I got back Sunday night from my first ever Creating Change conference! To give you all a brief roadmap fo this post, I’ll be talking about the experience by first evaluating how accurate my predictions were from the Preview, and then evaluating the conference itself.
For the evaluation, I have devised a system of 5 categories that I will use to assess my experience. The categories are Venue, Crowd, Workshops, Logistics, and Utility of Experience. I find that venues are really important for conferences. It can become obvious very quickly if a venue is not equipped to accommodate a conference. Venue is closely tied to Logistics, though it gets its own category because the venue and conference logistics are handled by two different sets of humans. The venue is sometimes more closely tied to the community, whereas the conference may not be. Crowd just means who attended the conference. As in, what kind of human beings were there? I know it’s super judgmental to make this a category, but to be honest, it’s the make-or-break category for me. A lot of my enjoyment comes from the people I meet. Workshops are undeniably important as well. The topics of workshops tells me what is relevant to the community at the moment. It also tells me who the conference thinks is worthy of attention. Lastly, Utility of Experience refers to what practical information I can take from the conference. Basically it answers the question, did I get something out of it that I can apply to my life? After all, when I’m paying money to go, I do want some useful information.
I will evaluate each category on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being the lowest score and 10 being the highest score. I am aware of the problematic nature of quantifying what is arguably a qualitative experience, but I find that quantifying gives people some idea of my own standards so I don’t just seem like a needlessly critical person.
I will acknowledge here that there are certain biases with which I approached this conference. The first and most obvious one is that I am a cisgender femme person of color, so I don’t necessarily look queer and might therefore be treated differently than people who are visibly queer. I am also bisexual/pansexual/asexual, which frequently impacts my ability to find community of any sort.
In addition, my experience of this conference is impacted by my past experiences. The most recent conferences I went to were the New England QTPOC Conference (2015), East Coast Asian American Student Union (2014), and Asian Americans Advancing Justice (2013). If you can’t tell from the titles, all of those conferences were by and for people of color. Of those three, Advancing Justice was by far my favorite. I attended that conference as a senior undergraduate. Most of the workshops at that conference were panel-style, so we had access to many working professionals who came from a community organizing background. These were people who are passionate about what they do, and eager to encourage young people to find their voice, so the Utility and the Crowd factor were very high (I did, in fact, find an internship with Advancing Justice in 2015). I must concede, I judge most conferences based on my experience at Advancing Justice (neither ECAASU nor NEQTPOC compared even remotely).
Furthermore (and I will most likely talk about this further in the Logistics section), I actually ended up not going to about half the workshop sessions of Creating Change. This was partly because I wanted to explore Philadelphia, a city I have never visited before. It was also partly because as a person who works evening shifts, I just can’t be awake at 9:00am. At least 2 days of the 5 days that I attended, I slept in so that I could recover from the early schedule of the day before, and to avoid becoming sick.
Evaluation of Preview
Reading my preview is really funny now because I seem to know myself quite well. All of my hopes were accurate. I did nearly all of my processing with one of my friends from graduate school. I’m so thankful she was present or this conference would have been a hot mess for me. As it turns out, the Racial Justice Institute was one of the high points for me. Being in spaces exclusively for POC was a great way to start. Exploring Philly was another high point. My friend and I ate a lot of good food and saw the entirety of the Philadelphia Art Museum during the course of our stay.
My concerns were equally accurate. As it turns out, I did sleep in on a number of days. I think pacing myself the way I did helped with processing, as does writing. As it turns out, there was one solitary caucus group for asexual/aromantic people. It was on an evening when I was out with a friend, though, so inevitably, I didn’t go (which tells you something. That was the one intentional space for aces. There are some identities in the queer spectrum that were given 3 or 4 workshops/caucuses). I did get to connect with Bi/Pan/Fluid folks, another set of identities that doesn’t get a whole lot of attention, so that was nice. The conference did feel like it was geared toward students, though. With the exception of one hour-long caucus group at the end of Thursday, there was very little to help young professionals connect with mentors or one another. There were a lot of workshops to help community organizers increase outreach, but not a lot for helping people gain jobs with those organizations. Thus, it was difficult for me to feel involved with the community at times.
Evaluation of the Conference
This hotel staff was unbelievably friendly. I didn’t think it was possible to find people in the north who meet my Southern standards for hospitality, but these people did. It probably doesn’t hurt that the city of Philadelphia is like, 44.1% Black (US Census Bureau, 2014, http://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045216/00) and therefore doesn’t feel as northern as, say, New England. The hotel staff of the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown was excellent. They would greet me the second I walked in, and they were very helpful with directions to places both within and outside of the hotel. And the hotel is beautiful, too. While it was somewhat labyrinthine at times, it was very accessible, with elevators and escalators to all the conference floors. The only thing that keeps me from giving the conference a 10 in this category is that a lot of the time, the bathrooms were not too clean. Honestly, even just a little air freshener would really have made a difference. In addition, there was not too much space to lounge. The lobby only had two small sitting areas for a conference of some 4,000 (number may not be accurate) people.
