Boarding the plane to Las Vegas for the first annual Food Allergy Bloggers Conference (#FABlogCon) last week, I will confess to having had a special twinge of nervous excitement and uncertainty above and beyond my usual pre-conference nerves. Not only was I looking forward to meeting many of the bloggers and early members on freedible who'd inspired me, it was the 1st chance to test - in the real world - this notion that what custom eaters share in common is greater than that which sets us apart. Seeing as that notion is the entire reason behind freedible, I was more than a bit interested in the outcome!
It was a question that I'd already begun exploring in the weeks before the conference with four amazing women and prodigious food allergy advocates: Nona Narvaez of the Anaphylaxis & Food Allergry Association of MN, author Jan Hanson (Food Allergies: A Recipe For Success At School), Veronica LaFemina of FARE and clinical nursing super-star Anne Russell. (Alas, an injury prevented Anne from attending the conference itself but she was with us in spirit.) FABlogCon organizer Jenny Sprague had asked me to moderate the final panel, a discussion on "Closing the Gaps" in our current community resources, priorities and opportunities.
"Great!," the panel decided, "we'll send out a survey to identify 3 or 4 key issues around which we all unite. The 3 or 4 'must do's' that would make a difference for us all." But there weren’t 3 or 4 “top” priorities. There were 38 - and the only universal truth of our cause that it revealed was the diversity of our particulars.
"What does this say," I’d pondered nervously on the flight out, "about the complexity of the food allergy community – let alone the broader community of custom eaters? Would the things we have in common overcome the distinctions that set us apart?"
No sooner had I arrived at the hotel than I began to understand that this would be a very different kind of a conference. The handful of us who'd arrived early flocked to meet Jenny in her spectacular "FAB Pad" (thank you, South Point!). With each knock on the door, Twitter handles turned into hugs, personalities and faces - and hashtags turned into rants, wisdom and compassion.
Inevitably, our introductions fell into "The Story": which food, what reaction, who has it, how was it diagnosed. The details. The differences. Learning from each other just how complicated the body's reactions to food can be. By the end of just the first night - filled with swag bags, conversation and the first big test: a shared meal - I began to see that if we were in fact a tribe, surely this ritual was our tribal greeting.
Waking early the next morning, Dana Lustbader of EpiEssentials and I shared a cab out to the Las Vegas suburbs for the local FARE Walk. We arrived to a sunlit shopping plaza filled with families, vendors and teens. Teens clad either in matching FARE t-shirts or in cheerleading costumes.
I strolled along happily getting to know Keeley McGuire (Keeley McGuire Allergy Friendly Fun Lunchboxes) and Angie Morris (Conscious Eatery), exchanging our stories. As we walked, these teens became a bigger and bigger part of our surroundings. In fact, by the time we turned the corner to return to the start line, squads of girls were cheering us on with an enthusiasm that seemed vastly disproportional to the one mile walk we had "conquered" that morning. No, their vigor better-matched the length of that infinitely longer journey still ahead of us towards an answer, a cure or at least some measure of protection for their classmates, teammates and friends. This was their walk, not ours.
Back at the hotel, weaving through the vast forest of tables, bells and whistles on the casino floor, I saw familiar faces - some of whom I'd met at BlogHer Food (like Mary Fran Wiley of FrannyCakes), others of whom looked vaguely like avatars I'd seen some place before. Always, each new introduction circled around to an exchange of our tribal greeting - The Story behind the food restrictions that had brought us to this mission, and ultimately to this conference. Each story as different as they were similar.
And yet, as they accumulated over the course of the weekend, those stories - replete with the terrifying details and critical differences that make them real and make their pain human - each seemed to be wrapped in the same cloth. A cloth equally patterned by the acceptance and by the fight that comes with being a food allergy (or celiac, or...) patient - or perhaps even more so, parent. Acceptance: that this epidemic of food reactions is real. Fight: against the notion that it is inevitable, or that we must accept such artificial barriers as ignorant medical professionals, inadequate labeling laws, school communities that don't get it or legislatures that fail to mobilize behind ready access to life-saving medications.
