Last week I posted messages to Twitter and Facebook pointing out that none of the 24 speakers at the upcoming 2018 Presentation Summit in San Diego was a person of color. Those messages prompted several important discussions in and around the Presentation Summit community. I wanted to take a moment to reflect on my original messages, the responses from different social circles, and what we can all do to strive towards being more inclusive.

Dabbling with Shame Nation

In retrospect, I should have not called out Rick Altman—the organizer of the Summit—on Twitter and Facebook. I should have handled that differently and apologized to Rick directly via email for doing so.

You can see that the tone in these messages differs. I think the Twitter version is better because it is a statement of fact; the Facebook message was a bit more direct at Rick, which I now regret. I think my thinking here was that Rick and I are friends on Facebook, so the message could be a little more casual, but I neglected to take into account the wider circle.

In response to my original messages, Rick wrote a thoughtful blog post entitled “Is My Conference Racist?” I appreciate his willingness to consider ways to open conference doors to more people and to engage in this discussion. I also want to emphasize that I was in no way calling Rick or his conference racist, nor was I trying to call him a bad guy as some commenters seemed to suggest. I don’t think Rick thought I was calling him racist (and several messages he’s posted on Facebook and via email have confirmed that) so the title of his blog post was, I think, intentionally provocative. A blog post title like, “Is My Conference Sufficiently Racially Diverse?” doesn’t pack the same punch.

It’s also interesting how our networks on the two platforms responded. In my network on Twitter, comments were almost uniformly positive for calling out the conference and its apparent lack of diversity (like others in my networks have done for the Information+ conference, for example). On Rick’s Facebook page, commenters generally came to his defense, and gave me a lot of heat for calling him out publicly. So, in another sense, I think this experience has been interesting to me because it shows how small my own circle can be.

All of this being said, this did spur some good conversations—in both of our social networks—about what diversity and inclusion means at conferences and how to achieve it. That discussion might not have happened via a direct email exchange, but I regret any negative consequences Rick might have experienced from such a public calling-out.

What Can We Do?

This entire experience has led me to think harder about what our communities can do to find and highlight other perspectives and experiences (for me personally, that encompasses the economics, data visualization, and presentation worlds). It’s not only about being exposed to different perspectives, but conferences also provide access to skills, partnerships, and business opportunities. In a recent blog post on the Tactile website (a digital agency based in Philadelphia and DC), Marc Coleman writes that, “Access is a doorway to opportunity.” In my trips to the Presentation Summit, there was an explicit meeting for small business owners to share tips, experiences, and tools of the trade. A wider, diverse group would not only help bring in wider perspectives and shared experiences, but also potentially help businesses tap into the knowledge and resources of the group.

I’m not suggesting that any event change their qualification criteria, but if the net cast for speakers is not pulling in enough talented people of color, then the net is simply not wide enough. Saying an event doesn’t have enough diversity because not enough people apply is not the same as having a diverse group apply. This is obviously a challenge for many events and organizations, but it’s something we should all strive to improve.

Five Strategies to Make Events More Diverse and Inclusive

Okay, so what can we do? Here are five ideas for how all of us—event organizers, speakers, attendees, and experts—can make these events more diverse and inclusive:

    1. Collect Data. What’s the racial, ethnic, and gender makeup of conference attendees and speakers? What’s the makeup of the organization’s board, conference planners, and review committee? What about last year? What about the past 5 years?
    2. Review evaluation surveys and conduct research. People likely regularly attend these events for the sense of community, and the networking and business opportunities. On the flip side, what keeps some people from coming back? What proportion of attendees comes just once or twice, but doesn’t become a regular attendee? Event organizers can reach out—ask for evaluations, conduct interviews and surveys. Similarly, as an attendee or speaker, let organizers know what you like and don’t like about an event.
    3. Cast a wider net. Try to ensure that conference proposals come from diverse audiences:
      • Reach out to historically black colleges and universities, minority professional organizations, or other similar groups, for example Speak Out, Women of Color in Communications, and the Professional Women of Color Network.
      • There are also organizations that help planners find talented female speakers. In a recent tweet, Ann Emery highlighted two such groups, Women Who Keynote and We Speak Too. Ann also told me about Adam Smiley Poswolsky, who organizes the Women Speaker Initiative and the Minority/POC Speaker Initiative.
      • For the Summit specifically, the National Speakers Association or similar organizations likely have resources and references. For other areas, there are likely similar national or regional organizations that may have suggestions.
      • Lots of other organizations are working to promote diversity and inclusion. This is I’m sure a very small list of examples:
        • The Insight Center for Community Economic Development has a list of more than 180 of the nation’s Native American, Asian-American, African-American, Latino, and Native Hawaiian scholars in their Experts of Color Network list.
        • The American Evaluation Association is working to build a pipeline of future leaders through the Minority Serving Institution Fellowship and the Graduate Education Diversity Internship. They also hold special events and panels called Dialogues on Race and Class and offer conference scholarships to graduate students and international attendees to keep the pipeline filled with diverse talent.
        • The Nonprofit Technology Conference offers Digital Inclusion Fellowships, which aren’t specifically targeted at racial or ethnic minorities, but they are focused on people working in communities with digital divides.
        • The Engaging Local Government Leaders organization maintains a “Diversity Dashboard” to track the gender, race, age, veteran status, and residency of all local government Chief Administration Officers and Assistant Chief Administrative Officers in the country.
      • If you are invited to speak at a conference, you have power as well. You might ask, urge, or even require conference organizers to field a diverse group of speakers at their conference for your participation—an “inclusion rider” for speakers, if you will (here is an example from Kyle McDonald). Similarly, conference organizers can ask invited speakers for suggestions of speakers from under-represented groups.
    4. Financial support. Conferences might offer financial support to underrepresented or underserved groups to ensure that attendees are diverse. Conference attendees or organization members might be willing to donate an additional $50, say, to help fund a conference scholarship fund. OpenVisConf, for example, offers financial support in the form of reduced registration fees to applicants from underserved communities (and is an effort I personally financially support each year).
    5. Launch a diversity fellowship program. Event organizers can help ensure that the next generation of experts and leaders is talented and successful by promoting mentoring efforts during their early-career phase. This might include a formal mentoring program but can also be as simple as having events that reflect attendees in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, and other characteristics.

What about me?

I’m not claiming to be a bastion of diversity and inclusion, but I’m ever more mindful of it in my research, my writing, and my speaking. It’s work, it can be uncomfortable, but it’s critical.

I should also note that my call for more diversity could span various demographic characteristics such as ethnicity, disability, income, geography, but race seemed the obvious characteristic from the headshots on the conference website. I don’t think it’s likely, or even reasonable, to expect a conference organizer to have a perfectly diverse line-up—whatever “perfectly” means—so I’m not sure where we draw the line between one group or person versus another.

In the end

I’m glad this has kicked off a debate, though I regret how I kicked it off. My hope is that more conferences, organizations, and events will take the time to consider a more diverse group of people so that they can share their diverse set of experiences and perspectives.