Volume 44 Number 4 
Fall 2014

rECOnnecting to our Roots:  An Unconferenced Eco Journey

Written by: Amanda Matson (, Phyllis Timpo (, Candalyn Rade (, Sarah DeYoung (, Mary Guerrant ( and Hilary Rampy (

Each year, when it is time to pack up and head to another Ecological Community Psychology (Eco) conference, our faculty reflect on their own Eco experiences.  The vision of Eco we pieced together from these scattered stories seemed very different from the Ecos we experienced over the past few years.  Ecos of the past involved campfires and lore of a man in green tights dubbed “Eco Man.”  This is a stark contrast from today, which centers around PowerPoint presentations and networking events.  This left us with many questions…  Were past Ecos really that different than the ones we experience today?  If so, what happened to take them in their current direction?  And finally, was there any way we could get a little of that past Eco spirit back into the Eco we were about to host while balancing people’s expectations of what Ecos have come to mean?  To answer these questions we set out to collect stories from long-time Eco attendees throughout our region.  As we gathered these stories, we were thrilled to hear of a rich history of Eco that very much matched our vision for our own upcoming Southeastern Eco at North Carolina State University.  Below are some of the emergent themes we found to be most thought-provoking from the histories we collected as well as variant reactions to our attempts to reconnect to these elements by hosting an unconferenced Eco. These data were collected in a post-conference debriefing both in-person and through an online survey.  

A counterculture conference for a counterculture discipline.  Community Psychology was born during a time of social change. Our founders sought a discipline in which psychologists could be participant-driven, politically active, social change agents. Traditionally, Community Psychology has walked the fine line of being a sub discipline of a traditional academic discipline while trying to run counter to it. Eco was created out of a need for like-minded psychologists, to come together to have a place to refresh themselves from the stress often caused by walking this tightrope.  Eco conferences were created to be a space where faculty and graduate students could generate ideas, present research and build community, free of the constraints often felt in academic settings.

Consistent with this purpose, the 2013 Southeastern Eco conference sought to create an environment that fostered collaboration and connection. In addition to the unconference format with topic-based discussion groups rather than traditional presentations, the location of Eco in a natural setting differentiated it from recent previous Ecos in more traditional academic settings. One participant noted that their favorite component of the conferences was the countercultural nature, stating “I have been to a lot of conferences all over the country and beyond, and this one definitely has risen to the top as the neatest learning experience of all!” This participant’s reaction illustrates a consensus from 2013 SE Eco participants, stating a preference for this return to the culture of Ecos-past that emphasizes open collaboration and relationship building.

A place where “I don’t know” is ok.  One of our major goals for the 2013 SE Eco was to create “a place where ‘I don’t know’ is okay.” Many of the Eco stories we collected from faculty in our region stressed that Eco had once been a place that unformed ideas were welcome rather than a place where one had to come with a polished presentation and finished research product. Having a place to share these partially formed ideas is important for those of us who are already in touch with the phenomenon of imposter syndrome (Brems, Baldwin, Davis, & Namyniuk, 1994), already second-guessing any uncertainty or sign of “failure” in our work. We are fortunate as community- and ecologically-minded academicians to be in a discipline that allows for introspection and the identification of such issues as low academic self-confidence. Too often though, there is a disconnect between what we know about this lack of confidence and how we can mitigate its effect on the budding scholar.

By coming together with scholars at various stages in their career, and realizing all of us experience uncertainty, we can come closer to embracing this uncertainty as a necessary component of scholarship rather than an isolating deficit. One way to allow for this transgenerational sharing and vulnerability is through low-key and informal conferences like the Ecos of the past.  We strove to provide a space where it was acceptable not to arrive having all of the answers to the theoretical and practical questions in one’s field.  We sought to provide a venue that welcomed brainstorming sessions and sharing of projects gone wrong. Recognizing Eco as a supportive and semi-scripted environment, students can fine tune skills needed for traditional academic conferences.  

