In 1987, a handful of Midcoast residents with insight, enthusiasm, and connections launched the idea of “bringing the world to Camden.”
By February 1988, they had managed to attract a handful of big-name speakers and about seventy like-minded people for an intensive foreign affairs weekend. With strong ties to the worlds of diplomacy, journalism, industry, and academia, the organizers contacted former colleagues, rolled up their sleeves, and did everything from stacking chairs to directing traffic.
Fast forward twenty-seven years, and the world has indeed arrived in Camden. For a weekend every February, eight hundred or so people now sign on to listen, learn, and question. High school and college students from Maine and beyond are active attendees at the Conference.
Camden Conference topics have included The Making of American Foreign Policy, The Influence of the News Media on Foreign Policy, U.S. – Japan Relations, Globalization, The Global Politics of Food and Water, Religion, Global Leadership, and a number focused on specific regions of the world: China, the Middle East, and Latin America are just a few. (Click here to see the full list of previous Camden Conferences)
Camden Conference attendees are from a wide variety of backgrounds and ages. What they have in common is a keen interest in foreign policy, a desire to participate in public debate, and to always learn more about the world they live in. Most recently, the Camden Conference made a considerable investment in internet technologies. This has increased its presence significantly, facilitating the live streaming to two satellite venues and making the Camden Conference available to people throughout the world.
The Camden Conference is still a volunteer-driven organization, and committed to keeping registration fees low and accessibility high. Funding comes from individual gifts and memberships, business memberships, corporate sponsorships, and grants from institutions, foundations and corporations.
With guidance from the Advisory Council, the Camden Conference board in 2014 journeyed back into the fundamentals of what the Conference is, and forward into what we want it to become, seeking a shared vision. This Strategic Framework was the result. It confirms our basic mission of fostering “Informed Discourse on World Issues,” and the primacy of the February Conference to that mission. It reaffirms our reliance on volunteers and lays out principles for deciding whether and how to grow: The Conference must adapt as the community changes, but with an eye to sustainability, not expansion for its own sake. We seek the widest access possible for those who want to attend the February Conference, but new venues must have bottom-up support. Also, we will seek to raise funds through memberships, donations and grants, in order to keep the Conference broadly affordable as we pursue new and existing activities in line with our mission.
In addition to the annual weekend Conference each February, 50-70 related outreach events are organized throughout the year. These usually consist of lectures, study groups and film series related to the Conference theme. Offered free of charge, or for a minimal price in order to encourage attendance by a diverse audience, three area libraries are the Conference’s chief partners in offering Community Events programming. Additional events have been convened in collaboration with other public educational organizations such as the University of Maine, the Senior Colleges in the area, and local museums and other nonprofit organizations, offering art exhibits, films, concerts and other events designed to appeal to a wide audience. Community Events programs draw 2,500-3,000 people each year.
Who attends The Camden Conference?
The most profound and enduring impact of the Camden Conference is on those who attend the Conference and the even larger number who participate in the year-round Community Events programming. Participants become aware of diverse world issues, as well as the complexities and the challenges of a U. S. response. They are exposed to the most current thinking in the topic being addressed. This experience leads to sharper critical thinking skills, stimulates further interest, and enhances participants’ ability to better evaluate information from political, social or religious sources and from national and global media.
Students in particular are often deeply affected by their exposure to the Camden Conference, and are often inspired to a lifelong interest in international, political, social and religious issues. The Conference planners are especially committed to high attendance of high school and college students, with 20% of attendees being enrolled students. The University of Maine, Unity College, and University College Rockland each offer a course on the annual Conference theme.
The growth of the Camden Conference has been exponential in recent years. In 2002, 400 participants attended the three day Conference. In 2006, the event sold out within three days, prompting the addition of the Strand Theatre in nearby Rockland as the first venue to which Conference proceedings were live-streamed. The University of Maine Hutchinson Center in Belfast was added in 2008. Then, in 2008 and 2009, the Conference was streamed to the Hannaford Auditorium at the University of Southern Maine in Portland in collaboration with the World Affairs Council of Maine. Since 2011, nearly 1000 participants attend the Camden Conference live at the historic Camden Opera House, and at satellite venues in Belfast and Rockland.
Who Speaks at the Camden Conference?
Speakers come from government, business, the media and academia — all recognized experts in their fields. At the inaugural Camden Conference, “The Making of American Foreign Policy … Myth and Reality,” speakers included Brent Scowcroft (then National Security Advisor), Lawrence Eagleburger (then acting Secretary of State), and William S. Cohen, Maine’s senior Senator. Brent Scowcroft returned to Camden 21 years later as Keynote Speaker for the 2009 Camden Conference, “Global Leadership and the U.S. Role in World Affairs.” Other 2009 speakers included Ambassador Nicholas Burns, former CIA Director John Deutch, and International Crisis Group President Gareth Evans. In 2010, Ambassador Burns returned as moderator for Afghanistan, Pakistan, India – Crossroads of Conflict, which featured Ahmed Rashid as Keynote Speaker.
Why a Conference in Midcoast Maine?
Maine has always been an important state in the U.S. political process. Active participation in the political process is a proud tradition for Maine residents, and Maine has often led the way on both domestic and international issues. With a sparse population and limited indigenous diversity, programmatic initiatives such as the Camden Conference are critical ways for the populace to keep informed about significant national and global issues.
The Midcoast area, too, is known for its long tradition of community involvement in public issues, and has attracted an influx of year-round retirees from distinguished careers in the foreign service, domestic and international business, and academia. The combination of interested and concerned long-time residents and newer residents makes the Conference especially attractive to speakers, who find discussions “lively and sophisticated.”
” What a phenomenal and timely program. Every speaker and every panel hit it out of the park. While we were reviewing how much my wife and I learned over the weekend, I realized that the speakers themselves very likely learned or developed new ideas themselves. And since they have a far larger impact on the events of the day, their experience from the weekend may have even more value than ours. Thank you to the Camden Conference. Five stars to the Camden Conference organization.”
“I was impressed by the skills, background and range of speakers … I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend such a conference.”
“I found this year’s Camden Conference to be absolutely amazing. For me, it was … one continuous increasingly gratifying experience from beginning to end.The panel members were all extremely knowledgeable in their areas of expertise. They were articulate and they all were extremely insightful.They truly were committed to helping all of us become better informed about this chaotic world we live in.The panel represented such a wonderful degree of diversity.More importantly is the fact that such diversity could have differing opinions and find common ground.”
“I found this the most relevant and meaningful Conference I’ve attended (and I’ve attended a lot). A wonderful, stimulating event in mid-winter Maine. I plan to attend the Conference annually.”
“The audience was very engaged, the questions were excellent, and it was very stimulating to hear people with diverse opinions debate with each other.”
“Camden is the next Davos!”
You may download a Camden Conference Fact Sheet here.