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Summary of the 2012 Big Rural Brainstorm

The impetus for the Big Rural Brainstorm (BRB) was the rural focus session at the Kansas in Question symposium. One table decided to take the conversation further by organizing a brainstorm dedicated just to the rural topic. Everyone at the table agreed to be on the committee and Marci Penner of the Kansas Sampler Foundation took the lead.

The goal of the BRB was to gather people from every aspect of rural life and brainstorm ideas that could be achieved at the grassroots level and that could result in action. PowerUps (21-39s who are rural by choice) were a main target as were volunteer-led communities. Anyone interested in the good of rural Kansas was welcome to attend.

The concept was to give the people who live and work in the trenches the opportunity to ask their questions, share their thoughts and find support in a continuous environment of visioning.  Each person got something different out of the event.  Some communities or organizations brought numerous people and would split up for sessions and then come back and share.  This was designed to not duplicate other conferences or workshops so that it had a unique purpose.  At many conferences the best part is the networking at breaks.  This was created to give continual networking and idea-sharing opportunities.

Promotion of the BRB went out to the networks of those on the committee and the Kansas Sampler Foundation e-blast network.  We also sent out statewide news releases and the Mid-America Ag Network did public service announcements.  Public radio was a friend to this event, as well.

One thing that helped encourage people to attend was that the ever-growing attendee list was shared with each new e-blast.  To see who was attending, made others want to attend.

It was an "un-conference." There were no keynote speakers and one facilitator, Marci Penner, to manage the 24 hours. The design of the gathering was to continually put 200 people together in a variety of groupings with a variety of topics. There were three rounds of eight break-out sessions followed by StandUps (a 10-minute session of 24 groups with theoretically one person from each break-out session to report about their breakout session), long breaks, and appointments. Each person was given the responsibility to help facilitate the break-out groups, using the "yellow card" system. Any person could flash the yellow card if a person in the group was negative or talking too long.

The topics for the third breakout session of Friday and the first of Saturday were all determined by the subject matter on the minds of the participants.  Friday evening the whole group responded to specific needs of an individual or town.

Dress was casual. The whole thing was fun and flexible.

In the first hour, a dozen people came forward to say why they loved their rural communities. With the fact established that these communities are of value to the state of Kansas, the PowerUps in attendance came across the stage to briefly introduce themselves. Of the 200 attendees, we had a dandy group of 42 PowerUps. 

Next we had a 10-minute practice round. The 200 people split into 24 groups, each group with a different topic. This was the first "StandUp."

We covered the guidelines of the Yellow Card Facilitation Method, Good Thinking, and Power Conversations. By the time lunch was served, momentum for networking and Good Thinking was established.

On Saturday morning, people were invited to fill out the blank "Rural Action" card from their packets and state what they would do when they got home. 40 people came on stage to state their actions.  Here they are.

By the time the Oakley contingent got home, they had decided to host the Big Oakley Brainstorm later in February!

"The whole thing was goosebumpling!" said Nick Levendofsky.

The plan was for this event to be a brainstorm where we concentrated on new ideas and looked at new ways of doing things.  The temptation, in some cases, was to explain how some programs already worked.  In the future, we can find a time and place for discussing established programs but maybe in smaller sessions for those who want exactly that.  Some session titles were too broad. The sessions that worked best were those that were smaller in number (under 12) and were created to address a specific topic brought up by a BRBer. Some sessions got bogged down if one or two people dominated. Everyone was learning their role and these things can be corrected for future BRBs. It sounds like the long breaks were appreciated and doubled for purposes of networking or catching up with those at your table. 

Registration had a limit of 200 with 30 on the waiting list. Registration was $40 and it's important to keep it near that amount in order to make it possible for volunteer-led community folks to attend.  Sponsors were gold and made this registration fee work.  Sponsorships of $200 were sought. Twenty seven organizations or businesses stepped forward to sponsor and to endorse the event. Sponsorships were elicited through the e-blast list.

The event took place on Friday, February 3 from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. and Saturday, February 4 from 8:30-11:30 a.m.

It was great to have bread from nearby Janzen Family Farms incorporated into the meals and Lost Trail Root Beer from Louisburg Cider Mill was used with the root beer floats in the evening. Cakes by Brenda provided a most delicious birthday cake on Friday evening.

The new Meridian Event Center in Newton provided the essential elements of a quality background with a great sound system, comfort, excellent meals, proximity to lodging, a friendly and hospitable staff and a WiFi setting.

People want to do this again but suggested regional BRBs.

Kansas Sampler Foundation, marci@kansassampler.org, 620.585.2374.