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Comments from Sandy about Issues of Difference at NCDD 2004

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Joined: 20 Jan 2004
Posts: 30
Location: Brattleboro, VT

PostPosted: Mon Dec 06, 2004 9:25 pm    Post subject: Comments from Sandy about Issues of Difference at NCDD 2004 Reply with quote

The conference was pretty much a blur for me, but since we all met in Denver, I have been talking to many of you (conference participants), trying to gain an understanding of what exactly happened at the conference in terms of diversity, and what can be done differently next time to ensure that issues of difference are addressed in a more productive, open and positive way.

This has been a rather confusing time for me. I have heard a lot of great things from conference participants about the learning and networking they experienced in Denver, but I also know that I was not the only one who left the conference feeling a lot less positive than I had hoped to. And I know that the issues of difference that emerged – but that were not sufficiently addressed – were the primary cause of that feeling.

I am still learning and still talking to people, but it’s time for me to share with you what I’ve heard and where we (the Core Planning Team) may be going. I want to be as transparent as possible about this. People have told me things that they would not have told others at the conference, and although I won’t use people’s names of course, I think we should all hear about what people experienced and perceived.

There is a broad mix of perspectives about what happened at the conference and why, and about what should have happened. Below I list some of the divergent comments I have been hearing (after reading that part, you may understand why I've been feeling a bit confused). After that, since many people did not hear about the specifics at the conference and felt out-of the-loop because of it, I list all of the specific incidents that were brought to our attention – and that I can remember. If you know of another instance, let me know about it and I’ll add it. You may be able to attribute these instances to a workshop you attended or heard about, but I think we can and should examine these things pretty openly – especially now that a wide variety of perspectives are available for everyone to see.

Next I list some general things that we can improve upon next time; this includes some background you may not know about some of the things we did do. And I end with several concrete ideas about changes/additions for the next conference. These are things that have been very well received so far by the planning team and others.

There is a lot here, but it’s a complicated issue. I hope you take the time to read all of it, and then to hit the “post reply” button and let us know what you think. What did we miss? What do you think of our ideas for next time? What do you disagree with, and why? Of course, you can always email me at [email protected] if you don’t feel comfortable posting your thoughts on this – although I hope many of you will take the risk.

Here are some of the rather divergent comments I heard at and since the conference:

Some people felt that there wasn’t enough of an emphasis put on diversity issues at the conference. Others felt that there was too much of an emphasis on diversity; they felt that every time they turned around, diversity issues were being brought up.

Some people felt that “isms were everywhere” (racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, etc.). Others felt that they did not witness or experience any diversity-related problems and weren’t sure what was going on for others. Because of this, some felt in the dark and frustrated, while others suspected that people were overreacting.

Some felt that the conference community and the D&D community desperately needed to deal with their diversity issues, and that these issues were not being confronted directly enough at the conference. Others felt that the processes we put into place (the listeners, etc.) went overboard and that some people were too confrontational – especially in the workshops. Some even nicknamed the Diversity Team’s Listeners as “the Diversity Cops.”

Some felt that many more problems, conflicts, etc. emerged at this conference than should have. Others felt that in an environment where people feel okay speaking up, more things are just naturally brought up.

Some people felt that lecture-style workshops were inappropriate for this conference, and tried to encourage such workshops to include more participation and discussion. Others felt that didactic workshops meet some people’s needs quite well, and are okay to offer as choices alongside more participatory workshops. They felt that there was a high level of resistance and intolerance toward people who may have a more traditional model of communicating knowledge.

Some felt that is was difficult to participate fully in the conference when they were faced with issues of racism, classism, sexism, etc. Others felt that several people came to the conference with a mandate to bring up diversity issues and concerns wherever and whenever possible, and those people withdrew from the conference almost immediately.

Some felt that diversity is the single most important issue that can be addressed in any D&D gathering. Others felt that although diversity is vital to this work, the conference was not meant to focus primarily on diversity issues.

Some people felt that we should have stopped everything at the conference and dealt with the diversity issues and concerns that were emerging with the whole group. Others felt that to do that would have been disastrous for the conference, the community, and the organization. Planning Team members felt that we had designed a conference that allows for participants to bring up (during Playback Theatre) and take action on (during Open Space) whatever issues, conflicts, concerns and needs remain for them on the last day of the conference – and throughout the conference in the Integration Groups.

