Wednesday, November 8, 2017

WFC 2017: This is How We Stop Failing


This is a post about hosting events, and more specifically about running genre conventions, and most-specifically about World Fantasy Con. It’s also about the ongoing problem of inclusivity we’ve been having over here in literary SFF fandom, and my worm’s-eye view of what we can do to improve it.

NB: I am fairly new to fandom (my first convention was in 2013), and among the younger set of traditionally-published SFF authors (I just turned 35). I am an instigator, organizer, presenter, and/or attendee for three-quarters of a shitload of events annually, most of them writing-related. I also had the singular honor of being the volunteer coordinator for the World Fantasy Convention in San Antonio over this past weekend.

Like Mi Tierra, it was lit. (Shoutout to Sam Knight for the brilliant photo.)

There is a little story to tell first, and it goes like this:
Once upon a time, there was a little girl in third grade. (Not me.)

She came to school one day with a huge rat’s nest in her hair – and man, it was making her miserable. She could NOT sit still or pay attention or hardly even stand to be in her own skin.

The teacher, my beloved Auntie M, finally stopped class, pulled a hairbrush out of her purse, sat the girl down at the front of the room, and started to brush her hair. She carried on the class discussion while she brushed and brushed – gentle and carefully, a little at a time. It took the better part of the morning – but when it was done, the difference was night and day. The girl felt SO much better without that awful knotted wad of hair gnarled up on her head. After that, she third-graded happily ever after, for the whole rest of the day.

Y’all, we do have a huge rat’s nest in SFF fandom, and it is making us ALL miserable. It’s a whole horrible tangle of issues (a rat’s nest always is). It’s harassment, and discrimination, and invisibility, and lack of accessibility, and more besides.

The people on the receiving end of those things are sick and goddamn tired of dealing with them. The people deliberately perpetrating those things are assholes we badly need to get rid of. And the rest of the people, the ones who just want everybody else to chill out and have the same good time they’ve always had – well, a lot of them are anxious, defensive, and tired of getting yelled at for every problematic thing under the sun. And none of these feelings happen spontaneously or without reason: a little neglected tangle becomes a big angry knot becomes a huge event-wrecking snarl, and soon nobody involved is having any fun. Except maybe the assholes.

But short of whipping out the scissors, there’s only one way to untangle a rat’s nest. You have to start from the bottom and work your way up. And I mean from the BOTTOM.

Con-runners, event-organizers, fellow hosts of all stripes – you see this Maslow’s hierarchy chart here?


This is what I’m talking about. We have to start from the bottom of THIS. We have to start with meeting people’s basic physical needs.

Does your event have reasonable facilities, including accessible parking and clear signage? Are there restrooms and water available, and easily findable? Is the temperature comfortable? Can your attendees sit when they want to, stand and walk when they need to? Can *everyone* hear and see what’s going on? If it’s a long event, do you have food available (for purchase or for free), and is there enough for everyone? Does the menu provide adequately for people with common dietary restrictions? (Fact: humans require protein to live, and the joyless oil salad your hotel liaison is touting as vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, kosher, and halal satisfies nobody.)

This was our improv-directory for the mass autographing session: because letting authors sit where they want is a time-honored WFC tradition, but helping guests not have to hike up and down every single aisle and row to find their person is just plain thoughtfulness - whether they have limited mobility or not.
These considerations are not the last step in the event planning process, the mandatory-minimum meat-suit maintenance we have to do in order to get on with the important stuff. This IS the important stuff. Hospitality is a sacred duty so ancient we tell stories about the people who screwed it up. Traitors to guests are tortured in the deepest circle of Dante’s hell – worse than thieves, worse than murderers, worse than blasphemers and adulterers and people who leave trash in the airplane seat-pocket – and even if you aren’t feeding your attendees the roasted flesh of their own children, you absolutely cannot afford to fail on this front. Anything you are ignorant about you’d better learn. Anything you can’t do or provide had better be unmissably advertised beforehand, so that the people you aren’t equipped to serve know to plan accordingly or stay home. The instant they walk through your door, your guests are entrusting you with their one irreplaceable human body – and you MUST care for it faultlessly.

Sometimes it's the littlest stuff, y'all. Like pulling chairs away from the round serving table so that all feet and wheels can get the whole way around it without blocking traffic.
And that brings us to the second step on the pyramid. Guys, it is not enough to have staff on site. Their mere presence is not sufficient – because A) those people need to be equipped (advised, trained, directed, empowered) to spot problems in the making and help the guests who need it, and B) your guests need to be able to find them. I cannot overstate that second part. How do we KNOW who the helpers are in the crowd? Are they wearing matching T-shirts? Special hats? If “blue badge” means “staff”, how do attendees know that? Regardless of what insignia you use: if it can’t be spotted clear across the room, it isn’t visible enough. And if your guests don’t know that a staff member is present, he or she might as well not be.

The 'deputy sheriff' star badges I used for WFC were a step in the right direction, but not visible enough - you can barely see them here. (Fortunately, Team Domitz took the whole 'volunteer uniform' thing to a new, slightly frightening level of badass.)


Realness, y’all: I had a terrific time at World Fantasy Con in 2015, but it had conspicuous failures on both the physical needs and the security/safety steps of the pyramid. And it is FAR from the only major convention to do so.

If you’ve read this far, I trust it’s because you’ve recognized the bigger problems we have in our community – with passively excluding disabled people, with harassment and silencing of women in particular, with utterly failing to draw in minorities and then giving the “diversity panel” token treatment to those we do manage to attract. (And, I would add, with dogpiling on people who are more scapegoats for than active perpetrators of the issues listed above.)

All of the above are failures of inclusion, fault lines in our greater fan/writer community. They are conspicuous and highly-charged cracks in the “belonging” step of Maslow’s hierarchy. And we will NEVER be able to repair them until we fix those first two steps in the foundation. At a societal level, that means addressing poverty, violence, and institutionalized inequality. But in microcosm, at a convention or other event, it means ensuring that ALL our guests feel safe and well cared-for from start to finish.



All of us organizers want to put on a great show, and we are all apt to feel frustrated when the end result is criticized. Eventomancy is one of the most demanding of the extrovert sciences, and not for the faint of heart. But to my fellow party-planners: when you catch yourself feeling frustrated by criticism and sorely tempted to fire back or give up, please don’t. We need your passion and energy for big-tent human connection now more than ever. Instead, go back to the beginning. Start at the bottom, with the most basic and universal human needs, and work your way up. Ask yourself “how will they find the bathroom?” (And for a photo-annotated love-rant on what a ten-out-of-ten host-tacular convention looks like, click here.)

Unfortunately, we at World Fantasy 2017 were not able to unilaterally clear step three of the pyramid. But we have enjoyed a whole lot of post-con positive buzz, and I dare to hope that our stumbles were considerably smaller than in previous years. If that is true, it is because everyone on the back end put a hell of a lot of effort into getting those first two steps on absolute judo-grip lockdown. Watertight accessibility and harassment protocol. Killer hospitality suite with a 'conucopia' of dining options for nearly every appetite. Clear signage, abundant space, and visible volunteers everywhere. This weekend was Texas hospitality done right - and I could not be more proud to belong to a con-com and a culture that is synonymous with boisterous, big-hearted generosity.

Baltimore, the ball is in your court now. You know what to do.

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