First-Time Attendees

An Open Letter to First-Time Cal Caucus Attendees

by Jon Lee, 2019


Dear First-timer,

“It’s not a conference, it’s a caucus.”

I can’t remember who said that to me but hearing it was the exact moment I understood what Cal Caucus was all about.

Last year’s Cal Caucus was my first. I didn’t even know of its existence until I had a brief conversation with Marcia Riley (one of this year’s co-conveners) at the tail end of the 2017 IOA Annual Conference where she suggested I attend. I figured it’d be similar to the IOA conference—professional development sessions, networking opportunities, and an excuse to travel. Sure, why not?

Characterizing Cal Caucus this way is technically accurate, but it’d be a colossally reductive crime to do so. I’m thrilled to write to all of you about how wrong and naïve I was to ever think this was Just Another Conference™.

Before I continue, make sure to read the Cal Caucus FAQs that cover what you need to know with regards to travel, logistics, accommodations, and more.

Here are the reasons why Cal Caucus is a special and singular experience.

Programming: Content + Intent

My Cal Caucus mentor, Andrew Larrat-Smith, gave me the advice to pace myself on day one. He described that the first day was heavy and dense with professional development. Unlike standard conferences, the days were not identical to one another, and the programming was “top heavy.” I didn’t get why initially, but I came to understand that the sessions weren’t so much designed to instruct as they were to seed future conversation. And it worked. During the subsequent days and nights, I had the most profound and professionally satisfying conversations I’ve ever had since becoming an ombuds.

The level of depth, scope, and nuance we reached was only possible because all of us had shared experiences and thus developed mutual points of reference. The level of engagement was fierce, and it caught me off guard as a self-proclaimed introvert. I found myself fighting the impulse to escape to the solitude of my room in order to see where the conversation would go next, and the exchange of ideas, energy, and camaraderie is something that I still revel in almost a year later.

Location, Location, Location

I think a realtor would use the euphemism “rustic” to describe Asilomar. I lovingly call it “Camp Ombuds” since it reminds me of some of the summer camps I went to as a kid. There’s no television in the rooms, no modern amenities, and your cell phone may or may not get reception. At night, it’s darker and quieter than what I’m used to as a city-slicker, but in exchange for cable programming and a jacuzzi, I got to watch the night sky with the rolling ocean tide for a soundtrack. If you’re a visual person like me, this YouTube video does a decent job of conveying what it’s like to be at Asilomar:

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I don’t have to explain to an ombuds how space affects process, and the relationship between Asilomar and Cal Caucus is no different. The profound, life-altering conversations I mentioned before needed a venue to come into being. While it’s arguable that that could happen in the lobby of some Marriot or Hyatt, I’m glad they happened under the stars, infused with the smell of the pines, and carried by the brisk, sharp night air.

History Repeating Itself

Did you know that Cal Caucus is 49 years old?! Apparently the first Cal Caucus was a casual, informal gathering of three ombuds in 1973, and 49 years later the spirit and ethos of that first meeting remains. There are some Cal Caucus veterans that have been attending for many, many years, so people have a passion for this event that can only be gifted by time. It’s a patina that underlies how people interact with the space, with the content of the programming, and above all, with one another. There’s a profound appreciation for tradition and a razor-sharp clarity of identity which I discovered when I mistakenly said, “I’m really enjoying this conference.” I quickly understood that no, this isn’t a place where people come to passively consume. It’s where they come to actively connect.

So, there you have it. Some subjective, myopic reasons why Cal Caucus is an incredible and worthwhile experience. I hope you feel the same way about your first time as I did with mine.

Allow me to end with a few hopefully useful bon mots:

  • Make excellent use of your Ombuddy Mentor
  • Participate in the Tuesday night gift exchange
  • Bring a flashlight (or use the one on your phone) so you can see where you’re going at night
  • Don’t feel any pressure at all to participate in anything—I think the reason I was so engaged was because I didn’t feel like I had to be
  • When you see deer strolling through the Asilomar grounds, resist the urge to grab your camera and just take it in with your eyes because who knows when you’ll be that close to one again
  • Bring sandals or flip-flops so you can go for a walk on the beach
  • Some of the lazy susans in the dining hall are temperamental, so spin them with a light hand
  • There’s a HUGE fireplace in the Social Hall—sit by it as much as you can
  • In-N-Out is less than a 10-minute drive away
  • Pack your most comfortable shoes and make them your primary footwear for the week
  • Even if you think it won’t interest you, attend the planning and annual meetings

and lastly, if you’re able, and to quote Joseph Campbell, “Say “yes” to the experience.”



Registration will be available in the summer!

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