Issues/concerns/instances that were brought to our attention at the conference:

Young people felt marginalized at the conference because the vast majority of workshops, plenaries, etc. were geared towards people who are experienced in and knowledgeable about dialogue & deliberation.

A couple of workshops were so didactic (expert panels, etc.) that participants were frustrated that they could not participate more actively.

Conversely, some conference participants were so wedded to dialogue and participation that they rejected more traditional ways of communicating even though those methods have their place (as in an expert panel).

In a couple of workshops, men spoke more frequently and for longer periods of time than women, even though there were more women than men at the conference. During one workshop, this concern was brought up and ended up changing the focus of the last 45 minutes of the workshop. Despite this, many people left this workshop upset. The person who brought up the concern and others who supported him felt unheard and felt as if their concerns weren’t acknowledged, and the presenter felt accused and attached, and didn’t feel safe speaking about his perspective on the issue.

During the plenary session with the reflective panel of key leaders (3 men, 2 women), the men all chose to stand during their brief talk, while the women chose to remain seated. Being seated was the expectation, but the stage was low and it was much easier to see the speakers from the back of the room when they stood. (This particular instance was talked about A LOT.)

The reflective panel consisted of 5 white people and no people of color. This was actually less of an issue than we expected it to be; we hoped that the reality that all of the prominent figureheads in this field are white people would lead to some productive discussion about how we can cultivate more leaders of color in our community – but this didn’t seem to happen. People focused more on who stood and who sat than on the racial makeup of the panel.

Conservatives felt marginalized throughout the conference because people assumed everyone around them was progressive.

There were not nearly enough workshops focused on diversity issues and power issues.

There were not enough workshops geared towards beginners in dialogue & deliberation, and it was not easy to tell which workshops would be appropriate for beginners.

In one workshop that focused on an important diversity-related issue, the workshop was derailed because of a participant accusing the presenters of having a victim mentality, and the presenters choosing to address this comment at length.

Lower income people were marginalized when announcements were made that volunteers were needed for certain tasks, and scholarship recipients were especially encouraged to step up. (Almost all scholarship recipients indicated on their applications that they would be happy to volunteer at the conference as needed.)

Things we can do better next time:

We can provide more opportunities throughout the conference that are similar to Playback Theatre and Open Space, which were both held on the last day of the conference. People needed to voice concerns, desires, learnings, etc. throughout the conference, and we didn’t give them the opportunity to be heard by the entire group until the third day of the gathering. In addition, people need the opportunity to use their bodies as well as their minds and mouths, and arts-based plenaries can provide that.

We can jointly establish ground rules that enable concerns about difference to be brought up in an effective way. Sometimes people voiced diversity-related concerns in a rather non-dialogic manner that felt very confrontational to the person who was being spoken to. In addition to establishing ground rules for all conference participants, members of the conference planning team can be prepared to not only use dialogic processes to deal with issues, but also a dialogic tone to introduce these issues.

Although we emailed all workshop presenters about the conflict resolution processes that would be available to them and all other conference participants, none of them chose to address things that happened in their workshops by having a facilitated dialogue outside of their session. Many seemed to never have read that email. We will have to make sure that workshop leaders are better prepared to address issues and conflicts that arise in their sessions.

Similarly, although we announced in detail the three conflict resolution processes and described them in the conference handbook, people only utilized the Listeners, who were available in a highly trafficked room. We will need to find ways of reminding people that these processes are available to them throughout the conference.

The Listeners who volunteered to assist the Diversity Team at the conference did a wonderful job during the times that they were scheduled to be available to hear people’s concerns. Outside of those scheduled times, it was unclear to some Listeners what their role should be. Listeners who brought up or discussed diversity concerns during workshops were perceived as acting in some kind of official capacity, when they were actually just acting as individuals who have a high level of awareness of these issues. We should prepare Listeners more next time.

We can be more open and transparent with our hopes, intentions, etc. It was hard to know how to acknowledge the lack of diversity in our reflective panel without making our panelists uncomfortable. Our panelists were not paid, and it was an honor to have them in this role. But we had agonized about the lack of racial diversity of the panel during the planning process, and we should have found a way to encourage conference participants to think about ways we can cultivate leaders of color.

