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Convention Attention: NASFiC & DetCon1’s Committment to Diversity

I know the big news lately is the Hugo Awards (congrats to all the winners by the way!), and we all know it’s called Worldcon because it moves around the World. But what if you live in the US, and international travel isn’t an option for you? Don’t worry, we got you covered. When Worldcon is outside the United States, a lucky US city gets to hold NASFiC, our National Convention. In July of this year, NASFiC was held in Detroit Michigan, and some of the organizers were kind enough to chat me about what NASFiC is all about, their commitment towards diversity, and how to get involved in NASFiC and other conventions.

(Don’t live in the US? no problem. More and more countries have National Science Fiction Conventions that move from city to city within that country. Australia has NatCon, the UK has EasterCon, Finland has FinnCon, Poland has PolCon, New Zealand has their NatCon, Sweden has SweCon, and even though I’m sure I missed plenty, I bet you get the idea.)

The recent NASFiC that was held in Detroit was called DetCon1, and it boasted over 1400 attendees, with Guests of Honor Steven Barnes, Nnedi Okorafor, John Picacio, Helen Greiner, and the musicians Bill and Brenda Sutton, among others. The Golden Duck award for excellence in children’s speculative fiction was also presented at DetCon1 for Middle Grade and YA fiction. Wow, that’s a lot going on, isn’t it? Shall we get to the roundtable with Anne K. Gray (Diversity Facilitator), Tammy Coxen (Con Chair), Christine Humphrey (Volunteer Coordinator) and Anna O’Connell (Volunteer Co-Coordinator)? Yes, lets!

Andrea Johnson: DetCon1 was a NASFiC. What’s NASFiC, when does it occur, and how is the location decided?

Anne K Gray: The North American Science Fiction Convention (or NASFiC) is held in North America in any year when the Worldcon is outside of North America. The location of a NASFiC is chosen by vote of the membership at the Worldcon in the immediately preceding year. Detcon1 was the 11th NASFiC since it was started in the 1970’s. Each NASFiC is organized by a different group and in a different location. Like the Worldcon bids, NASFiC bids must sell themselves solely based on theme, committee, location and facilities. The Guests of Honor and other details are only revealed after the vote.

Tammy Coxen: Detcon1 was selected by the members of LoneStarCon 3, the 2013 Worldcon.

Andrea Johnson: Tell us a little about your role at DetCon1. What portions of the convention were you most involved in? How long have you been involved with convention organizing?

Tammy Coxen: I was the chair of Detcon1. Or, as I liked to say when introducing myself in meetings “It’s all my fault.” I had this crazy idea that Detroit should bid for a NASFiC, and fortunately a whole bunch of really amazing convention runners (and the voters) agreed with me. My job was mostly steering the ship. We spent time upfront deciding what our vision and goals for the convention were (you can find them on the front page of our website), and then my job was to help make sure we were all pulling in the same direction to achieve those.

I’ve been working on conventions since around 1999. I was the conchair of ConFusion from 2001-2003 and have worked on the con almost every year since then. I was very active in Worldcon fandom from 2001-2004, but took some time off after my son was born. Detcon1 was my jump back into the deep end.

Anne K Gray: I was the diversity facilitator for the convention, which involved recruiting and facilitating discussion with our Diversity Advisory Board, documenting suggestions for program participants and panels, helping Programming follow-up on invitations to people the Diversity Board had suggested, working with John Picacio, Publications, and Promotions to develop our promotional materials and represent Detcon1 to other local events and organizations, and conferring with the Chair and executive group on other issues that affected diversity at the convention. I was also one of the IT and web development leads, so I was directly handling much of the web site content.

I have been involved in running conventions for about eighteen years. I was assistant conchair of ConFusion for Tammy prior to chairing it myself three times. She and I had previously done some exploration of bringing one of the traveling conventions to Detroit, so when she contacted me about bidding for the NASFiC I was on board immediately.

Christine Humphrey: I was a volunteer coordinator, so I was most involved in scheduling and recruiting volunteers. This was pretty much my first sci-fi con, but I have been a volunteer coordinator for a local Comic Book Convention for 4 years prior to Detcon1. I’ve always wanted to go to a sci-fi con, (since I’m a long-time sci-fi reader and fan) and here was this one, in my home town, which I’m also really proud of, so I wanted to be involved in any capacity. I’m always eager to volunteer for things, because I love sharing my passions with people and helping them have fun and learn at events like this. I was a little hesitant getting into such a new area and taking on a big responsibility, but we eventually decided to put my experience in the comic-book-world to use and I’m really glad we did.

