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November 22, 2017



The Evolving of a Dispersed Therapeutic Community

Les Spencer

Program Script:

Hello, this is Craig Fees for RadioTC International, and this is the second in a series of News Bulletins about ConFest, a therapeutic community based campout conference festival which has been held regularly in the Australian countryside since 1976.

This program has been prepared by Dr Les Spencer, a behavioural scientist and clinical sociologist in Melbourne, Australia. If you or your community would like to broadcast a Bulletin on RadioTC International, send the recording or script to [email protected]

ConFest emerged from a series of festivals in the 1960s founded by Dr Neville Yeomans, one of the early and influential pioneers of therapeutic community. These festivals were an outreach from Fraser House, a therapeutic community founded in Sydney by Yeomans in 1959.

ConFest is run by volunteers and held each year over the New Year holiday and again over the Easter holiday. People attend from all over Australia as well as from overseas. Over 350 workshops and events occur during the seven day event. The December 2006 ConFest will celebrate thirty years of ConFest and many celebrations and events are being planned.

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The Sydney ConFesters Group emerged from ConFest around 3 years ago and contains a core group of around 20 people who meet regularly and organise mini gatherings and events focusing on wellbeing. Linked to this group are around 100 people who typically attend campout gatherings. These regulars invite others and gatherings generally have between 200 and 300 attending. Gatherings are typically held three times a year over long weekends. The initial long weekend gathering had only 17 people attend. It was a voluntary small donation to attend and bring food to share. Since then numbers have been slowly growing.

The theme of these weekends is \'personal and community wellbeing\'. The gathering sites are typically around 90 minutes drive from Sydney in beautiful green valleys beside water. A number of sites have been used. Mid-day and evening vegetarian meals are included with the entry ticket. All events and workshops are free. Around 70 workshops and events happen over the three days. Around 75 people who attend have a wide range of experience in varying healing modalities and freely pass on their experience to each other and the attendees. These people have been found by actively social networking for them. Over time the self-help and mutual-support wellbeing experience within the group is evolving. No person receives payment for any workshop, event or other activity at the gatherings. There are no markets or goods or services for sale. Many people bring massage tables and people give and receive massage freely. Acoustical music is prevalent, as are drumming and dancing (with respect for quiet times). One night there is an acoustical music concert that also includes poetry readings and other performances and spontaneous artistic happenings.

There is nothing at the site when people arrive. The first and last two and a half hours are for site set-up and pull-down and many hands make this easy and enjoyable. Around 50 regulars have the things they typically do during this set-up and pull-down phase; the wisdom and \'knowing\' are in the group. Participants describe this site work as a very enjoyable aspect and say that it greatly enhances their experience of being an integral part of the Sydney ConFesters Gathering community.

There are two large lock-up shipping containers on the present site containing the equipment that the group has acquired. Some people bring group equipment with them, along with their own equipment that they make available to the gathering. A well equipped covered kitchen is set up including a food storage area, cooking utensils area, food preparation tables and cooking area. A volunteer kitchen crew for the gathering work by roster. People bring and wash their own cup, plate and utensils. All share the midday and evening meals together as a community, typically around a fire. The gathering has an opening and closing ceremony. These two ceremonies and the meal circles provide times for sharing community news and group discussion on their experience and future. All aspects of the preparation and the eating of food are used for community building.

On very hot days there may be a total fire ban declared by authorities. Pit toilets, showers, a hot tub, a steam room, and workshop spaces are set up, as well as a chai tent for casual conversation and soft acoustical music. Camping is sufficiently close to contain community energy with plenty of open spaces. An open workshop process is self organising, with people able to write up the time, place, and a brief description of the workshop on the workshop notice board. Workshops are experiential, discussion-based and informational. Workshops and micro-conferencing generally have themes based upon wellbeing for people and the planet. Many children attend the gatherings and there are children\'s workshops, storytelling and other activities, as well as spontaneous play in safe environments with adults at times joining in the children\'s fun and play.

Volunteers staff the front gate and the gathering rules are handed out to newcomers. These rules set a code for wellbeing and include a no drugs, alcohol or pets policy. There is a \'wellbeing group\' that maintains an informal presence and will act if there are any claims of untoward behaviour. This group is actively engaged in working out its role and protocols.

\'Gatherings\' is the theme that contributes to cohesion in the group. As well, the social networking both at, and outside the gatherings has resulted in strong friendships forming. The core group also does things together from time to time such having an evening together at a restaurant in Sydney. From all of this relational communication a whole system of interlinked social networks has evolved.

Now a little about how this group formed - three and a half years ago John McCallum, one of the Directors of Down to Earth (the cooperative that arranges ConFest put up a notice at ConFest for a meeting for those living around Sydney who may want to set up their own ConFesters Group. Greg O\'Donnell and Dianne Horvath, two people from Sydney networked with those they knew from Sydney to attend that meeting. Around 30 attended and from that, a few meetings took place in inner Sydney in Paddington. This was the same area that ConFest was first planned back in the mid Seventies. From these mini-gatherings a series of small campout weekends called \'affinity weekends\' occurred with around 20 people attending. A central theme was discussing how they could evolve a community and a larger gathering and what would be its norms and spirit.