We can respond faster to differences as they arise. After the first male panelist stood up, we could have encouraged all of the panelists to stand if they would prefer to do that – or we could have asked the audience if they can see better if the panelists stand.

We may be able to address things more directly and effectively by focusing on generalities. We addressed the concerns of the conservatives who felt marginalized by reminding people during a plenary session that not everyone at the conference is progressive, and that jokes at the expense of conservatives are inappropriate. We hesitated to do that with some other issues because they involved specific individuals who would realize that if an announcement was made.

Although people had twice as much time in between scheduled sessions as they did at the 2002 conference, there was still not nearly enough free time for people to unwind, take breaks, meet with each other, etc. The conference felt hectic and over-structured to many, and conflicts and issues can be handled a lot more effectively when people are not feeling overwhelmed and stressed. People (including conference organizers!) also need time to sit back and think about what they’ve been experiencing in order to integrate their learning and consider successful courses of action to take.

Changes/additions we are considering for the next conference:

Opening Plenary to Generate Ground Rules for the Conference

We are thinking about beginning the 2006 NCDD conference with a highly participatory plenary session that will have all conference participants, in small groups, discussing instances when they have felt unsafe in groups – and instances in which they have felt respected, welcomed and comfortable saying whatever they want to say. We would have people think about the elements that made them feel safe, and we would use this discussion to create ground rules for the conference that we can all embrace.

We feel that this kind of activity would accomplish many things:

1. It would get people actively participating right away.
2. It would get people talking about issues of diversity, difference and inclusion right away, without pressuring people to solve huge problems in one sitting.
3. It would create ground rules that people would have ownership in, and that people would be more likely to remember and adhere to throughout the conference.
4. It would model a large-group dialogic AND deliberative process.
5. It would set the stage for openness about issues of difference that would hopefully be modeled throughout the conference.

Planning Team Members Serving as Helpers in Workshops

We are considering having a member of the conference planning team present during each of the concurrent workshops. The team member would have multiple roles. They would make sure there is a note-taker and that everyone has an evaluation form. They would also well-versed in the conflict resolution procedures that are available so that if a conflict arises, there is someone in the room who can facilitate a brief discussion, make suggestions (“Why don’t we pause for a few moments after asking a question of the group so people have ample time to formulate a response?”) and, if necessary, schedule a facilitated discussion outside of the workshop with the parties involved so the workshop can continue AND the issue can be addressed.

This person’s role would not be to call attention to un-P.C. comments or to start a long discussion herself, but to help make sure that all parties’ needs are met when an issue arises.

Schedule Indicating Which Workshops are Suitable for Beginners

On the session leaders’ applications this year, we asked people to indicate whether their workshop would be most appropriate for beginners to D&D, people who have some experience in D&D or D&D experts. Almost all checked the “all levels” option.

Next time, we will ask the question “Is your workshop suitable for people who are new to dialogue & deliberation?”, and we will include some kind of symbol to indicate that a session is okay for beginners in the workshop schedule.

Workshop and Liaison Specifically for Beginners

As early as possible on the first day of the conference we will offer a workshop that is geared specifically to those who are new to the field. The workshop will provide an overview of the field and the leading practices, models, etc. It will also introduce the people who attend the conference to one or two Newbie Liaisons who they will be encouraged to approach whenever they have a question, need an introduction or just need some support.

Since we plan to develop a mentor program for beginners to the D&D community, by 2006 we should also be able to incorporate a mentor-mentee meeting or event into the conference.

Workshops Clearly Labeled According to Level of “Audience” Participation

Some people were surprised that there were a few workshops during which researchers presented papers, and a few that consisted primarily of expert panels. Some people were dissatisfied because some of the more participatory workshops did not uphold dialogic principles (such as allowing everyone equal air time).

We are considering having some kind of system to indicate in the workshop schedule whether a workshop is primarily an actual dialogue session, a working session, a didactic session, or some combination of these. That way people can know what to expect, and can attend the workshops that best meet their needs and interests.

Thanks for reading all of this! Please take the time to post a reply and let the planning team and your fellow conference participants know what YOU think about all of this.

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