What is a Cultural Swarm Anyway and Why Do We Do It?

The Melibee Swarm-Culture, Identity, Perspective
That’s a photo of my father with my Nanny (his mother) – two people who shaped my values, beliefs and sense of self.

“Growth demands a temporary surrender of security.” – Gail Sheehy

I really appreciate that quote because it is at the core of what we try to do, day in and day out, at the Melibee Global hive. We have a lot of crazy ideas here, admittedly.  Some never see the light of day while others take flight and swirl in their own powerful energy.  This has been the case for a wacky idea that I had been brewing up for years in my head – a conference that wasn’t all about research and metrics – but rather about self awareness, exploration, reflection, and small group dialogue that would require participants to do what we often ask our clients (students or otherwise) to do – and that is to get uncomfortable to grow in our understanding of self, identity, perspective and culture.  We aim to be more aware of ourselves, to understand where we come from, and how our interactions impact the people and space around us so that we can serve for a higher good in this world.

The Swarm on Culture, Identity, and Perspective is in its second year, taking place in Asheville, North Carolina (USA) on November 12th and 13th.  I struggle with how to best describe it despite creating it – as it is so unique in the fields of international/higher education!  It is simply difficult to find the right words, but here is my attempt:

The Swarm is an intimate gathering of under 80 people that convene in Asheville to challenge themselves to boldly step into the zone of discomfort, because that is where the growth happens. We work and experience life crossing cultures every day – and many of us “teach” culture and provide programming around culture, yet, we really don’t take the time to STOP and ask ourselves what our OWN culture is and how, as individuals, we affect others as we travel our local neighborhoods and those across national borders. The Swarm aims for us to pause to do so.

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We practice deep listening skills while we Swarm.

How do we Swarm? We intentionally do not set expectations for every minute of the conference experience. Rather, we invite participants to work through the exercises and activities that require us all to stop and think about who we are in each interaction and why we are the way we are.  This invitation to the discomfort zone comes after establishing a spirit of trust that I simply haven’t felt at other conferences (and this was the feedback we received from past participants – that something very special happens at the Swarm to create a safe and open hearted space for introspection and sharing).


This “conference” (which some have described as a mix of conference/retreat) is a highly experiential day and half. This year’s “theme” explores the role of Elders in cultural development – those people who are often older than we are and who have left us with strong messages and stories. They may or may not be on our family trees, but they have influenced our lives in some significant way.  Swarmers are invited to read two short chapters from Shift: Ingidenous Principles for Corporate Change by author Glenn Geffcken (provided upon registration). Glenn will be one of the speakers at the Swarm this year.

As we Swarm, we choose to participate in exercises that can be replicated back at work/home with others, but in those precious moments that we Swarm, we are present and therefore “popping” with a-ha moments about our culture identity/ies.  We spend time reflecting on the activities so that we have a better understanding, in the moment, of our reactions and responses, and how they impact everything from work to personal relationships to friendships to encounters with people from other cultures and backgrounds.

With this heightened awareness, one is able to more skillfully and creatively operate in the world.  Dare I say that one can do more to move toward a peaceful world with a new perspective?

Vimala Rajendran is one of several Swarm speakers this year.
Community activist and chef, Vimala Rajendran, is one of several Swarm speakers this year.

Day two of the Swarm is when we invite unique presenters to share their wisdom. However, they do not read papers or share statistics (not that there is anything bad about that, but we are firm believers in avoiding a slow and painful death by power point). Instead, each presenters shares a deeply personal message through storytelling and inviting the group to participate in short exercises and discussions – and then to reflect on those in a more personal way.  Stories are memorable lessons – and because we Swarm, participants walk away remembering these cultural messages.

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Written reflection is integral to the Swarm experience.

What also distinguishes the Swarm from other professional conferences?  Here is what immediately comes to mind:

  • The group shares the same space for the entire 1.5 days and has a common experience to draw from.
  • We honor silence. We honor a slower pace as a cultural lesson. We don’t jump from one session to another.
  • We pivot as needed – if something isn’t working, we change it.
  • We are a green conference. We share very little paper.
  • We agree to let go of distractions and be present. We turn our phones on silent and agree not to check them except during lunch (although we do provide an emergency phone # so that folks can be reached without distraction).
  • We live our motto to “Bee the change” by Swarming at a comparably low fee for a professional conference. We offer special pricing for students and un/underemployed friends and colleagues.

This concept of Swarming may still be as clear as mud, so it is best for me to share the testimonials from last year so that you can hear directly from people who attended.

The “early bee” registration deadline for this year’s Swarm is September 1st.  I do hope you will accept our invitation into the discomfort zone and join us this fall for a truly unique professional and personal development gathering.