This seed group evolved a working arrangement with Down to Earth. The arrangement was that the Sydney ConFesters Group would run under the DTE insurance cover as a DTE event. The Sydney group sent a proposal with modest budget for DTE to consider providing seed funding towards the purchase of capital items needed to run gatherings as well as an operating budget. DTE agreed and provided $3,000 seeding money and a stock of numbered entry tickets.

From the small beginnings, now everyone pays $60 at the gate including the core group. The day ticket price is $25. Children under seventeen pay $2. The Sydney ConFesters gatherings have always created a surplus. The seed money for each gathering has been returned. The seed money per gathering has been slowly expanded to $8,000. All gathering ticketing receipts are banked directly to DTE\'s bank account the day after the gathering. Unsold tickets are audited. Surpluses have been used by the Sydney ConFesters Group to acquire equipment for the Sydney gatherings.

The relaxed, informal, joyous spirit of these Sydney ConFester Gatherings is pervasive and very potent in enriching lives. All of this activity has presented challenges in how to live and work well together with others. There have been aspects that have stretched people\'s capacities and experience. There is a general desire to explore community approaches, to allow a degree of tentativeness, to allow things to self evolve and emerge.

Some first-timers arriving after the gathering has started have found the entry into the rich milieu difficult. The gathering is small enough to create intimacy; the gate far enough away to be on your own in arriving at the energy centre. The pervasive friendliness creates for some the allusion that everyone present knows everybody, which is just not so. This may create in some a strong sense of being the outsider. A few caring souls may note the tentative newcomers and immediately welcome them into the throng. If the caring souls are otherwise engaged, the shy first-timer may have difficulty. A despondent soul may have their down-ness amplified a thousand fold when surround by the \'joyous\'. Sometimes despondent people are not noticed. Attending to the quality of wellbeing in the on-going process surrounding them is something the community as \'community\' is working on.

Some in the core group are still working out their roles in the group and the sub-groups. Many in the core group recognise that the preparatory behind-the-scenes stuff is in many ways more important than the gatherings themselves in evolving and strengthening community. The challenges that emerge from organizing the gatherings have been useful as learning experiences for the group, and the group is getting better at learning from experience and adapting. Sub-groups have been emerging including sub groups for site set-up, equipment, food preparation, ticketing, front gate, finance, workshops, wellbeing and rules, and car-pooling.

The occasional person acting offensively challenges the wellbeing group\'s ways. The core group is evolving informal sub-groups.

The Sydney ConFesters Group was fortunate that Greg and Dianne, the two people who networked for attendees at the first planning meeting at ConFest were very good as catalysts. They had the support of and worked well with David Cruise, a DTE director who is also a catalyst person of great discernment and experience. Greg and Dianne were very vital in the Sydney Group\'s start-up process and when other interests took them away from the group Jimmy (will send his surname) and Sophia Redmond took over and sustained the catalyst roles. The Sydney group were also fortunate to have Bennie Menczer, a real character who has superb skills in sourcing things and getting them shifted as well as endless energy. Another advantage for the Sydney ConFesters Group was that DTE, as seed funding source, was itself interested in exploring gatherings as a process for social transformation.

Another issue is that in Australia a landowner will typically require substantial public liability cover to lease a gathering site. Within Australia, public liability is very expensive; DTE\'s policy costs Aus$15,000. Without DTE\'s support, liability would have been a big issue. This may have been resolved by finding a non-compromising umbrella organisation prepared to carry the insurance cover as part of its wider activities.

An important learning from the Sydney ConFester\'s experience is that you start by actually doing it. Have the energy evolving out in the countryside. Evolve the gathering where it happens and do not be size conscious. The Sydney group only had 17 people at their first campout gathering. The issues are in the context. In this valley, beside this creek how does this all work? This context based understanding can be a powerful learning about the potency of context in any wellbeing action. The alternative is that the energy will de-contextualised. It will become city meeting based with decisions been made away from the site. City based meetings about a site tend to be preoccupied with input rather than output.

In evolve the gathering where it happens the few learn by actually doing. They will find their own niche and settle into it and potentially gather a few kindred spirits around them. The wisdom emerges in the group.

The Sydney ConFesters Group has had over 450 people experience their gatherings. To reiterate, many of these people have, as a result, become members of nested social networks. That is, they are members of one or more social networks with links to other social networks in the Sydney ConFester community. Many people are in the \'closely known to others and connecting\' category. Many meet regularly for social exchange. People have links with around 75 people who have professional or para-professional healing wellbeing skills, and many in the networks are what could be called natural nurturers. Virtually all attendees are good at giving and receiving hugs. Some of these people have dysfunctional aspects to their lives and are all the richer for have a supporting community around them. The Sydney ConFesters Group has become an informal therapeutic community – more of a wellbeing community.

In conclusion, the Sydney ConFester Group is one micro-model of how the therapeutic community concept may be applied to enrich life and wellbeing in civil society.

Information about the Sydney ConFesters Gatherings may be found through following the prompt at http://www.dte.org.au/

A link to a photo of a Sydney ConFesters Gathering is below the link to this program.

There is a set of Programs on Fraser House on Radio TC International Channel Seven and a brief note on Dr Neville Yeomans on our Radio TC International Website in our Therapeutic Community Pioneers section.


I am Craig Fees for Radio TC International. This program has been prepared from Les Spencer\'s paper entitled: The Evolving of a Dispersed Therapeutic Community – The Sydney ConFesters Group.


An informative set of photos can be found at: http://www.dte.org.au/sydney/anzac05pix.html


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