A few months ago I was sent an email that began with: This is probably a bit out of left field, but a friend and I are organising an event you might enjoy…
I’m a sucker for a personal invitation like that, which is why I flew down at the end of October to spend a long weekend in Ballarat.
After visiting Albury a few months ago, I wanted to see more places outside of Australia’s big cities, so the location of a geek feminist meet-up was as much of a draw as the concept itself.
Ballarat is a bit over an hour by train from Melbourne, and it was wonderful to catch a train again for inter-city travel. Wandering through the town on a warm afternoon, I took the time to admire all the beautiful, well-preserved buildings. Ballarat still has an air of prosperity, which began with its history as a gold mining town in the 19th century. A few days later, on my last morning there, a visit to the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka reminded me that during the 19th century it was also the site of a famed rebellion in Australian history.
For the meet-up, the host generously opened up her home to more than a dozen women from Sydney, Perth, Melbourne and Ballarat, as well as putting some of us up for a few nights. Some of the attendees knew each other already, whereas I only knew one of the organisers, who also flew down from Sydney. But it’s a small world, because I soon realised that the woman who had flown over from Perth was someone I’d hung out with a few times in the first year of uni back in 1999.
The meet-up was an unconference and the cost of participation was minimal. On the first morning everyone got together and worked out a rough schedule for the weekend, based on interest, feasibility and space in the house. The spread of topics reflected the various passions and life experiences in the room. One thing I wanted to call out here was I loved the way the ground rules were set, the management of expectations and boundaries. The articulation of what’s normally invisible, and the emphasis on creating safe spaces for learning and discussion — like “the rule of two feet” meant you could leave a session at any time without it being a big deal. To me, this is the great strength of a feminist perspective, the open discourse about what might otherwise be uncomfortable to discuss.
I enjoyed meeting new people as well as being exposed to new ideas and ways of living — from practical things like fundraising, engaging with communities, improving online security — to more left-field ideas. We had a Skype chat with an Australian woman living in Canada who was knowledgeable about how anarchism and feminism intersects — anarcha-feminism. A lot of my own thinking lately and life experiences meant that what she said really intrigued me. I think the role of institutions in our society and the role of self-organisation deserves much further reflection and perhaps, reformation.
But the magic of the weekend wasn’t so much in the ideas as it was about the alchemy of the whole experience. Women coming together to talk about problems and coming up with solutions; women who identified as being feminists as well as being geeks of various kinds. I’m a bit geeky in a general sense but to meet computer programmers and people who write fan fiction was refreshing. Everyone had their own take on things, and there’s a lot strength to be drawn from diversity. Scientific and technological advances can possibly be made by people working by themselves but building on the work of others without talking to them directly. But social progress is inherently about direct communication and collaboration I think. As is just getting on with things.
Our host was an excellent cook and knew exactly how to cater for people’s differing needs so we ate very well. Not to mention the good restaurants in town too, which surprised me a little. So that was the weekend in a nutshell — lots of good food for thought, and lots of good food for eating.