June 04, 2007

Belated Feminism(s) recap

One of the many reasons I was out of town for most of May was to present at Feminism(s): Strengthening the Ties in Vancouver. It was a very stimulating and enjoyable time— I’d recommend their future events to anyone interested in feminism, from complete newbies to veteran radicals. I noted that the conference was set up to work for people with many levels of experience. It was notable! More on that below.

You can find the conference organizers at feminisms.ca or on Facebook in the “Vancouver Feminist Action Project” group. I think I thanked all of them, but just in case: thanks for your hard work, folks.

I have lots of things to share from Feminism(s), but I think I need to get this meta-conference stuff out of my head first. I like planning events and setting up group discussions, so I made lots of notes related to that. Probably I’ll just send VFAP a link to this as a substitute for the feedback form I didn’t fill out in my rush to get back to Victoria and my familiar bed (and bedmate).

The conference goal was to work at making connections between different feminist groups and individuals, and to try to overcome some of the isolation and sense of fractured community that many activists describe, so I thought it was pretty cool that the conference was explicitly structured around not excluding or isolating people (not perfect, but they made an effort at every kind of accessibility and inclusion I can think of, including having moderators who let people make angry and critical comments, and get off-topic when necessary).

These are some of the “ingredients” I thought were useful, sort of like patterns for throwing your own conference (ok, my own conference).

Cheap entry fee, with subsidies and sliding scales.

This is an important kind of accessibility and I know VFAP worked hard at it, cutting perks and holding pre-event fundraisers to offset costs. Good tactics. The person registering ahead of me was able to say, “I’d like to come for all three days and I can’t pay.” The reply was, “That’s fine. We’re feminists. Here’s your conference schedule.”

Do your political homework, and be explicit about your politics.

Every day opened with a session with a local First Nations grandmother acknowledging our location on stolen land and hanging out (lots of grandkids stories and stuff; it was pretty great). Every session opened with a reminder that no racist, sexist or otherwise hateful comments would be tolerated, and a mention that volunteers were nearby to offer support if a session triggered abuse flashbacks or even strong emotions. Organizers acknowledged that they made an effort to get older women, queer women, women of colour, native women and women living in poverty out to their conference because those people are often excluded from discussions about feminism. They acknowledged that this was still a pretty white conference. They made a point of including academic and non-academic content, and valuing amateur and DIY experience. Even the billeting request forms specified “self-identified woman-only space” as an option, to acknowledge gender as socially constructed.

These are basic types of political correctness. I personally can handle it if a few presenters turn out to be kind of lightweight, as long as the conference organizers set a nice, sturdy context.

Invite people with many levels of experience.

I think one of the most common sources of frustration in political discussion is disappointment that other people are in a different place than you and one of you ends up teaching (or wishing someone would teach) the other disproportionately often. People on both sides— especially on the more knowledgeable end of the spectrum— end up feeling isolated and angry, particularly if either party isn’t into having an immediate teacher-student arrangement. This conference was pretty good at acknowledging different levels of experience, which at least gave people a way to relate other than teaching or avoidance.

Dark Daughta is my top source of discussion on this subject. She seems to always have the most thorough analysis in the room and most “radical” spaces don’t seem very well set up to encourage her level of awesomeness, so she deals with this particular problem a lot. What I Do When Politically Stunted Conversations Piss Me Off should be linked all over the place.

My ongoing obsession with power dynamics in educational situations has me wondering if part of this problem could be solved by emphasizing that political consciousness is a lifelong process, not a one-time acquisition. “Where are you at with feminism?” rather than “Are you a feminist?”.

I think a lot of newer or less radical feminists expect all feminists to believe the same things, as if it is a switch that gets flipped. So when someone else is way more radical, it is like they are a whole other creature and people don't know how to relate. A lot of people aren’t expecting to be challenged constantly, or to have to continuously look for new and better ideas (i.e., to see what is flawed about their current ideas), and I think that could potentially be fixed, at least in part, by organizing group situations in a way that expects a range of knowledge.

Having, for example, a keynote session composed of a knowledgeable lecture about the history of women’s movements by a veteran activist followed by one woman’s story of becoming interested in feminism for the first time a few months ago, definitely demonstrated this spectrum/range concept, and I think it helped people stay in investigation mode instead of getting defensive or giving up. I think this could have been discussed explicitly more often.

High ratio of presenters to other attendees.

Most days there were at least 10 or 12 presenters on the program, in blocks of simultaneous sessions. I would guess the total number of presenters was around 45, and made up half the population of the room at some sessions. I think this did a lot to encourage discussion and “networking” (is there a better word for the non-schmoozing version of that?), because it was obvious that people were there to talk to you. Having so many presenters makes it hard to put anybody on a pedestal, too.

Everybody pays (presenters too).

At first I thought it was kind of weird to ask presenters to pay the registration fee, but now I prefer it. It encourages the conference to book lots of presenters, and it’s more egalitarian in that the registration system doesn’t value the contributions of presenters above the contributions of other attendees. I liked this, since the conference was very discussion-focussed. I think the fee structure added to the sense that this was a bunch of people getting together, rather than a bunch of audience members coming to learn from a bunch of experts (a power dynamic that is kind of a pet peeve of mine).

Every session is a panel.

Most of the sessions were set up so that two or three independent presenters talked right after each other, followed by a common discussion period at the end. Great idea! It took serious time-limit-enforcing, but it made for lively discussions and interesting cross-pollination. Ask a prison justice activist about systemic racism in Canada, also get the perspective of an anti-imperialism activist.

Scheduled time for “networking” every day.

I think there could have been more of these discussion periods, or perhaps they could have been in the middle of the day instead of the end (to encourage people to stay). Also I think there could have been a tiny bit of structured conversation to start them off. But generally, this is where I really got down to business with people. A necessary integration time after seeing so many brief, dense presentations, too.

OK, I think that’s all! As always, I love your email even when I can’t answer it all or answer it on time.

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