2011 NAASN Conference Organizer Report-back
From January 14-16th the Second Annual North American Anarchist Studies Conference was held in Toronto, Ontario. The weekend was kicked off Friday evening with a film-screening event, after which followed a weekend of panels, workshops, and presentations. Conference attendance far exceeded our expectations drawing somewhere between 450-500 people (we definitely should have found a larger venue!).
In an attempt to offer a brief glance into conference events for those who were not able to attend, and in order to share reflections, thoughts and feelings concerning the conference please find below one organizer’s musings. Acknowledging the importance, as emphasized by the inaugural conference organizers, of being critically self-reflexive, and working to always improve our work what follows is an overview of what went well during the conference weekend, and what could be approved upon next time around.
The total cost of putting the conference on rounded out at $1,630. The majority of the money used to pay for the conference came from two sources- the network and local OPIRGs. In addition to the network chip-in, we approached OPIRG York and OPIRG University of Toronto to solicit donations for conference expenses, getting an additional $550 for the conference.
Unfortunately in Toronto, a city with some of the highest rent rates in Canada, space is always an issue for local organizing. There are very few accessible, radical spaces in the city, and even fewer affordable venues (especially if you are trying to stay away from the universities). As such, space rental fees ate up a large chunk of the conference-organizing budget.
$350- OPIRG York donation
$200- OPIRG University of Toronto donation
$740- NAASN Chip-in donation
Total = $1,290.00
$565- Steelworker’s Hall Rental
$200- Cinecycle Underground Cinema Rental
$35- Childcare Supplies
$340- Travel Grants
Total = $1,630.00
The fundraising aspect of the conference was for all intents and purposes a success! Thanks to the generosity of conference participants and attendees, $4,018 was raised for Toronto’s G20 Legal Defence Fund. Thank you to everyone who donated! Our appreciation for these funds, funds that will go to support our close friends and comrades, cannot be overstated.
The issue of accessibility was one that was admittedly, and inexcusably neglected by conference organizers. While we made sure that the conference was held in an accessible space, we did not go nearly far enough in making accessibility a central concern of our organizing. An unacceptable issue arose on Saturday in which the venue custodian left with the only key to the accessible washroom. For several hours on Saturday, until we were able to get a hold of the building manager, the accessible bathroom was locked, and as such could not be accessed. This was a huge fuck up on the part of the organizers. It goes without saying that we should have checked in advance the status of the accessible washroom, and made sure that the key was in our possession.
Beyond the issue of accessible washrooms, we were also unable to secure ASL translation for the conference. We tried multiple avenues, however we were not able to find affordable ASL translation, and given our limited budget were simply not able to afford it. We looked into grants, but again were not successful.
Fuck the Police!
The police showed up at the conference, go figure. On Sunday afternoon the Toronto Police arrived at the conference. Two squad cards, one unmarked van, and several police officers on bikes showed up, began illegally searching conference participants outside the venue and attempted to enter the building. Police claimed that they had received an anonymous phone call complaining of “a group of people in black, one of which had a gun”…right. Fortunately, the police were not allowed entrance to the conference. Several participants, including one of the organizers blocked the door and refused to let them inside. It was pointed out to the police that they were in fact the only ones with guns and would not be allowed inside. For the rest of the afternoon the police continued their attempt at intimidation circling around the neighborhood, however, did not attempt to enter the building again.
Gender matters. To claim that our movements, and spaces have somehow moved beyond, or are above issues of sexism is no less absurd than claiming that our communities are above racism, heterosexism or ableism. Not only is this claim absurd, but it is dangerous. The moment we claim to be beyond sexism, is the moment we stop actively seeking out and in turn challenging oppressive gender relations in our daily lives. We are all products of a fucked-up, patriarchal social order that breeds a culture of rape, and normalizes the exploitation of women. Our movements are not somehow immune to this.
Over the course of the conference weekend, and in the days that followed, this fact was made painfully clear. A snapshot:
1. At the Saturday night social event a woman had something slipped into her drink. Fortunately, she was there with friends who upon realizing she had been drugged took her home. This was awful, but could have been far worse… (See below for more discussion of this event).
2. Food prep and cooking was bottom-lined by a woman. In conversations following the conference, she explained that almost every person who stopped by the kitchen to thank her for her work was female-bodied, while the majority of those who stopped by to complain about the food were male-bodied.
3. With a few exceptions (thank you to those male identified folks who got their hands dirty and did some dishes!), the majority of those who stopped by the kitchen to help with kitchen clean up were woman-identified persons.
