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Preaching to the converted – The mixed blessing of contented conferences

Helen Jones's picture
By Helen Jones |  March 3, 2015 |

Parliament Square street signI just hopped on the train back to London with a spring in my step. This was due to the unambiguously positive experience of the Parliamentary Briefing conference I had just come from, discussing Gypsy and Traveller accommodation provision. Not only did I feel that my own presentation, on how to do effective Accommodation Needs Assessments, was taken on board by those attending but that all the other five (excellent) speakers were listened to with great interest. 

When conferences and group events work well they can of course be very useful and motivating. In this case it was great to see so many fine presenters with important messages to tell and it felt like these messages were being received by those interested to hear them.  This was therefore a widely positive experience with a genuine meeting of minds.  The nagging question, which perhaps takes some of the previously mentioned spring out of my step, is whether the audience included everyone required to put the good ideas shared into practice elsewhere.

I stress that I am not disparaging the relevance or importance of those attending or indeed the approach of the organisers.  Far from it.  Rather, I want to share their frustrations that not all key actors participate in such discussions. For example, whilst there was a good representation of Council officers from across the country, and their involvement was important, the more limited presence of elected members was sadly noticeable and impacts on generating outcomes from such meetings.  This is sadly too often the case when discussing Gypsy and Traveller issues; not everyone who should be there is.

The ultimate effect can sadly be one of preaching to the converted; the discussion is unambiguously positive but this is largely because everyone in the room largely already agrees.  Let’s not forget that the very step of turning up demonstrates that someone recognises there is an issue which deserves attention and believes useful ideas might be obtained by attending.  The paradox is that it is often the groups and individuals we most want to engage with who either see no problem or believe they have nothing to learn.  Meaningful progress can only be made if there are opportunities to find out why disagreements exist and where the common ground can be found.

There is no easy solution, particularly in relation to the sadly often divisive subject of Gypsies and Travellers.  Moreover I accept the argument that it may be of limited value dragging people to conferences or training who do not want to be there.  They may only be a negative or demotivating influence.  Perhaps the best approach is to obtain a deeper understanding.  That is, appreciating why those who we feel have an important role in relevant debates about Gypsy and Traveller well-being, don’t feel they can or need to participate.  We are then hopefully better able to persuade and encourage those perennial non engagers to do so in future, to the benefit of all.

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