Are Festival-Conferences the Perfect Mix of Business and Pleasure?

Immersed in a world of sustainable farming and ecovillages, I would sometimes hear hints and faint glimpses of a mysterious “urban laboratory” located just two hours north of Phoenix, Arizona. This unique concrete jungle-gym is currently home to about 70 residents who are carrying on the legacy of Paolo Soleri, a famous architect who designed Arcosanti and began construction in 1970. The intention of the project is to provide a model that can demonstrate Soleri’s concept of “Arcology”, architecture coherent with ecology. Arcology was envisioned by Soleri as a hyper-dense city, designed to: maximize human interaction with ready access to shared, cost-effective infrastructural services; conserve water and reduce sewage; minimize the use of energy, raw materials and land; reduce waste and environmental pollution; increase interaction with the surrounding natural environment. There are day tours all day long of this center and also rooms for rent on Airbnb. This is my story of Convergence at Arcosanti, a conference-festival hybrid that I hope I see much more. 

Paolo passed away just five years ago, and new visionaries are slowly banding together to bring this world-renown marvel into its next evolution. Enter: Convergence at Arcosanti.  A true hybrid between the serendipitous networking experience of a sustainability and social justice conference fused with the ecstatic joy and free-flowing nature of a transformative festival. 

In its first year, Convergence kept the gathering fairly small at around 200-300 participants. Small is better these days, as I made several lasting connections from repeat run-ins throughout the weekend event.

Friday night started out intimate, with announcements that the dinner hall would be cleared out for a contact dance improv class followed by an ecstatic dance which lasted several hours. How exhilarating, to be led in a workshop centered around touch and finding your balance with other human beings before I got to even introduce myself even once. The vast range of energies in the room and sweet moments of brief eye contact set the stage for a whimsical weekend. I left early to check out the Placemaker’s Tea Lounge since tea lounges are typically my go-to at festivals where I can meet others in calm peace. Of course, someone I shared a dance with sits right next to me and we chat the evening away..

The weather in Arizona in November is just darling, I wake up on Saturday morning to a rooftop yoga session. Yes! It’s so much easier for me to devote myself to taking care of my body when my laptop isn’t accessible. A potent reminder. Convergence had four keynote presentations and in a clever fashion, there was no other scheduling during keynotes so it served as an excellent way to gather the energy of a relatively small group in a large space. Afia Walking Tree brought instruments for the whole crowd and wooed us with her stories of how music is a universal community builder. Her passion immediately translated and uplifted the crowd and she spoke directly to white privilege, to a mostly white audience.

The amenities at a small gathering like this were better than most festivals and offered a closer comradery than a typical conference where you might go back to your hotel off-site. There were several showers with warm water, and a good amount of bathrooms throughout Arcosanti, you just have to pay attention to notice where they all are! Camping space was relatively plentiful and it was wonderful to sleep under such visible stars, as long as you have gear for 45 degree nights! Since my group came prepared, we had no problem. All meals were served in a dining hall which felt nostalgic like we were all going to high school together. Oh, who do I get to sit next to this time?? The food was mostly organic, thanks to Daniel Golly who supported the kitchen staff and also prepared tacos with his partner Kaila Eissing to offer an even more affordable option to attendees. Good onya!

Mark Lakeman spoke twice throughout the event. His first talk reminded us that the US has the least amount of public gathering spaces than any other “first world” nation, a strategy for oppression. He encouraged us to reclaim the commons, and ensured us that if we simply had space to gather, important conversations and collaborations would arise naturally. We broke out into groups to talk about the challenges in our communities, potential solutions and get creative with materials to redesign a city intersection. Mark’s work has been quite impactful in Portland, Oregon, where  over the past 21 years they have facilitated 1000’s of community members in their placemaking journey including over 60 intersection street paintings, public ecological landscaping and natural building.  He also closed out Sunday night with a key-note presentation where he essentially channeled his inspiration to us about how accessible neighborhood solutions are and how we can all find meaning and purpose in simply being a good “villager”. He was in such a good flow-state that he ended up talking for about three hours to one of the biggest crowds of the weekend.

Saturday night was indeed, the party night. Beyond the main “city” of Arcosanti, there was a stage which played dance music literally all night. There was an eclectic range of DJs to check out and the visuals at both stages were incredible. Typically you could choose between live and electronic music during most hours. Convergence decided to truly innovate with a lucid dreaming experience on Saturday night for those who didn’t want to party and sleep next to the stage. Right underneath the monolithic arches, a good fifty people immersed into a meditation, sound bath and shared intention of lucid dreaming. The cool air huddled everyone close together into an amoeba. I personally came to join late at night and was shocked to see two of the facilitators awake and looking after the whole crowd with a focused and strongly protective energy. When I arrived there sounds of stormy weather playing through large speakers, just enough to drown out the dance music in the distance. It was pleasant, it was unique, it was special. Once morning came there was a morning ceremony that I missed but I heard it involved music, costumes and yoga!

On Sunday I took a more relaxed approach and wandered through the grounds to see who I could run into. I was happy to run into Jesse Hernreich, executive director of Ecosa Institute as I have deep respect for the program and Earth Journeys could become something similar with a fellowship program we’re developing. Earlier Jesse shared an engaging presentation on how to make science sexy and present environmental evidence in a compelling way so a normal person will actually listen and engage with you.

One of the biggest crowds gathered for David Casey presenting on a hot topic in 2017, cryptocurrencies. He broke down how the technology of blockchain works and how cryptocurrencies offer a way to keep value within our own economic systems rather than paying %s to corporations that we don’t want to support. We discussed how each cryptocurrency could incentivize their users in different ways than traditional currencies do. For example, your currency could be backed by planted trees in a certain region. This all tied into David’s organization, NuMundo, a platform for finding ecovillages and transformative experiences around the world. NuMundo has its own cryptocurrency it is developing that could have perks at trusted ecovillages around the world.

There are so many serendipitous moments to highlight, it is a truly endless tale. Whether we were spontaneously offered an hour long massage at 2am, participating in the zero waste challenge throughout the whole weekend, watching live glass blowing, recording a collaborative song in their recording studio and performing it to an audience, completing quests throughout the weekend in an interactive archetype-based game, watching Bill McDorman present on the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance, talking to visionary artists, or watching HÄANA close out the weekend with live violin and vocals, we hope that this model of purpose-driven celebration is here to stay. Hats off to Arcooperative and Sean-Paul VonAncken for organizing a magical gathering.