Since much of Geekdom offices and operations have moved from the Weston Centre to the Rand Building, the 11th floor of the Weston is a temporary ghost town. Over the weekend the ghost town became a hotspot for almost 50 people who came together for the SATCamp unconference, with free food and cold beer complementing a day and a half of thought-provoking conversation.
As the antonym implies, unconferences are quite the opposite of typical conferences. Instead of organizers planning the conference out for guests who may not be interested in every session, the invitation-only guests are tasked with planning and hosting informal sessions, and sharing their ideas by sticking notes to a large calendar (see top image).
Michael Girdley, Ryan Salts, Peter Rhodes, and Sacha De’Angeli brought the concept to life in San Antonio at Geekdom. Salts and Girdley began to explore initiatives they thought Geekdom needed, but Salts – a former Geekdom employee – saw an unconference as something much more.
“This is what San Antonio needed,” he said, and Girdley later brought Rhodes and De’Angeli in on the project. D'Angeli had staged several unconferences in Chicago.
Unlike other unconferences that are thematic in nature, SATCamp was open-ended, attracting inviting a diverse collection of guests from the worlds of tech, engineering, design, and even food.
“It can invite discussion on any front as long as it’s interesting,” Salts said.”It’s like going to camp, you meet new people, you go with your buddy, and you earn a deeper appreciation of something.”
He saw the idea as an “organic meeting of the minds,” and those minds certainly had a lot to say. Ideas included the relationships between data and television, the use of robots as cultural exchange agents, and the business of fireworks.
I reserved a time to talk about a personal favorite topic, diversity in mass media, but its time clash with Saturday’s lunch gave me an empty room. That’s okay, I ended up having a side conversation about it in the lunch room. As our table filled up, more guests joined in the conversation. We segued into a conversation about diversity in higher education.
It was a breath of fresh air having a place and time to discuss the topic, and knowing how many others were interested. Should I find myself invited back to SATCamp next year, I’d love to bring this conversation with me. I'm sure it will still be relevant.
Later, I sat in on Isabel Castro’s discussion. The self-professed “Queen of Tacos” spoke on her adoption of social media platforms as tools of identity, including a contentious Foursquare mayorship battle over Southside Tex-Mex fixture Nicha’s, where a mysterious stranger would usurp her mayorship behind her back.
“I’d even eat there twice a day to oust the guy eating there,” Castro said.
After her transfer from Palo Alto College to Texas State University in 2011, Castro said she experienced major culture shock, including living next to what she called “the worst Mexican restaurant ever.”
“I thought San Marcos was a terrible prison on planet dumpster,” Castro said. “Not only did I not find comfort in food, but on campus I felt like such a minority.”
Even in art class, she found her work being criticized by professors for being “too ethnic.” Eventually, she found she could use social media to combat negative perceptions of identity.
“I tried to assimilate, but it was uncomfortable, so I began to own who I was,” Castro said.
Eventually, her involvement on Twitter (@QueenOfTacosTX) and Tumblr caught the attention of Latinos in Innovation and Social Media and the National Council on Race and Ethnicity, and she hit the convention circuit at their invitation.
“To have those connections was something I never would have if I didn’t start using social media and being myself and being authentic,” Castro said. “People value authenticity.”
Salts hopes the 2015 SATCamp brings even more invite nominations from a larger group of people. He wants more representatives from the worlds of art and food for a more diverse audience.
There is always room for more voices, but I'd agree with an earlier point he made: San Antonio needs a SATCamp. To have a unique meeting of so many different minds in San Antonio is an achievement in and of itself. It bridged an important gap between people who are making major strides for the City and people who are still learning to take their first steps.
If this year's SATCamp is any indication of the next, the span of that bridge will be even greater next year.
*Featured/top photo: A schedule of events at SATCamp, made up of notes posted by guests. Photo by Adrian Ramirez.