Have Conference, Will Travel
If Members Cannot Find the Conference, the Conference Must Find Them
"If Muhammad cannot go to the mountain, then the mountain must come to Muhammad."
I don't recall the origin of that saying, but the thought of moving a mountain reminded me of a group of Illinois education support professionals (ESP) who were determined to either move a mountain from one side of the state to the other, or build a second mountain.
Bridging the Gap
Traditionally, the Illinois Education Association Support Professional Council holds its annual ESP conference in a Chicago suburb.
Since nearly half of the state's population lives in or near metropolitan Chicago, it's the best location for a conference. However, geographically, Illinois is a long state. This makes it difficult for ESPs in the south to attend a conference nearly 400 miles due north.
Because of the long drive and overnight costs, many ESPs from down-state were not attending Chicago-based ESP conferences. So, some of us from the southern end of the state borrowed a page from planners of the national ESP conference, being held this year from March 9-11 in Nashville.
Every year, the national conference is held in a different state. If the national staff can move their mountain of an event, then why not us?
Convening the Conveners
In early-1999, several Southern Illinoisans got together and decided to propose organizing two state conferences, one in the north end of the state, the other down south. This made sense since most ESPs live down south, near the Missouri state line and a stone's throw from St. Louis.
Several friends and I had to convince our ESP state director, Dr. Stacy Burroughs, that we needed a down-state conference. In the fall of 1999, Stacy inquired among Association officials and others about the feasibility of having a second, southern-based ESP conference.
Stacy then agreed to contact each of the region chairs and UniServ Directors in southern Illinois. It was decided to give it a try. Organizers then sent letters to ESP leaders inviting them to a meeting held at our regional office in Edwardsville.
Those attending accepted jobs to help organize the new conference, set for the spring of 2000. The following "to do" list might help others in a similar situation:
Organize a working committee
Identify a hotel and establish a partnership with the staff.
Determine the number of meeting days.
Make a list of workshops and seminars.
Make a list of workshop presenters.
Make a list of speakers and VIP guests.
Determine a fee for attendees.
Plan meals, snacks and break times.
Determine conference materials (bags, literature, freebies).
Determine entertainment activities.
Well, the 2000 Southern IEA ESP Conference was almost as well attended as the ESP conferences in Chicago. For the majority of attendees, it was their first state conference.
Once we brought the mountain to them, they climbed all over it. Most attendees were within an hour's drive of the conference, whereas they would have needed five hours on the road to attend the Chicago event. Some didn't have to stay overnight, saving on hotel costs.
Another plus: most of those attending the down-state conference were from small locals that couldn't afford to send members to a far-away conference. A down-state conference is now held every year.
Like the national conference, we vary the location. It is based in either Collinsville (St. Louis area) or Effingham (a more central location). What works in Illinois surely can work in other large states where ESPs must drive across the state to attend a conference.
ESP conferences should not be organized in a manner that allows only those from larger and wealthier locals to attend. Conferences should be accessible to all members. And if members cannot go to the conference, then the conference must come to them.
(Dave Arnold, a member of the Illinois Education Association, is head custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in Southern Illinois. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NEA or its affiliates.
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