Decoding the Learning Societies Unconference

by June Mendez

The first Learning Societies Unconference was initiated in India by Manish and Vidhi Jain, Shikshantar Andolan, and held in Udaipur in 2002 to provide a platform for likeminded people to share various ideas and experiments for sustainable living and learning beyond the mainstream development and education paradigm. There were about 80 participants from all walks of life and different parts of the world at the first unconference. The number of participants at last year’s LSUC 2016 in Sardarshahar, Rajasthan, was about 750!

Here are some excerpts from a conversation with Manish and Vidhi about the Learning Societies Unconference.

What was the premise for setting up the Learning Societies Unconference?

One of the reasons for launching the LSU was to generate a dialogue about how do you shift from a schooling society to a learning society? We wanted to do this with a new crowd, not the usual suspects who attend education conferences. There are so many people who are constantly creating and engaging in meaningful dialogue about the future of our planet, and these are not necessarily the principals and teachers of educational institutes but people working on organic farming and sustainability, people who have broken away from a known system to understand themselves, families experimenting with homeschooling and unschooling, people exploring alternate healing, arts, facilitation, and so on. The idea was to bring together all those people who are actually engaged in exciting learning and consciousness-expanding experiments to share and build their imagination, courage and friendships.

We also wanted to do the whole thing in the spirit of gift culture. So there are no donor agencies, corporate sponsors, expensive fees, etc. Anyone who wants to attend, can attend, regardless of financial background. We just ask that people contribute whatever gifts they can, from their hearts, to co-create this event. Let’s let it all flow and see what magic can happen.

So why is it called an unconference?

There are basically three ‘Uns’ that shape the Unconference.

One is that it is structured around inviting in the ‘unknown’. At a regular conference there is a predetermined structure and plan where only a few expert people share their knowledge and skills while the rest sit back and watch. At an unconference however, every person is a resource person who can share and question too, so every session is a surprise and an open exploration. There is no advance plan or schedule of what is going to happen.

‘Unlearning’ is another important aspect. We need to break away from the relentless mental conditioning/fear and keep open our minds and hearts. Only then will things really shift in the world. So how can we support each other’s unlearning journey? How can we create more spaces to keep challenging ourselves and each other and breaking outside of our ‘alternative comfort zones’? These are questions for the unconference.

The third ‘un’ is come in your proverbial ‘underwear’. This means come as your authentic self. Let’s remove all the bullshit masks and blah-blah, and come together to connect with our hearts and be real with each other. Let’s admit that none of us alone has the silver bullet to solve the planetary crisis. Something magical starts to happen when we admit that we don’t really know what to do to get out of this larger mess we are in.

The unconference is really a safe and challenging space for new experimenting and dreaming together with friends. For this to happen, we need to be able to let our guard down, to be vulnerable, to make mistakes, to cry and laugh, to be intimate, to be compassionate.

When there is no structure doesn’t it get chaotic?

Although there is no imposed structure, a structure is being ‘co-created’ by everyone at every point. People do find it chaotic the first few days but then there is chaos in diverse thinking which creates space for new emergence. The reality is that we are living in a very uncertain and unpredictable world yet self-organization happens when you give it a chance. We want to practice and exercise our muscles for self-organization, community living, collaboration, etc. in LSUC.

One of the first things that struck me about the unconference was the closeness that developed in those few days among total strangers. I recall the day usually began with a lot of hugging and dancing. Is there a particular reason for it?

Many reasons…

  1. We want to demonstrate that you don’t need alcohol and drugs to be high on life.
  2. Everyone has a lot of appreciation, love and gratitude inside them that we need to bring out but somehow doesn’t get a chance to come out in our daily modern lives. It is not usually seen as important in intellectual pursuits, social change or revolution. We are afraid to openly express our sense of intimacy and connection for fear that it may be misconstrued. This kind of repression only creates more violence.
  3. Also, we are so quick to rush into action without really understanding each other’s life stories. Let’s take time to breathe each other in. Beginning the day with a closeness and intimacy helps bring people into new possibilities for creativity and action.
  4. There is too much focus on digital technology and social media these days. Let’s explore more ancient-futuristic ways for humans to connect.

I saw a lot of interesting things that happened at this year’s unconference on your Facebook page. In this current scenario of demonetization that has been a constant subject of debate, the concept of introducing a new currency the ‘TUC’ for the unconference was really interesting. How did the idea for this come about and how successful was it?

We have been thinking a lot about gift culture for the past 10 years, and one of the ideas in that movement is local currencies. If you go back in history you will see that different princely states had their own local currencies across India. The idea of launching the TUC was to create more healthy conversations about what is means to build a healthy vibrant local economy as well as understand more deeply how the dominant money system impacts each of us and promotes theft from communities. One of the participants described the TUC experiment as a “fall from paradise to chaos and cut-throat capitalism.” It was a really interesting and exciting live experiment.

Was there a lesson that emerged from this?

Many of us may be in denial but the truth is that money is the new God. All our lives revolve around money — it is the modern form of slavery. We had secret satyagraha one day, a midnight clandestine burning of ten rupee notes — with the promise of not allowing money to govern our lives. It was a very powerful ritual facing the money god face to face and had a very profound impact on many of the particpants! We also are exploring the idea of what it means to launch an alternative currency across India. So stay tuned for that!

At the end of an unconference what do you hope people will gain from it?

There are two parameters we use to evaluate the success — Did it give people more courage to walkout of the mainstream system to a life with many streams? Did it inspire their imagination to explore other areas of meaningful living and the good life?

The Walk Out network encourages people to follow their hearts as the time that we have on this planet is very limited and precious — once you walk out, what can you walk on to that is meaningful and exciting. For example, at this unconference a Business Analyst who always wanted to be a stand-up comedian quit his high profile job to follow his heart after doing a stand-up comic at the unconference.

What motivates you to continue to have these unconferences? What are some of the things that stand out for you about the LSUC?

The number of families who have joined us recently. We believe that families, homes and neighborhoods are critical to building a new social and educational movement. It is so heartwarming to see so many people experimenting out of the box. At this LSUC 70% of the people were first timers who had heard of this and wanted to explore even more!

There are also so many new radical education experiments happening around the country. It is exciting to see things growing.

The biggest strength however, is that a lot of young people are walking out of jobs and colleges with a lot of courage and hope. The next generation can be the biggest trigger of change when they start seeing and question everything around.

When is the next unconference?

It is in collaboration between Shikshantar Andolan and Bhoomi College, Bangalore, from December 26–30, 2017. Register here www.shikshantar.org/lsuc

Join us!!!