How to Design an Equity Centered Conference

Before we start we need to reflect for a moment on what’s happened over the past week. In Portland, OR, in many ways a sister city to our Seattle, two men were stabbed in the throat and died at the hands of another man who was spouting white nationalist beliefs. During this holy month of Ramadan, I hope we can practice charity, a pillar of Islam, back to our Muslim sisters and brothers.

In our home state of Washington, Jimmy Smith-Kramer, a Native American, was murdered at a campground when he and a friend asked a white man to stop making donuts with his truck. The truck driver yelled hateful words and ran over Jimmy and his friend.

Moral outrage and indignant Facebook posts won’t end racism. I don’t have the answers, I wish I did. I do have faith in our community to bring more progress and not let these hateful crimes become the norm.

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I’ve attended a lot of conferences lately and have taken notes about what makes a good event and what annoys me. A lot of what makes a good event has to do with how it is designed. Just putting the word equity into the name of an event or saying the word five times during the introduction doesn’t mean the event is achieving equity.

Before we start I need to own and share my biases. When I see an invite come through my email I try to figure out if it will be worth my time. If I see the word ‘equity’ somewhere in the title I give it extra scrutiny.

As an example, last year I sort of dragged Heidi and our other colleague Mindy to the Governor’s Summit on Equity (or some name like that). The event was focused on equity and there was lots of equity talk, but it was at such a basic level I didn’t learn much about how to deepen my work. I ended up with a lot of notes about what not to do. We still talk about that event and how poorly certain parts of it were designed and how to avoid those literal pitfalls. When I say literal pitfalls, I really mean it someone fell off the stage during the closing session.

 

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Body language says a lot, photo by a colleague

 

Lesson One: Clearly describe what the sessions and panels are focused on

Breakout sessions can make or break a conference. Lately, I’ve had more misses than hits on breakout sessions partially because the session descriptions aren’t very through. At conferences, I try to attend sessions that aren’t education sector based so I can hear from completely different speakers and perspectives. The session title and description at the Gov’s Summit was along the lines of Race, Policing and Community Accountability. When the panel started the moderator allowed the conversation to only talk about African Americans and Blacks and law enforcement, an important emphasis but not what was in the title. It wasn’t until the question and answer portion when audience members opened the conversation to ask about what policing looked like with Latino, Asian, Native American and other communities of color that the conversation broadened. Had the description been clear that the focus would be on African American and Blacks we would have known to expect a conversation focused on African American and Black communities and been able to be allies. With the vague description, the question and answer time wasn’t focused and in many ways it squandered what could have been a deeper push and call to action.

Lesson two: Stop with the all-male (white) panels

Sitting with Heidi at conferences is kind of fun. I watch her get annoyed and start scribbling notes in her conference handbook or on her iPad. During two different conferences, she made the remark “people need to stop having all-male panels.” After watching for the power dynamics that Heidi inherently noticed I saw what she meant.

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All-Male Panel with a Hoffsome thumbs up

All-male panels, including all poc male panels, cater to the same power dynamics we see in dominant society. This includes one person talking too much, or the panelist don’t allow for dissenting views in constructive ways, or panelist want to show what they know instead of building on other panelist ideas, or they start name dropping and cred-upping (I think that might be a new term, showing off your credentials or trying to over cred other speakers). This website catalogs all-male panels, Hoffsome thumbs up to whoever created it.

Instead of having all-male panels, be inclusive and work to find a woman of color (and other intersectionalities — disabled women of color, LGBQTIA of color, youth or seniors women of color, etc.) to join the panel. Having a woman of color on the panel brings a different perspective and different views on the same topic. If we think back to last week’s blog post about creating Color Brave Spaces, this falls under creating space for multiple truths and stories. By designing the panel to look not only at racial equity but also gender diversity panels look differently and bring different perspectives forward.

Lesson Three: Center and Design for People of Color, White people will be ok without being the focus

I was recently on a call with a national organization talking about their upcoming conference. They described wanting to focus on change but without a deep racial equity focus. Before we ended the call, I said “I’ve been to national conferences where people talk about change without centering racial equity. For the people of color in the room, it is really frustrating to have to sit through race-neutral conversations and know we should go deeper.” I knew my comment wasn’t going to change the outcome but I wanted the organizers to have to sit with that thought. Events planners need to center people of color in the design of the event. White people will benefit from not having an event centered on their needs, there are enough other spaces where we can talk about the needs of white people.

Lesson Four: Go deep, don’t waste time with equity lite

I’m tired of equity lite conversations. I don’t want to go to conferences where we are “scratching the surface” or we can’t use words like “white,” “white supremacy,” or I must watch Race the Power of Illusion again (it is good, but I’ve seen it many times now), or we have to define equity versus equality – these are trainings, not conferences. I want to be pushed in my thinking and not sit there and wonder if the lunch menu will have a decent vegan/vegetarian lunch option.

Going back to lesson three, design the conference for racial equity which means talking about what people of color want to talk about. White people may be a little lost and defensive but they will be ok and eventually catch up to the conversation. White people aren’t fragile, you all are strong so use that strength for good and learn about something other than yourselves.

I want meaningful conversations about understanding race, racism, institutional power, how to undo racism. We all live race every day, let’s be real in having thought-provoking speakers who can address racial equity, racial justice, and diverse and divergent thoughts in productive ways.

Posted by Erin Okuno

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