To whom it may concern: 

Although it was not possible for me to attend Alternatives '96, I have heard numerous accounts of the conference and its activities, and I would like to share some thoughts - and concerns. 

As I understand it, the conference was held in a hotel in Orlando, Florida. I imagine that issues such as accomodation and meals for participants were primarily handled by this facility, which meant that costs were probably quite high. This quite naturally would mean that a substantial sum would have to be charged to registrants in order to recover these costs. As a whole, people who are or have been recipients of mental health-related services are not a wealthy population. 

As I understand it, there was a decision made by conference organizers and/or funders that regional conferences or meetings were not desirable... I believe the reason given was that these would 'not serve the interests of movement unity.' This notion of there being room for only one annual event adds a further financial burden to participanbts in the form of travel expenses. Taken as a whole, these issues create serious concerns about accessibility. 

It is also my understanding that despite the title of this conference - Alternatives - there was a preponderance of traditional, mainstream views reflected in the speakers and workshops, and much involvement by mental health professionals. Even though there was extensive user/survivor involvement, it was under terms of reference defined by professionals, and by the funding agency. 

For Alternatives to be deserving of its name, it is vital that control of the event be returned to the population who's interests it claims to serve. As far as I'm concerned, mental health system users/survivors are the only real stakeholders in this situation, because we are the ones who use services... or as frequently happens, have them forced on us against our wishes. Yet I heard nothing of non-professional, non-medical approaches to helping people... or about the well-documented occurrence of human rights violations within the system. These issues are vital... so why no discussion or plan of action? This is unacceptable. 

Having cleared up some preliminary concerns, I will now make some practical suggestions as to how to remove some of these barriers and to make Alternatives and similar events more reflective of the interests of those it serves. I hope you will take the time to consider these suggestions with an open mind. 


1. There should be a series of regional meetings or conferences to take place each year in addition to the annual Alternatives conference. Responsibility for organizing should be taken by individuals and organizations in the community(s) hosting events. 

2. All issues and terms of reference regarding Alternatives and related events should be defined by mental health system users/survivors... without professional involvement. It is important we have the right to define our own issues. 
3. No screening of workshops or other presentations for content should take place - they should be accepted strictly on a first-come, first-served basis, with reasonable limits to be determined by space and time constraints. An effort should be made to encourage submissions from user/survivor-run services, communities of color, women's organizations, the lesbian/gay community, human rights advocates, and political and cultural dissidents.


4. Rather than relying on hotels or other for-profit institutions for conference facilities and related services, an effort should be found to use non-profit or low-cost resources in the community. Many community centres, schools and churches have facilities to accomodate large assemblies of people including full food preparation capabilities. Use of these facilities can often be had for free or for a nominal sum. 

5. An effort to recruit volunteers for providing conference-related services such as outreach, setup, food preparation and service, security, childcare and crisis support should be made - far from being exploitive, this actually returns ownership of an event to participants, rather than it being controlled by a small group of 'professional activists.' (Volunteers should be encouraged to actively participate in planning and organizing events.) This will also further reduce expenses by avoiding for-profit businesses and services. 

6. As I understand it, access to adequate meals was a problem to some participants at Alternatives '96 due to the expense and the limited scholarship monies available. In future, an effort should be made to procure adequate food supplies to be prepared and served by volunteers. Meals should be provided on a pay-what-you-can basis - finances should never be a reason to deny someone access to proper meals. 


7. Rather than relying on hotels or other costly means for accomodating participants, an effort should be made to utilize free or low-cost alternatives - billeting in private homes or youth hostels are two things that come to mind. I have personally attended events in other cities where churches or community centres have provided floor space for those who don't mind sleeping rough. Public campgrounds are another possible alternative during the warmer months. 


8. In order to ensure autonomy, it is vital that event organizers and participants be able to control their own financial resources. To this end, it is desirable to avoid government funding sources whenever possible and instead make an effort to raise funds directly from individual members of the community through public events of various kinds... rummage or bake sales, dooor-to-door canvassing, fundraising concerts in local clubs, speaking events and dances are all events that come to mind. While labor-intensive, there are at least three major advantages to this approach - use of the funds raised is not subject to any outside controls, an opportunity is created for more people to participate, and the fundraising events themselves serve as a valuable outreach and educational tool to the broader community. Government money should only be sought as a last resort - and only under terms that we ourselves define. 

9. Some revenue can be generated from the event(s) themselves through voluntary donations for meals or registration, or public social/cultural events organized in conjunction with the meetings/conferences themselves. Financial reasons should never be used to deny anyone the right to participate. At a large event (1,200 participants) I participated in and helped organize in 1988, most of the monies were raised in this fashion - participants made voluntary contributions for meals, the hat was passed several times, and musical events open to the public were staged at a couple of local nightclubs in conjunction with the event, bringing in thousands of dollars in revenue. With the kind of cost-saving methods I have suggested here, this proved to be more than sufficient to cover the expenses related to this event. 


What I have tried to do here is share some ideas based on my own experiences - this document is by no means complete. And I certainly have no desire to trash the efforts of those who worked very hard to put on Alternatives or similar events - but the reality is there are serious problems as to structure and philosophy. To leave these unaddressed would be irresponsible.

The thrust of what I have saide here is that mental health system users/survivors must gain control of the services they receive, and ensure accountability of those who claim to speak or act on our behalf... this extends to events like Alternatives. The methods of organizing I have described here here return control to us, and invites broader community participation. Staging the events in a hotel actually serves to isolate us further - no matter how 'glamorous', hotels are still institutions, and as such are cold, alienating places. Utilizing community resources overcomes this problem and many others.