i dream of being possible

approaching conferences from a different angle

After seeing a few more calls for papers/proposals for various conferences, some specifically mentioning diversity and some not, I started thinking about the notion of diversity and the way it is being done. After writing that last post, I realize that the issue of support is pretty important to me. I think it is also important, overall, to improving conference in particular and professional cultures in general. I’ve mentioned in the past that welcoming diversity is too passive, as well as some cultural barriers.

I’m also thinking about my personal barriers for attending conferences (either as speaker or attendee). Disability barriers: agoraphobia and anxiety and sensitivity to scents and some cognitive stuff and a sleep disorder. Class barriers: I’m poor and simply can’t afford conferences unless they are local (and even then, the registration can be prohibitive). Gender barriers: issues around public accommodations, discrimination legislation, etc. Racial barriers: it is rarely fun to be the only Asian (or one of few poc) in a room.

Also thinking about the way that conferences are organized (and, yes, I’ve helped organize them before). That many are adopting codes of conduct (which is good), but this only deals with a diverse group once they are physically present at the conference. In most cases, it appears that notions of universal design have yet to significantly impact the actual planning and organization of conferences.

And this is clearly evident in the way that call for papers/proposals are written or the way that the conference website is organized.

If you say you want or encourage diversity in your CFP, but nowhere do you say that diverse applicants will receive support to attend, you don’t want poor people to attend. Now, I’m sure that some people are thinking “well, if it is a professional conference, what poor people?”, which is disingenous particularly for acdemic related conferences (recall that I’m an academic librarian). In our particular field, it is pretty well understood that there are fewer and fewer tenured positions while contract/adjunct/precarious positions increase. Having a conference in some place with $250/night hotels means that none of these people can attend, should they bother applying.

Moreover, are we really going to ignore the intersections of poverty with disability, race, gender, and other axes of oppression? If you experience just one type of oppression, your chances of being poor are higher. If you experience multiple axes of oppression, these chances only compound and increase.

If your CFP or conference website makes no mention of accommodations for a wide variety of disabilities, then you don’t want disabled people to come. Because if one of us does apply, we’ll either have to be able to hide it well enough to function or ask for accommodations. And if we ask, then this means that accommodations will either be ad hoc or impossible1.

Okay, I’m getting off my point, but these are only two examples of the many ways that conferences, as most often organized and conceived, are designed to be inaccessible from the very beginning.

It also makes me realize that… I don’t want to do this sort of thing. Not anymore. Or, at least, I’m not interested in hustling for the scant scholarships available to attend a conference that, ultimately, doesn’t actually want people like me to show up. I’ve had my fill of trying to shoehorn myself into hostile and unwelcoming spaces. It is exhausting and rarely beneficial to me, as an individual.

So, what I’m saying here, is that unless the conference is in my town and registration isn’t too expensive, I’m probably not going to bother submitting a paper or proposal.

Given recent initiatives, I am somewhat learning that I (in a general diversity sense) have more value to conferences than conferences have value to me. In a lot of ways, I’m not really important. However, if you want me at your conference, well, you can read the blog. Pick a post. Ask me to give a talk on one of them. Pay me to show up. Show me what you are doing to ensure other people like me are being welcomed, supported, and given the resources to be successful at your conference.2

Alternatively, you can provide me with a tenured or tenure track position at an institution that will pay for me to attend conferences. I’d be fine with this too.

(But really, the best approach would obviously be aiming towards a universal design for conferences. Because doing the same thing over and over again, with the only difference being that you have a CoC and an explicit mention that you want diversity, isn’t actually going to do much. This approach only addresses a very small set of the barriers towards greater participation. What is needed is organizational and cultural change within the profession, not more opportunities for marginalized people to assimilate.)

  1. Are you prepared, if you haven’t planned for it, to change your venue if it isn’t accessible for people with reduced mobility? Do you know that it is pretty much impossible to get ASL interpretation at the last minute? And that it can be expensive (which means you need to have it in your budget already)? Are you prepared to enforce a scent free space, given that most people take it as a ‘suggestion’ rather than an imperative to prevent harming others? 

  2. A part of this relates to outreach. Opening the doors to a store no one knows about is pretty pointless.