I’ll start with the good. I think the workshops that intentionally attracted POC did a great job (both with regard to facilitators as well as audience). Those were definitely the spaces where I actually had fun and felt like I could talk to people in the room. This was regardless of the social identities of the POC in the room. Across the board, the spaces that were exclusively for POC were more comfortable for me. I’ll give you an idea of how I felt the rest of the time at Creating Change. While I was there, I did present almost exclusively feminine; so lots of sweater dresses and makeup and boots. If I’m being honest, from what I could observe, there were very few people (feminine, masculine or otherwise) who presented feminine at all (with the exception of people in the POC spaces. So if I could put an emoji here, it would be the “hm…I wonder” one.) Across the board, the “uniform” for this conference seemed to be some variation of jeans, combat boots, sweatery things, and maybe a beanie if folks were feeling real adventurous. Perhaps this is a little cissexist or classist of me to say, but it felt very high-school. And in the same breath, the femmes I did see were so unapologetic, which I love. They wore things like off-the-shoulder dresses or magenta pants or badass red nail polish. If you are one of those people, I salute you.
There were also very few fat people except, again, within POC spaces. Somehow, I’m thinking none of these things are coincidences. In short, this crowd did not impress me. There are some exceptions to this rule, but it seemed really white.
The workshops at this conference were very hit-or-miss. I think my Friday morning workshops had a big impact on this score. I felt like I wasn’t finding my mojo. I came late to my first session (BPFQ: Bisexual, Pansexual, Fluid, Queer Interesecting Identities on College Campuses), which had been moved to a different room because there were a lot of people in attendance. I didn’t think to ask until about 15 minutes after I got there, and then I moved to the actual session. It seemed like it had been really good, but by the time I got there, the room was in small groups for the last activity. I was still able to join a group, and they were having a great conversation, but I didn’t get to see much of the workshop. My second session (Confronting Islamophobia in the LGBTQIA+ Community) was hard to watch. It was clear to me that the facilitator was wildly nervous. They seemed to cater to people who had never before engaged with Islamophobia. It seemed very introductory. Also, the audience was not woke at all. There were a handful of about 5 people basically carrying the conversation, but a lot of the (white) people there refused to speak at all, probably out of fear of their own racism. I left about halfway through and found another workshop (Faith and Family Acceptance in the API Community). The facilitators in this one were more comfortable and had created a welcoming space by putting the chairs in a circle. But by the time I got there, they were on their last story and were really in the closing stages. I think after those first few sessions, I was not too enthusiastic about more workshops, and I chose instead to explore Philadelphia. I didn’t attend another session until Saturday night, but those were the better ones I attended (Not Your Respectable QPOC, and the South Asian Caucus). In Not Your Respectable QPOC, I received very little practical information, but it was great to find a community of individuals who empathize with me when I describe racism. The South Asian Caucus was interesting. I don’t think any of us necessarily agreed on what was most important, nor could we agree on how to talk about the issues, but I thought that was a good thing. It is an indication that a space like that is needed to figure those things out.
I do wonder if this is the real reason why the workshops were not quite what I expected. The logistics of this conference were strange. On one hand, I did appreciate the 90-minute sessions. It was long enough to really delve into a topic. However, if it was a boring session, it also took a while to figure it out so I could go to one that I actually cared about. I didn’t attend the lunch plenaries or the keynote for this reason. If they weren’t fun, who knows whether or not I would be comfortable leaving. In addition, there were SO. MANY. WORKSHOPS. According to the website, there were 250 in the course of about 2 days, not counting the day-long institutes or Leadership Academies. There were 4 sessions a day, so for any given session, a person had to choose one of about 30 workshops. THAT. IS. RIDICULOUS. I understand this allows for a large variety, but I think a better screening process is badly needed, especially when some topics are getting 4 workshops and some are getting just one. (Granted, I do understand that some queer identities urgently need that kind of visibility, and I don’t think that should be overlooked. But also…why the hell do we need to talk about atheism and faith communities so much? Is that really a pressing issue?! I would think more about getting jobs or applying for healthcare is in order!). But then again, what do I know.
I feel like this problem could be solved by making sessions or lunch shorter and spreading workshops out over 5 sessions a day instead of 4. At least then, we don’t have this ponderous dilemma of choice. In addition, I would definitely advocate for starting later. Maybe one session before lunch and more after lunch.
Utility of Experience: 5
As of right now, it’s hard for me to tell whether or not the experience was useful. I did get to meet a few student affairs professionals, and many of them said they were going to NASPA, so I look forward to seeing them again and possibly building more community. I do feel lucky to have found people in my field of work who identify the same way as I do.
However, they’re so far away! Everyone is up north or way out west. I’m always the only one in the South. *Sad face emoji*
In general, I feel like my interests don’t match the community’s, and perhaps that is why this conference didn’t really serve my needs. I have no interest in being out to anyone. I feel like the healing that could happen for me occurs mostly around QPOC, who don’t seem to care as much that “queer” is much further down my list of priorities than my more visible identities as a brown person and a woman.
I do think that queerness needed to be talked about more explicitly. I know I should probably take a gender studies class if that’s what I want, but I don’t like school, or more accurately, how much money school costs. While I could read a book, I also like the process of externalizing my thoughts, and I wish I had had more opportunity to do that at the conference.
In short, I do think either my expectations might have been too high, or Creating Change is slightly overrated. Frankly, the experience leaves me wishing there were more regional conferences for people like me. I know in Tampa, there are a huge number of queer clubs, but I’m not a night life person. I’d much rather meet in the day. Right now, besides student organizations, I don’t see a whole lot of opportunity for that. Here’s to hope for the NASPA Conference.