This weekend, I had the great privilege of helping to facilitate the second annual Diabetes UnConference in Las Vegas.
As we wrote in regard to last year’s conference, the Diabetes UnConference is a dream brought to life by Christel Aprigliano, blogger, advocate, and CEO of the Diabetes Collective. It is an adults-only conference for people with ANY type of diabetes and (beginning this year) also for the people who love us.
In an unconference model, attendees set the agenda by deciding what topics they want to cover. Christel surveys the confirmed attendees in advance, and it’s these questions and concerns that guide the course of three-day event.
One of the most unique parts of this particular diabetes conference experience is the social media blackout. With the exception of those of us checking our cgm data on our phones, all phones and cameras and computers are put away during the sessions, allowing attendees to be present for one another as people voice real life experiences, previously unspoken fears, or difficult-to-broach questions.
That makes writing about the UnConference a little like writing about “Fight Club” and a lot like most things that happen in Vegas. It stays there.
Throughout the event, Christel and her team continually check in to ask whether people feel welcomed, respected, and valued.
Boy, did I ever. An in-person opportunity for peer support in a space that recognizes the value of every participant and every perspective affords people a safe space to be vulnerable if they want to be and brave if they can be. It is not uncommon to hear “I’ve never said this out loud before…” or “this opinion may make me unpopular, but…” or “I’ve never met anyone with diabetes before.” For many people attending – whether for the first time or as alumni, there is this pervasive feeling that I can describe only as having lived your life as an alien and finally getting picked up by the Mother Ship to discover that there are other aliens just like you.
One of the beautiful peculiarities of the UnConference is the way in which, by the end, we couldn’t have told you who had which type of diabetes. My fellow facilitators Stephen Shaul, Anna and Mike Norton, Dr. Nicole Bereolos, Kate Cornell, Moira McCarthy Stanford, Dr. Jill Weissberg-Benchell, and Bennet Dunlap impressed me with their empathetic responses to people’s contributions and their ability to gracefully guide discussion to keep the group moving forward. No small feat for a conference model that could potentially unravel into tangents, but we never veered from the topic areas, which included tips and tricks, communication with work/family/partners, unspoken fears, things your doctor won’t tell you, food issues/diet styles/food police, mental health, sexuality, intimacy, tactical solutions, policy advocacy, aging with diabetes, burnout, and many others. (That’s probably all I can tell you without losing my Fight Club membership privileges.)
In all seriousness, the Diabetes UnConference affords attendees an opportunity that we all wish more people could access. While scholarships provide many people with the ability to attend this event who might not otherwise have been able to participate, attendees recognized the privilege of adults being able to escape for a weekend of catharsis and belonging among a tribe of their peers. To that end, among the many focus groups and pre-conference presentations, there was a focus group specifically on the topic of how to provide peer support in a broader context. Other events outside the conference sessions included opportunities to engage with program sponsors Medtronic, Dexcom, Insulet, Roche, and Abbott about their products, a presentation on “Sugar Surfing” from the renowned endocrinologist, fellow PWD, author, and crazy-hat-wearer Dr. Stephen Ponder, and an update on progress of the iLet (Bionic Pancreas).
For a long-time online community member like me who has traveled the “conference circuit” in every facet from blogger, journalist, non-profit executive, speaker, industry insider, etc., it strikes me that the conferences I often have had the opportunity to attend for either work or leisure are not ordinarily designed at their core for adults with diabetes. I still go to as many as I’m able, I choose a track or sessions that interest me, I report on my experience, I offer information or insight if I’m on staff or speaking, and maybe I soak up research or industry news. But the Diabetes UnConference is the first conference specifically tailored for me – an adult person living with diabetes, as well as living with, as my kids might say, “big feelings.” It’s not a conference to educate about diabetes; it’s an opportunity to foster connection and feed your soul…which requires no carb counting.
I am positive that my fellow attendees and facilitators cannot thank Christel enough for the experience she has built. As she often reminds us, it’s as much for her soul as it is for ours. The conference is a way to refill our oxygen tanks so that we can put our own masks on first. As the Mother Ship drops me back on Planet Earth, I return changed, embraced, and filled.
And guess what. There’s another one coming up in September, this time on the East Coast in Atlantic City. Register now. What are you waiting for?