4. Childcare was bottom-lined by a woman. The majority of those who signed up to be childcare volunteers for the conference were female-bodied persons.
5. When a female identified conference volunteer attempted to raise a concern regarding the gendered division of conference tasks, her male counterparts dismissed her concerns stating “gender has nothing to do with this”, and “please don’t gender this”.
6. The conference concluded Sunday evening with a discussion of the events of Saturday night and the issue of sexual violence within our movements. Several men in the days following the conference sent emails expressing their disapproval of this discussion on the basis of finding it ‘alienating’.
7. During the weekend a woman conference participant was sent a threatening email from a male.
Mentioning these occurrences is not meant to point fingers, or blame, but just to bring to light some problematic dynamics that arose over the course of the conference weekend, and stress the importance for doing continued work within our communities around the issue of sexism.
As mentioned above, a serious issue arose Saturday night in which a female-identified conference participant was drugged at the Upping the Anti launch party. Any illusions of a safe(r) conference space were violently dispelled with this occurrence. Come Sunday morning news of this event began to spread, and the closing session of the conference was reworked in response.
The original plan for the closing session entailed discussions surrounding the future of the NAASN, and strategies to further ground the NAASN in, and better situate it as a tool for social movements. It was hoped that this discussion would focus on the concrete steps, and tangible projects the network could undertake over the course of the next year, and finish with a breakout session in which participants interested in specific projects could meet with each other, exchange contact information and set the initial foundations for that project. However, the event of Saturday night had to be discussed by conference participants, and it was not enough to just mention it in passing during the closing session. As such, discussion of the Saturday night incident, and sexual violence in general came to be the topic for the closing session of the conference.
The closing session, both in terms of the large group discussion and small breakout sessions was facilitated by women with experience in survivor counseling, and dealing with the issue of sexual violence. The large group discussion began by laying out some ground rules taken from Philly’s Pissed to structure the discussion and make it as safe as possible for people. Trauma counselors were in place at the back doors of the room, and pointed out to people participating in the discussion. If at any time someone was triggered, there were people on hand to provide support. With the ground rules laid out, several of the women facilitators spoke briefly about their experience in dealing with the issue of sexual assault within our movements. After this, the woman who was drugged Saturday night, on her request, came back to the conference to share her experience.
The large group then broke off into 6 smaller groups to discuss the issue of sexual violence. The breakout discussions focused on three questions: What constitutes sexual violence? What are the behaviors and practices that we allow to go unchallenged in our communities that perpetuate sexual violence? What tangible steps can be taken to create safer spaces, and challenge sexual violence in our movements? After the breakout sessions everyone came back to the larger group for a closing discussion on what the groups came up with in terms of potential strategies to deal with sexual violence.
For the next conference it would be worthwhile for organizers to have in place a policy on sexual assault at the onset. We were not prepared to deal with what happened Saturday night, and as such had to do our best to handle the situation in a very ad hoc manner.
Conference Structure and Participation
At this point this report-back has already gotten far too long, so here are just a few closing thoughts on those things that could have been improved upon in terms of conference structure and participation:
1. The issue of time. The schedule for the conference was jam packed, running from 9-8 on Saturday, and 9-7 on Sunday there was simply not enough time to fit everything in, and time for discussion and further participation suffered as a result of this. 80 minutes was not enough time for the panels. For future conferences it might be worth considering spreading the conference out over 3 or 4 days to allow more time for discussion, informal workshops, happenings etc.
2. Participation in the conference was large white, and largely professional academic. Despite our attempts to outreach beyond these communities, the conference in many respects recreated the make-up of a traditional academic conference. Hopefully next time around organizers will develop a better strategy to outreach to different communities.
3. Food. People always seem to be hungry, and despite the claims made by our Food Not Bombs cookbook, we were not able to feed 500 people. On Saturday we ran out of food, and Sunday we just got by. If food is being offered at the next conference it might be a good idea to a) plan to feed far more people then you estimate to be attending, and b) have some extra food on reserve in case you run out.
4. Think big! The Steelworker’s Hall was bursting at the seems all weekend, and it might make sense to look into larger spaces for the next conference to accommodate the growing number of people interested in the NAASN.
5. Better incorporating the arts. A few local artists approached us after the conference to mention that had they been aware of the conference earlier they would have loved to have taken part. Perhaps the next conference could include an art show component.
Hopefully this report back will useful to future conference organizers, and thanks again to everyone who made the Second Annual North American Anarchist Studies Conference possible- can’t wait to see what the next conference will look like!