The Junket
I’ve just returned home from the first ever “Junket”, hosted by Junkee.com. For the first 3 days of November, 200 young Australians from a diverse range of backgrounds took over the quirky QT hotel in Canberra to discuss the obstacles and opportunities that exist for our futures.

Junket was an “unconference.” No schedule, no slide shows, no “speakers”.  The delegates developed to agenda organically. When we arrived, there was a pitch board in the lobby (and a disturbingly convincing Tony Abbott Impersonator). Each delegate had the opportunity to add their “pitch” – the idea, or issue that wanted to discuss, or the problem they were interested in solving. Given the experimental nature of this setup, I went in not knowing what to expect – it was either going to be completely amazing or an absolute flop. It was amazing!

Optional Abbott pic

Greeted at the conference by a Tony Abbot impersonator.

The Pitch
After some quick welcome drinks and mingling, we went into the pitch session, where each delegate had 60 seconds in turn to stand up at the microphone and spruik their idea. The pitch session was a roller coaster of emotion. There were so many inspiring people tackling such a diverse array of problems. On one hand I felt overwhelmed to have so many obvious and huge issues of our society all thrown at me in about 90 minutes, on the other it was so inspiring to see how many bright people had killer ideas about how to solve them, or at least how to start the difficult conversations. There were about 50 session slots and probably about 100 pitches. The Junket team had the un-enviable task of making all this fit into the time we had available, and by creating some extra space and merging some similar themes, Junket ended up with about 60 sessions to run over 5 time slots the following day. Every delegate I spoke to was sad they couldn’t attend them all.

Photo 2.

The pitches.

The F*#k up club
Now, when you put a bunch of high achievers in place, it’s often like that metaphor about the swan on the lake, all you see is the gliding beautiful part on the top of the water, and you don’t see those crazy ugly swan legs paddling double time under the water. Junket had thought of this and had decided to run interference early, and we spent the first night at the “F*#k up club”. The first rule of “F*#k up club” is you must talk about “F*#k up club”. Specifically, you had to meet new people, and instead of talking about how awesome you are, you had to tell stories of times you had messed up. Stories ranged from accidentally punching a dance partner in the face, to being 2 days late to start their first corporate job, to waiting way too long to come out. Suddenly everyone was forgetting about the “imposter syndrome.”

The sessions
Day two we got down to the meat of Junket, discussing all the issues that were pitched the night before. The issues were diverse, and I wish I could even list even half of them: The gender pay gap, 3D printing, connecting Australians with agriculture, making science cool, encouraging philanthropy and fund the arts, making science cool and getting it funded, food sustainability, getting young people to vote, missing persons, housing affordability, education reform, keeping indigenous culture alive, unpaid internships, changing the attitudes towards disability…. All issues on the table! Session spaces were spread out around the hotel. No conference rooms or rows of chairs, but small intimate spaces (out on the restaurant deck, or in a private booth in a speak-easy, or at the hotel bar). Each session had a leader (or three) and a note taker, and discussions flowed free and easy. Some sessions had as few as 4 participants, other had so many that they had to split off into sub groups. Some were more philosophical, gauging thoughts on broad issues, others were very problem focused and results orientated.

A Junket session in progress (photo courtesy of Jess Scully).

A Junket session in progress (photo courtesy of Jess Scully).

This wasn’t just a talk-fest. New projects were started, at every session relationships were made and collaborations were formed. Individuals left with actionable points both big and small. It was interesting for me to find I had valuable input in areas outside of my everyday expertise, and it was humbling how generous people were to offer up their expertise. Art curators offering to help charities raise awareness through art, advertising teams helping the charitable organisations and social justice enterprises to sell themselves, journalists interested in promoting peoples work through photo essays and stories, artists and business people thinking about how we can fund science.

The Human Library and other high jinks.
Just to make sure no one got too sedentary or serious, there were also sessions like running debating, mingling on push bikes, and a Beyonce dance class. On Monday evening, we had an opportunity to access the “Human Library”, a fabulous event were you can “borrow” an interesting person. My first human on loan was Alexandria Garlan, an amazing lady smashing gender sterotyping in the construction and tech industries, and using her expertise to create technology to improve safety on construction sites. I was also lucky enough to meet John Berry, the US Ambassador to Australia. Ambassador Berry is the highest ranking openly gay US official in US political history, how also has a lion at the Smithsonian National Zoo named after him. He very cleverly described US politics as “not as good as the West Wing, but not as bad as house of cards” – you can see why he’s a diplomat.

Meeting the US Ambassador

Meeting the US Ambassador

The Wrap
On Tuesday, Junket ended in the same spirit as it started, with an open mic session to report back. Delegates were grateful and inspired, some offered feedback to improve future Junkets (I really hope that means this will be a regular thing!). One of biggest take away messages for me was that it is ok to talk about things that make you feel uncomfortable, that’s how you know you are learning and growing. At the same time, it can also be ok to agree to disagree.  On the flip-side, we were all reminded that it doesn’t matter how much passion you have for a subject, if you can’t communicate it properly you might be wasting your time and effort.

Junket Team (photo courtesy of Jess Scully).

Junket Team (photo courtesy of Jess Scully).

I am honoured to have been part of the first Junket. It is an experience that will shape my interactions with people and issues moving forward. You can read more about Junket at junkee.com/tag/junket, or check out the #junket on twitter. Thanks to the sponsors who made it possible, if Junket only represented those who could afford to travel, we would not have found the diversity of voices and issues in the room.

Written by Emma Beckett, PhD Candidate (Food Science) in the Human Molecular Nutrition Laboratory at UON.