The unorganized but organic chaos of RootsCamp 2010

Jeff Winkler Contributor
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Welcome to the 5th annual RootsCamp “unconference,” where liberal advocates, government workers, and campaign staffers are meeting to discuss the future of progressive politics (whatever that is) in the face of a resounding midterm elections defeat.

This “unconference” is an event organized by the people, for the people. This “unconference” has no pre-set agenda (it’s an unagenda) as participants themselves decide the issues they want to discuss throughout the weekend. Organizers and volunteers called this unconference “organized chaos.” This might also explain why some participants called RootsCamp something else: a “clusterfuck.”

By 10.00 a.m. Saturday, George Washington University’s Grand Ballroom is packed. In the back is a wall-sized screen rising high above the New Organizing Institute’s (NOI) leaders like a tidal wave.

In a sweet, calm voice that sounds like she’s selling water filters, an NOI executive tells the audience that “our country is under attack.”


Then, after a few announcements, NOI’s New Media Director, Lola Elfman, asks everyone to please stand up. But it’s already standing-room only. She tells the crowd of liberal enthusiasts — now relieved of the injustice of seat-ism — that the “solutions are in the space between us.” There’s barely enough space to lift the cup of free coffee, though.

The un-leaders from this professional organizing institute explain to the mostly-young crusaders how this “unconference” with no agenda is going to work; or not work, whatever the case may be. They point to the massive board about 30 ft long that’s been set up against the hall’s front wall, divided up into neat 1’x6’’ squares designating various times and room numbers. This is the calm before the cluster. Then all fuck breaks loose.

Everyone in the great hall makes toward the board to create this year’s RootsCamp actual agenda. Those setting up “sessions” simply fill out a card with the session’s name, what’s going to be discussed and the leader-among-leaders’ phone number, before tacking it on the board.

Within minutes, the crowd is at least seven deep around the board. They’re all jockeying to set up the sessions that will further their causes, which seem impossibly vague, mostly because the session board is impossible to see. Just imagine the scene around a 19th century stock exchange chalk board run by anti-capitalists.

How are you supposed to see the damn thing?

“I have no idea,” says one RootsCamper, who seems to unwittingly offer the day’s theme.

Another has a better solution to getting through the crowd.

“Jump,” he says, failing to remember that one needs about 16 stories to hit terminal velocity and thus assure a successful death. The ballroom is only on the 3rd floor.

After what seems like 10 minutes, people are still trying to get their first look at the board.

“I haven’t seen the board … this is the first time I’ve seen the board,” says an excited young woman as one of the RootsCamp volunteers shrieks to the crowd: “SESSIONS HAVE NOW STARTED. YOU ARE NOW LATE.”

Just outside, the self-described “smokers’ session” has indeed already started.

“This is a clusterfuck,” says one RootsCamper in what would be The Daily Caller’s favorite session of the day.

Later, at another smokers’ session, a different RootsCamper was overheard describing the event in the exact same language.

“There’s no schedule, it just forces us together,” said the RootsCamper. “I give’m props for trying. Even if it is a clusterfuck.”

It hadn’t yet hit noon and some of the volunteers looked absolutely frazzled. One jumps into the elevator heading to the 4th floor. She leans heavily against the back of the elevator giving a heavy sigh. She looks exhausted.

Is it suppose to be this crazy?

“It’s mass chaos with slight organization on top,” she says, blowing the words out hard. “But it’s about what comes out of it.”

What’s that?

“The friendships and connections.”

Some time between the first and second session, TheDC finally meets up with one of the actual organizers. It takes some time for a few very helpful volunteers to locate her. In the meantime, one nervous-looking volunteer tells TheDC, “I honestly have no idea what’s going on in there.”

But NOI Co-Founder and Executive Director Judith Freeman does.

Freeman is fantastic. Calm and collected, she cheerfully and thoughtfully answers questions.

There were over 1,000 RootsCampers signed up for the event and this year was “definitely the biggest one yet,” she said. As for confusion that some seemed to be having, Freeman called the unconference “well-organized chaos.”

So was this a clue as to why the Democrats got such a smack-down from well-organized conservative groups in the midterm elections? Absolutely not. This open-source, technophilic conference where all ideas are good ideas and few people seem to be above the age of 35 has no connection with liberalism as a whole.

“This is just one piece of the puzzle. We know what it takes to run a campaign. The discipline planning. The discipline strategy,” said Freeman. “This isn’t where the campaign planning happens. This is just where the bonding and coming together happens.”

It’s also a great place to scout for jobs, which many of the soon-to-be unemployed RootsCampers could be overheard inquiring about.

The idea for RootsCamp itself, said Freeman, came from “BarCamps,” the cruelly misleading name for “unconferences” first developed in the tech world.

Instead of learning how to mix the perfect Manhattan at gatherings, the BarCamp geeks discuss the problems and solutions of the I.T. crowd. Naturally, BarCamps (and all other ensuing franchises) are tech-heavy affairs. Here at RootsCamp, everyone is on The Twitter, and the event’s hashtag blows up during the day.

During the bumrushes to the session board, NOI volunteers began yelling about how the schedule had finally been put on the event’s website (“It’s on the website, folks!”), which was then projected on the ballroom’s giant screen.

There were a few issues with this. It was impossible to see all the scheduled sessions, despite the size of the screen. Ironically enough, the screen was also impossible to read. Those with a half-working phone, a notepad (the dark ages) and no Blackberry, iPad, iPhone, or iWhatever were forced to gather around the giant billboard with more than 90 sessions spanning two days.

As the sessions were put up, the sheer number and variety of topics was impressive. Everything from “The Zen of Organizing,” to “Don’t Forget the Asians!”

RootsCampers also have the opportunity to combine sessions, add sessions and set up sessions to continue the conversation of previous sessions, if they so desire. All it takes is an e-mail or a quick tweet and suddenly RootsCampers can discuss “The Zen of Forgetting Asians.”

To be fair, this clusterfuck only lasted most of the morning and through lunch. By 3 p.m., everyone seemed to be milling around or moving to and from sessions comfortably and with smiles.

So it all worked out, you see? The “unconference” is where you have the ultimate say in how things are run. The conversation, the dialogue, is fluid. Yet it’s also multilingual, multicultural and multi-unpurposeful.

There can be as many sessions as there are people. It’s natural, participatory and always evolving. Like technology, RootsCamp is 100 percent organic. However, if you’re still struggling to participate because you lack the required technology for RootsCamp, and the “organized chaos” of the entire situation is leaving you a bit overwhelmed, don’t worry. The session “Bridging the Divide: Online & Offline Organizing Working Together,” is going on at 2 p.m.

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TOMORROW: So many sessions, so little time