Unconventional Conventions: Some Defining Characteristics

Robin Cunningham Health Guide
  • In my last blog (look in the easily accessed archives for the blog entitled “The Conventional Convention”), I declared that I considered the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Annual Convention to be one of the very few that I consider an Unconventional Convention, but I didn’t elaborate on my reasons or criteria.  I will do so in this blog.  Then, as this year’s convention progresses (June 20th through June 24th) , we can compare my observations of this year’s gathering with previous ones to determine if it retains the distinction.  We might even develop some additional criteria.

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    Criterion #1 –


    Most people attending a Conventional Convention do not appear to be happy about being there (boredom is contagious and insidious), unless they are enthusiastic about being away from home.  Some or even most may be happy, of course, but they show little exuberance.  The only exception seems to be at an open bar, which can generate a little too much exuberance.


    I confess that I can’t explain this, except for the fact that people attending a Conventional Convention must remain ready, with sword drawn at all times, to deal with the competition, be that from another company or their co-workers.


    Most people attending a NAMI convention look remarkably happy.  This is because they are bound together by common cause: their own, or a family member’s, struggle with a serious brain disorder.  Most people consider this a bitter pill, as do NAMI members, but NAMI members are survivors.  They have learned that laughter is a balm for their wounds.  They celebrate the hard won successes achieved in the year just past, mourn their losses and draw sustenance from each other for the year ahead.



    Criterion #2 -


    A Conventional Convention usually offers those in attendance with an opportunity to network.  Competitive undercurrents, however, motivate attendees to gather as much information from competitors as possible while revealing minimal information about their employer and themselves.


    The NAMI Unconventional Convention vigorously encourages the exchange of information.  Those in attendance are not competitors.  NAMI state organizations and local affiliates are eager to share their experiences, both good and bad.  Fund raising ideas, program developments, state and local legislative strategies and media approaches, to name just a few, are all discussed openly.


    Over the years, the NAMI National Board of Trustees has demonstrated both considerable insight and foresight by refusing to let competitive instincts  take root.  The one function where competition is inevitable is in the election of NAMI National Board of Trustee members.  But even in this arena, NAMI National has labored long and hard to maintain a level playing field.


    Criterion #3 -


    Educational opportunities are available at most Conventional Conventions.  These are typically provided in breakout sessions.  But competition once again rears its ugly head.  Individuals making presentations are precariously balanced on the razor’s edge.  They are charged with demonstrating their organization’s prowess without revealing its sources of strength.

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    A NAMI Unconventional Convention provides an amazing breadth and depth of information about mental illness.  Most of this is obtained in breakout sessions.  Some of these sessions target the uninformed, while others assume a well educated audience and provide more sophisticated material.


    It is not unusual to see teams of delegates from state organizations or local affiliates parcel out the responsibilities for attending specific concurrent sessions to members of their group on the understanding that all members will reconvene to share what each has learned.


    Also, there is little competition among presenters.  Each presenter seems eager to share whatever information they have on the topic they address in their breakout sessions.  The real competition among presenters takes place prior to the convention and is concerned with obtaining a breakout session to present their ideas.  The winners typically represent a broad selection of topics.  Applicants that do not obtain a coveted breakout session to present the views are given an opportunity to make a poster presentation.  All in attendance at their convention can view these posters.  In a sense, no one that wants to present is denied an opportunity to so.


    Criterion #4


    Advocacy is typically not part of a Conventional Convention, unless the organization sponsoring the convention is itself an advocate, such as a trade association.  But even in this situation, the advocacy function is usually held closely by the trade group’s management.  No amateurs are allowed to interfere.


    In a typical NAMI Unconventional Convention, those in attendance are rigorously trained in breakout sessions about how to lobby at the state and local levels.  In many years, NAMI’s Unconventional Convention is held in WashingtonDC.  On these occasions, NAMI members are vigorously recruited to go to the hill en mass and talk directly with their senators and representatives.  This has been shown over the years to have a favorable impact.  And in doing this, NAMI members are empowered.  They come to realize that they are one very important part of much larger effort.


    Criterion #5


    Those attending a good Conventional Convention leave enthusiastic about the new ways they have learned to make their business more profitable or their non-profit organization more effective.


    When reluctantly departing at the end of a NAMI Unconventional Convention, most in attendance leave with new friends that have shared in one way or another their own burden, be they from next door or across the nation.  And they often continue to interact via telephone, e-mail or snail mail.  They turn to their new friends for advice in difficult situations.


    But NAMI members leave with an even greater treasure.  They leave with the conviction that if they continue to work hard the future will be better for their efforts.  NAMI members leave with a profound sense of hope and all this engenders.


    The perspectives on mental illness I provide are not those of a psychiatrist, psychologist or licensed clinical social worker, but rather a consumer and family member.  I have walked the walk on both sides of the street.  As such, I can speak with experiential authority.  It is my objective to share with you, as best I can, what my experience with a serious brain disorder has been like on a day to day basis, i.e., to compare notes with you.   Equally important, I will also make observations about being a family member and advocate based on my own experience.  Any observations or comments you choose to make in return will be of great value.


Published On: June 16, 2007