THE BLOG
05/10/2013 01:22 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2013

Planning a Community Event? Try Local Heroes Instead of Stars From Afar!

A new conference and events model is being born that combines local wisdom and talent with Internet knowledge. It's designed to be place-based, inexpensive, sustainable (including financially sustainable) and cooperative, rather than operating on a more corporate, top-down model of importing celebrity "stars from afar" and charging high fees to offset the expense of their fossil-fueled travel and hotel stay.

And those high fees aren't the only burden on attendees. If they're coming in from out of town they also have pop for travel, hotel and live with their own high-carbon-footprint. Admittedly, conventional conferences can benefit local tourism businesses (well, often tourism chains), but they don't necessarily build ongoing local community at an affordable price.

An important benefit of this new way of doing things is that with each gathering, the wealth of in-place knowledge and camaraderie increases. Maybe we should call this the "wisdom in place" movement -- creating events that build up local community expertise and cooperation rather than just costing big bucks and exhausting organizers.

The old model involves importing outside experts -- usually writers who have published books and are busy marketing them around the country and the world. Too often, these "experts" aren't familiar with our location and our particular problems or conditions, but somehow we listen to them instead of to local people who've lived and worked here for years.

We don't seem to have fully adapted yet to the Internet era and the fact that we can now watch most of these authors' YouTube videos or read their books anytime we choose, with 24/7 access to their expertise -- so why pay big fees to fly them to our town? Perhaps we still live with remnants of a far-off celebrity culture where it's a thrill to actually shake the hand of the heroes we see on our large or tiny screens.

Now seems to be the time to focus on developing locally-based, home-grown heroes who don't disappear on the next flight out of town. In the era of relocalized food and relocalized everything, what if we help local people do well and develop their talents rather than just rewarding well-marketed folks from far away?

In our community we experienced the problem with the "stars from afar" approach when the author of a book on gardening was flown in from Massachusetts by a local group. This gentleman, an expert on East Coast conditions, proceeded to give us mostly bad advice for a Mediterranean growing climate zone, contradicting what our local experts had learned the hard way. And, silly us, we listened to this oracle rather than our own neighbors. But he was a book author, so that means he's an expert, right? Even in the era when anyone can publish a book on their computer, we seem in awe of book authors or big names as some sort of guarantee of local value.

Luckily a few creative souls are reinventing the obsolete conference and events model. For example, Julie James and a team of Southern California gardeners and herbalists are putting on a conference in Ojai, Calif. using this new pattern of building in-place expertise and resilience. Their gathering is called "The Roots of Healing Southern California Herb Festival" and is envisioned as a local annual event.

At first Julie and her colleagues considered the usual, expensive, "stars from afar" model. She writes: "Soon, though, in discussion with my fabulous co-organizers, we began to see flaws in this model. As an annual event, it's lovely for stirring folks up and getting enthusiasm going, making connections and encouraging budding herbalists. But for the rest of the year? What then?" And Julie was concerned that "the fee for festivals like this, ranging from $150 to $300, makes them out of reach for many, and a burden for most. Adding to that the cost of travel, food, lodging, you can easily end up $600 poorer, though admittedly richer in ever-so-many ways."

Julie tells us:

When I first considered the idea of an herb festival/conference here in Los Angeles, I wanted to create it to align with the standard Herb Festival model: a weekend of intensive learning, with amazing teachers flown in from all over the US; a pricey weekend, but well worth the fee, for those who could afford it. What we emerged with, after a lot of work and debate, is a new model, one that invigorates us and excites us to no end, one with which we can truly build a local community of plant lovers and herbal medicine enthusiasts.

So Julie and her friends are planning a one-day event at a reasonable price, showcasing local teachers. They're also wondering about taking their low-cost event on the road, a "festival on wheels" that visits various locations around LA -- but hopefully they won't just become new "stars from afar."

Their dream is that:

Virtually anyone can share in this celebration, can become part of the tribe, and can continually work with their communities, building networks of like-minded folks to learn with and from throughout the year. We seek to lift up perhaps lesser known, but no less amazing, local herbalists as teachers, showing people that in every city, in each region, there are educational possibilities, and that a "school" far away, or distance learning by yourself, need not be your only learning options.

Brava, Julie and friends!

What topic would you like to organize a local festival on in your community? You have everything you need: local people with ideas, experience and energy, plus access to extra information via the internet, Skype and You Tube.

So what are you waiting for? The next stars in your community can be local heroes!