efforts will be strengthened accordingly.
The second is the provocation (and necessity) of asking critical questions. I think many attendees would agree that the most powerful stories surfaced during the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion panel. For me, this was without a doubt the most important session of the entire conference. Grounded in the stories of four participants, the panel sought to interrogate power dynamics and privileges that exist within our systems and how they reinforce the marginalization of voices and bodies traditionally left out or not heard. At a conference such as this, where attendees tend to be philosophically aligned, there exists a temptation to navel gaze, and this panel momentarily interrupted the dominant narrative in the most important way. It’s my belief that each of us must be critically reflective in our approaches. This panel affirmed, more than ever, the importance of acknowledging and including multiple perspectives, and asking ourselves “who is missing?", "whose knowledge is reliable?", and also "what need not be open?".
And so we must continue to make sure that our stories are heard as we choose. We must offer to amplify the voices of others, rather than speaking for them. We need to talk about our successes and our failures. We must continue to ask critical questions of ourselves and the movement. That’s the only way we’ll be able to change and to grow.
For this person, this work, in the next year, will continue to be about storytelling. Sharing not only my own story, and the broader story of open, but also working to empower those around me to tell their own, if they choose, in new and just ways.
Through critical practice, I want to help write the story of "open" on my campus.
Though it’s just beginning and is bound to be emotional, I’m sure it will be compelling.
Thanks #OpenCon and my fellow "Open Rebel Alliance".....until next time.