Informal interactions leading to lasting relationships. Faculty members and past Eco conference attendees consistently mentioned the ability to network with others in the field, building lasting relationships both as colleagues and oftentimes career-long friends. This year’s Eco not only provided participants the opportunity to make professional connections, but to build lasting relationships through informal interactions in a non-academic and “elemental” environment. Instead of comfy hotel beds, attendees found themselves sleeping in rustic cabin bunk beds with other attendees. Catered meals were replaced with community meals eaten in a dining room of long tables followed by s’mores shared around a campfire. This camp-like setting forced attendees together for the duration of the weekend rather than dispersing to different places in the evenings, and provided opportunities to form ties with attendees from other schools--both students and faculty--in non-threatening, informal settings. Participants left the conference with not only renewed excitement as community psychologists or an extra line on their CV, but also with new Facebook friends and Twitter followers. These connections are furthered via social networking updates and the building of mutual friends or discovering shared interests. These ties, created initially from less formal, less professional interactions such as sharing a cabin or chatting about various interests around a campfire have the opportunity to extend far beyond the brief time at Eco, providing attendees the opportunity to form lasting relationships with others attendees over the years.

Organically emerging topics rather than highly structured sessions.  Another emergent theme was the value of organic idea-sharing versus lecture or presentation-based sessions. Dr. Jim Cook, a faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, observed that the structure of Eco has become more formal over the years, emphasizing finished products over developing ideas. North Carolina State University’s Dr. Kwesi Brookins added that one of the best aspects of past Ecos was the opportunity for attendees with varying levels of knowledge and experience to contribute to the development of a not-yet-realized idea in small but meaningful ways. Whether these contributions took place around a campfire or while washing dishes after a communal meal, creating a space for people to interact in ways that feel natural, supportive, and friendly seemed paramount in our efforts to reconnect with the spirit of former Ecos.

In order to ignite the passions of those attending Eco this year and to foster emergent ideas, we realized that rather than guessing which topics might elicit the best response, we had to trust the participatory process by which we abide and allow sessions to evolve on-site. Using an unconference grid, attendees were able to propose and/or support twenty-one unique sessions. Participants reported positive reactions to this more informal structure, with one responding that their favorite aspect of 2013 SE Eco was “Definitely the unconference culture. It made relationship building and organic learning so much easier and more fun.” This response is reflected in other noteworthy phrases such as “great conversations and exchanges of knowledge” and “a deeper understanding of topics covered in sessions.”

Our decision to plan an unconference for the 2103 Southeastern Ecological Community Psychology conference was not an easy one or one taken lightly. In the end, we were drawn to the idea of reconnecting to the roots which have set our field apart over the years. As we have moved to legitimize ourselves with more traditional sub disciplines in psychology, we appear to have lost some of our spirit. This unconference format was our attempt to bring some of this spirit back into our region. In the end, throughout the weekend we felt the spirit of community psychology that our founders must have felt during the field’s inception at the Swampscott conference. The weekend was buzzing with passion, ideas, and connection, and as a team we felt proud to bring this energy back. Although implementing a counterculture conference may receive pushback, it is consistent with the counterculture nature of Community Psychology and fosters genuine collaboration and connection for passionate Community Psychologists. We challenge each region to find ways to breathe life into Ecos of their own regions. An unconference is one way to do this, but is certainly not the only way. We hope future Eco conferences will continue to emphasize the spirit of community psychology and our roots. Perhaps Eco Man will make a comeback if we continue to resurrect our founding spirit. If you would like more information on implementing an unconference please contact or find us on Facebook.


Brems, C., Baldwin, M.R., Davis, L., & Namyniuk, L. (1994).  The imposter syndrome as related to teaching evaluations and advising relationships of university faculty members. The Journal of Higher Education, 65, 183-193, doi: 10.2307/2943923

You must be logged in to the website in order to leave a comment. 

You must be logged in to leave a reply. Login »