Communities in Control is Australia's most inspiring annual gathering of community sector workers, volunteers and supporters, each year bringing together a stellar list of speakers and more than 1000 delegates to listen, debate, network, exchange tips and strategies, and - perhaps most importantly - recharge.
Since its inception in 2003 the conference has provided a platform for the Communities in Control principles:
- that for communities to survive and thrive, they must be in charge of their own destinies;
- that communities must have the practical support they need to set their own priorities, design their own approaches, and create their own solutions; and
- that when those first two principles are met, communities will be stronger, safer, healthier and more vibrant.
The Communities in Control Movement
Local communities are the laboratories of innovation and agility. They deliver targeted social and economic outcomes, and have laboriously and painfully accumulated a vast stock of knowledge about what works and what doesn't. Any government that fails to respect that knowledge will fail; yet most governments respect only coordinated power or unquestioning support, and think that community groups can be picked off or bought off and silenced one by one.
Every year for more than a decade we have offered an opportunity for community group workers and others at the grassroots (particularly local governments) to look up from the coalface and look around them and see what could be possible. Our speakers - visionaries and statisticians, saints and entertainers, executives and academics - have filled in the outlines of a community-driven realignment of Australia's fundamental assumptions.
Our unwavering message has been that when communities are in charge of their own destinies and are able to set their own priorities, when they receive the practical support they need to design their own approaches and create their own solutions, Australia is a happier, healthier, and livelier place on every scale from the nation to the street.
In the beginning
What does it mean for communities to have control over their own destinies?
The answer to this question is at the root of the Communities in Control conference concept - and indeed the creation of Our Community, which works to help community groups to become sufficiently viable, effective and sustainable.
The conference launched in 2003, the first event anchored by two world leaders in social epidemiology - Len Syme and Lisa Berkman.
Organisers hoped for about 300 participants but as word spread, the groundswell of interest grew and the venue was changed three times to cater for what eventually turned out be a crowd of more than 1300 (a level that has been sustained most years since).
As Professor Syme, a world renowned academic from the University of California Berkeley, told the 2003 conference, putting communities in control - empowering people and communities to set their own strategic agenda and priorities and run their own programs - is better for health and wellbeing than giving up smoking and fatty foods (although both are advised).
During the 2003 conference, Professor Syme lamented the billions of US dollars spent on beautifully designed, impeccably implemented behavioural or information-based interventions to improve health - interventions that just didn't work because the communities were being worked "on", rather than finding solutions to their own problems.
And he challenged Australian community representatives to heed the research and to re-evaluate all of our approaches - to see what we can do, in practical terms, to improve the capacity of communities to take control.
Professor Lisa Berkman, another world-leading academic, from Harvard University's Faculty of Medicine, built on Professor Syme's message, explaining how her new research showed that joining up with community groups provides a tangible route to gaining the social support that prevents strokes, heart disease, dementia - helping people to recover at double the rate, and even improving people's life expectancy.
Speakers at the conference painted a picture of the future - of individuals and support agencies and governments supporting community groups to be strong, vital and participative so that they can in turn allow individuals to achieve wide-ranging, long-lasting health and wellbeing.
From a conference to a movement
Highly successful two-day Communities in Control conferences have followed each year since 2003.
Best of all, though, is the opportunity that Communities in Control provides for delegates to lift their gaze from the daily grind, to hear the latest community sector research and developments, to be challenged, to reconnect with others in or supportive of the community sector, and to reaffirm their commitment to and enthusiasm for the work they do.
An exciting program is always assured thanks to the many months of work by the organisers and the continuing commitment of sponsors, whose support allows organisers to bring to the conference an incredible array of international experts and deep-thinking local speakers and keep the conference fees very low.
As delegates know, taking control as a community has never been easy. The obstacles are many, the results can be slow to emerge, and the journey raises all manner of practical questions:
- How does a community group get off the treadmill of the old, pragmatic, one-small-problem-at-a-time approach that exhausts its energy for strategic innovation and reform? Many community groups are quite clearly caught up in this perennial problem of "projectitis"
- What are the keys to building a new generation of community groups and organisations whose heritage is no longer their destiny?
- What are the generic principles of this new community innovation and reform agenda?
Working together, Communities in Control supporters are marching towards the answers.
Indeed, Communities in Control is no longer just a conference, but a movement towards stronger, healthier, more effective communities and community groups.
What people say about Communities in Control
"Excellent conference - and networking!"
"I'm not sure how you continue to get such great speakers, but keep it up!"
"Great to attend a conference with representation of such diverse community groups/organisations, and from a range of sectors. Great to feel empowered at a local level and that this can make a difference globally."
"I am inspired and honoured by the company I have kept at the conference and know that what I have learned here will sustain the hope and love I have for my community and our children's future."
"In both my professional and academic pursuits I have gained so much, nothing more significant than renewed enthusiasm and a reminder about what really matters!"
"Inspirational! I have never seen so many people in one room who were totally riveted by the speakers and the topics."
"Without exception, exceptional!"
"What can I say!!! Wow. I turned up on Tuesday expecting to see about 100 people. I did not expect to see so many people involved in the community segment at a conference."