By the time the conference officially kicked off with a 'meet and greet' Saturday night, it was clear not only that it is this cloth that we have in common, but that the very fact of sharing this cloth yields something more: possibility.
Possibility that together we can lead, construct, advocate for and create new social, medical and technological solutions to bring people together and literally save lives. Possibility that we can seek out, champion and support one another's work, share and learn from it - just as we'd already begun to do simply by being together in that hotel in Las Vegas.
Over the course of the next two days, this sense of possibility did not subside - it grew. It grew as I had the chance to finally meet many of the bloggers who had taken the bare framework of freedible and breathed life into it from our earliest days. Bloggers like Lacy Wade (Making It Milk Free), Sarah Hoskinson (Don't Feed My Monkeys) and conference volunteer-extraordinaire Selena Bluntzer of Amazing Atopic, Kim Pebley (The Cheeky Celiac) and Colette Martin (Learning to Eat Allergy-Free) - along with a host of other freedible members like Erica Dermer (Celiac and the Beast), Anna Luke (Gluten Free? Gimme Three!), Kate Hufnagel (Diary Of Ana Phylaxis), Amy Tracy (Adventures of An Allergic Foodie), Rebecca Hirt-Sherrow (Pure and PeanutFree), Joel Warady of Enjoy Life Foods - and many more.
It grew as I absorbed the the empathy, resources, erstwhile achievements and empowerment on display in the many panels Jenny Sprague and co-organizer Homa Woodrum had organized on disease management, advocacy and yes, the art of blogging.
And it grew as I observed the tremendous generosity of spirit in panel after panel, with rockstars in photography (like freedible members Colette Martin and Rebecca Hirt-Sherrow), recipe development (like Cybele Pasquel and Kelly Rudnicki), medical research (like Dr. Eric Edwards), clinical care (like Drs. John Lee and Michael Pistener), and social media (like the inestimable Ritesh Patel, whose enthusiastic spirit of giving made such an impression on so many of us). Panelists who shared with abandon their rules of thumb, detailed processes and trusted tools - in short, their secret sauce. No proprietary boundaries. All of us united for the single goal of making all food allergy blogs as powerful as possible, so that we all can benefit from the better telling, showing and hearing of our collective story.
And while at other conferences the spaces between the panels might have been taken up with idle chit-chat, at FABlogCon it simply threw more fuel on the 'possibility' fire, as we shifted from room to room at the South Point, stole a quiet table for a sunlit strategy session by the pool, chatted over coffee or dodged the slot machines for a late night drink.
Because whatever the time, the place or the setting, between poignant stories and hearty laughter, it became clear that the strength in our common cloth derived from the universality of our passion. Running back through those moments in my mind like an extended video clip on Vine, I see that this passion for our collective cause did not overcome the barriers between nominally competing parts of our ecosphere – it eviscerated them. It led us, through humor and wit and the fury of the stakes at hand, to fall inevitably into the comfortable pattern of seeing the inter-connectedness of our lives, drawing insight from battles fought – whether lost or won – and then fitting that new piece however big or small into the cosmic puzzle that is solving the food restrictions juggernaut for us all.
And so, by the time I boarded my flight for the return trip home, I rather resoundingly had my answer: yes, we custom eaters are indeed a tribe. A tribe defined not by the particulars of our individual eating requirements and restrictions, not by their severity or even by the stakes they put on the table for ourselves and our kids. No, what defines our tribe is that we are problem solvers. We are a tribe of future-creators who are not satisfied to wait in the hopes that a safer, more inclusive future will create itself. A tribe determined that the proprietary-ness of our individual blogs, services and brands will be secondary to the passion that fuels us as advocates, researchers, practitioners, entrepreneurs and bloggers – and for many of us, as parents.
In the face of such passion, surely the world cannot but change.
[A note to all the amazing bloggers I met at FABlogCon:]
This summer Jenny, Homa and I set up a FABlogCon group on freedible. I'd love for you to join it to help us stay in touch - and to bring more of the bloggers who couldn't be with us in Vegas this year into the conversation and into the fold for the next one. Because next year just seems entirely too far away.