65x+12y= 77/14= 1
Essentially the world has shut down most face-to-face work until 2021, so it was remarkable that the 74th Leicester Conference managed to take place face-to-face, over 14 days in August 2020. Making that happen was like a mathematical exploration.
Finding an answer in mathematical processes can be challenging and frustrating. In the same way, working out how to make something as unique as the Leicester Conference, with its well-defined history and traditions, to fit in the context of a global pandemic was like performing a particularly intense quadratic equation.
The four dimensions of the equation were: staffing, venue, membership and design.
Staffing: The director had invited 17 staff to work across the 3 sub-conferences. During the year, the directorate changed shape due to Covid-19 relocation, a family bereavement and a stand-down. As the virus spread, travel restrictions emerged, and it became difficult for some staff to take up their place. We began with 4 staff.
Venue: From College Court at the University of Leicester to Hotel Am Sonnenhang in Pleystein, Bavaria. College Court a four-star conference centre and hotel having hosted the Leicester Conference 4 times was familiar and able to anticipate our needs. Meanwhile in Pleystein, the daily briefings and the role of the Administrator was brought into sharp focus. Thank you to oezpa GmbH, our German partner who gave us the introduction to the hotel provider.
Membership: From 83 expressions of interest and 35 applications in March 2020, we arrived in Pleystein expecting 11 members. One member withdrew at the last minute due to ill-health, so, the opening plenary had seats for the 10 members.
Design: with the reduced numbers of staff and membership, we went back to the roots of Group Relations conference design and worked through the frameworks of AK Rice and Eric Miller’s writings and thought about Eliat Aram’s Design Event. The Large Study Group was replaced with a Back to Back group, designed to create the conditions where members are not face-to-face to reflect some of the dynamics of our current reality of engaging via virtual platforms. The Design Event began on day 2 and ended with a Curatorial Event on day 13, providing an extended space for members and staff to work collaboratively and influence other areas of conference structure.
The complexities of identity in the membership caused difficulties in working with representation, authorisation and belonging and the dynamics of trust.
In the context of the pandemic and its associated fears of contagion, Black Lives Matter and its dynamics of death at the hands of authority, and the Me-Too movement and Jeffrey Epstein, all alluding to corruption of institutions and leadership.
There were considerable challenges in the capacity to collaborate across the staff and member role, which offered both hope and despair. The membership demonstrated the capacity for an active citizenry to work together to create the conditions that they seek, whilst simultaneously, demonstrating the difficulty to speak to/with those in authority to negotiate a desired future.
In the closing plenary, after 14 days of working together, one of the members said,
“We have found out how to fit 65 members and 12 staff into 14 bodies”.
This is the key: the Group Relations Conference learning method is as robust and as relevant as always. The advent of technologies will bring us new opportunities to deliver Group Relations conferences, but the reality of engaging in our embodied selves is vital to understanding human relations.
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