Important Online Conference: Including The Excluded

I wanted to share with you some important work that my friend, Beth Offenbacker, is up to.

Beth leads a firm called Public Decisions, which is breaking fascinating ground as one of the premier online real-time training, conferences, and stakeholder engagement. Many of her conferences take place in Second Life, which — more than just being a toy — allows you to do things you can’t otherwise do such as virtual tours, in-depth conversation among far-flung people, and more.

Beth has partnered with Learning Times, a leading producer of online communities,  to convene an annual international flagship conference. This year’s conference is coming up, and it looks very interesting.

Here is what Beth’s materials say about it:

Including the Excluded: The 2010 Stakeholder Engagement Online Conference

Public, private and nonprofit/NGO professionals who experience challenges with effectively engaging diverse people or groups are invited to attend the Stakeholder Engagement 2010 Online Conference: Including the Excluded. The three-day program highlights practical insights and best practices from around the globe for engaging people who have historically been excluded (for example, those subject to racial or ethnic discrimination), individuals with physical or mental disabilities, or persons who are socially excluded for a variety of reasons (such as people who are homeless or in a country illegally).

Held on Tuesday, March 2 through Thursday, March 4, this online conference is open to the public and no travel is required. Registration is $179 USD for individuals and $2,000 USD for site registrations. Group discounts and full-time student/faculty rates also available. Complete registration details are at

The conference is ideal for professionals whose responsibilities include engaging stakeholders on an ongoing or periodic basis, including those in the fields of planning, environmental management and engineering, health, education and nonprofit management.

Registrants will become part of the online conference community, attend conference sessions, participate in networking activities and take field trips in Second Life. They also will be able to access session recordings, presentation materials and continue networking with fellow registrants for at least six months following the conference.

Including the Excluded is presented by PublicDecisions, the online provider of professional development programs for stakeholder engagement and Learning Times, the leading producer of online communities and online conferences for education and training. The Presenting Sponsor is Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

You can keep up on what’s up with the conference by following @publicdecisions on Twitter or search on the #SEConf2010 hashtag.

(I was an early adopter with Second Life. My name used to be Bradrourke Dynamo. Alas, I let that identity go fallow and I recently recreated an identity. You can find me in Second Life under the name: Brad Roundel.)

Gas Stations And Whalesongs

A couple days ago, I mentioned an essay of my old high school friend Charlie Burleigh. That got me to thinking and I dug around in my old files and I found the essay in question. I want to share it because I think it is one of the best essays I’ve ever read. He doesn’t know this, but in large part it inspired me to be an essayist.

Charlie and I were eighteen when he wrote this, back in 1983. It was intended to be a college entrance essay. The copy I have is from a student literary publication called “The Dubious Muse” that my school published occasionally.

The piece calls up E.B. White in some of his more reflective moods.

I have looked for but cannot reconnect with Charlie. If you find this, Charlie, I would love to get in touch.

Anyway, here is the essay:


The following item appeared in the New York Times Business Section on March 6. 1983:

“Gasoline stations have become something of an endangered species. Many were forced out of business as prices soared and gasoline supplies dried up. But lower prices and a glut of crude oil will not bring them back. Instead, their number is likely to shrink still further. Industry estimates place the current number of service stations at about 130,000 down from about 170.000 in the early 1970’s. Experts say the decline will probably not halt until there are fewer than 90,000. Among other reasons for the continuing shrinkage: new cars have lower repair and maintenance needs, and their gas mileage is far better than yesterday’s clunkers.”

Sitting in Birmingham Colonial Standard on a Saturday morning, it is hard to get the feeling that one is dealing with an endangered species. Looking at the Felix the Cat clock, the steaming coffee pot, the chairs, the dirty fake hammerhead shark on the wall, and the people standing around in conversation, one can feel very at home and not at all threatened by the outside world. One senses that the business here is more than gas sales and work orders.

This feeling is reinforced by the type of problems the regulars bring in. “You wanna check the drivers side front tire’s valve core. I think it lost a couple pounds this week.” “Do you think it’s time for an oil change and a lube?” “I wonder if my timing’s off and I need some door grease.” These regulars, men, executives and chemical engineers, appear nearly every Saturday morning to buy time along with their door grease. As one confessed, “I wish he wouldn’t work so fast. This is the only time all day I can get away from my wife and have a cigarette. She thinks I quit – hell – it’s time for spring cleaning.”

As a place for escape the gas station is nearly perfect. It provides its own excuses and its own rules. The car can always need to be filled up or fixed. “It’s not safe to let this kind of thing go on without attention.” There is also no doubt about who you are at the station. The customer is always right and the mechanic always knows best. As long as no one infringes on these simple rules (e.g. as when the customer watches the mechanic too closely) there is no reason for dispute.

Escape by Saturday morning errand could also be found at a shopping mall, except for one thing, conversation. The verbal give and take is what changes the gas station from merely a place to get away from the job and the wife to a place that feels truly comfortably.

This talk, which may begin with the weather, progresses to nearly anything. Discussion can be about the hangover or world events, about who got any last night or the new model cars, about recent sports or how slow business is going. The range of topics is as open as the range of common experiences.

While this communication lacks predictable subject matter or direction, it would be too hasty to say that it has no purpose. A study in the 1970’s by a group of marine biologists and linguists seems to provide the purpose. The object of the study was to look at humpback whale songs, separate out the elements used in sonar and see if in the clicks, cries and rumbles that were left there were any repeated linguistic elements. What they found was that while one song could be identified with one whale at a given time, every song was subject to change when the whales communicated. They found further that there was no predictable subject matter or direction and no one song had any special significance. Indeed the scientists concluded that these complex signals were only sent to convey one message during the vast undersea migrations of the whales:


The effect of this simple communication is to overcome isolation, to encourage the traveler. And even if all the general stores are now shopping malls and all the gas stations become self service, we will still need stations for this service.

By Charles Burleigh

A belated thanks, Charlie, for a great piece.