Andrea Johnson: DetCon1 made a commitment towards diversity. Tell us more about that – how did it come about, and how did it go?

Tammy Coxen: The main point I’d like to make is that we decided really early on that diversity was important to us, and reflected that in our vision. Having a strong vision helped us make decisions that would support it. Anne’s given a lot of the details below about how it played out. What really made it work is that it permeated everything we did – from things like who we invited to be our Guests and program participants and what programming topics we offered, all the way to little things like making sure we had both caucasian and black dolls for our Iron Costumer: Doll Edition make-and-take.

Anne K Gray: When we began the bid, there was already a lot of discussion about the lack of racial diversity in fandom, and at Worldcons in particular, as well as issues of gender equity, accessibility, harassment, and the question of whether or not young fans (and aspiring pros) were being welcomed and included. With Tammy’s leadership, I think she recruited a bid committee that were pretty united in wanting Detcon1 to set an example of how to bridge the gap between what Worldcon and NASFiC-type events have been and what we think they have the potential to be. We were aiming to be inclusive and attractive to all kinds of fans while still being a very fannish event with the sort of high quality programming long-time attendees expect.

The bid committee demonstrated that shared vision very early on with the selection of the Guests of Honor, a process which involved a vote. Our Author Guest of Honor, Steven Barnes, is African-American, and is a screenwriter as well as an author of literature. Our Artist Guest of Honor, John Picacio, is Hispanic. Our Scientist Guest of Honor, roboticist Helen Greiner, is a female engineer and R&D manager. Our Fan Guests of Honor, Bernadette Bosky, Arthur D. Hlavaty, and Kevin J. Maroney, are a poly triad of 25 years and counting, who also represent a wide breadth of fanac, including conrunning, fan writing, editing, and criticism. Our Music Guests of Honor, Bill and Brenda Sutton, are themselves eclectic musicians, and helped create Interfilk, a non-profit organization that fosters up-and-coming newcomers to the filk community.

The group was also on board with the budget constraints of a low membership cost, targeting an at-the-door rate that was less than half that of a Worldcon. Not long after we won the bid we announced a Youth rate for people ages 13 to 24. That rate was set and did not rise, to try to make the NASFiC extra affordable for young people. To make it more attractive and inclusive, we also solicited and got funding from previous Worldcons that permitted us to add a YA Author Special Guest, Nnedi Okorafor, and to create and host the member-selected Detcon1 Awards for Middle Grade and Young Adult Speculative Fiction. Closer to the convention we added a Video Game Special Guest as well; developer Jon Davis.

I had been studying race issues in fandom and making a point of familiarizing myself with genre writers of color and their work since the huge online discussion known as RaceFail 2009. One of the things that came out in RaceFail and further discussions was the intersectionality of race with class, disability, gender, and other things that can make a person subject to prejudice, discrimination, and harassment, like sexual orientation, age, weight, etc. We felt that in order to succeed in our goals, we needed to create a space in which the diverse attendees we wanted would feel (and be!) safe as well as welcomed.

Tammy had someone assess the Renaissance Center for accessibility issues early on in the bid, and we had a head of Accessibility as part of our Operations division. Jesi Pershing joined the group as our Safety Officer, and brought along additional impetus toward having a strong Anti-Harassment policy and response capability.

We particularly wanted to make it financially possible for fans of color to attend, especially people from Detroit. So we donated three memberships to fans of color through the Carl Brandon Society’s Con or Bust program, and we started the FANtastic Detroit Fund. The Fund was created via donations collected through the website, in order to provide free memberships to attendees who were otherwise unable to afford them, with a preference for Detroit-area residents. Detroiters are on average significantly less well off than in most of North America, so we wanted to try to address that possible disadvantage.

To get across the message that everybody would be welcomed, we produced a variety of promotional materials, and specifically requested images from our artist GoH that featured racially diverse characters. Some of our flyers were more text-based, and used language that would be understood by established con-going fans, while other flyers and postcards used more images and eschewed in-group terms like “Masquerade” for more generally understood ones like “Costume Contest.” We used social media actively, especially twitter and FaceBook, and created videos to help people who might never have attended our type of event understand what they could expect from it.

The website also had a page about Diversity, and our Contact Us page directly stated:

Please note that speculative fiction fans and pros of any race, religion, sexual orientation, age, or ethnic background are invited to submit ideas or to volunteer for the program or the committee. Detcon1 hopes to have a diverse group of participants and planners come together, and to make this NASFiC an inclusive and enjoyable event for everyone who attends.

The main Programming page started off with:

Programming for Detcon1 will be a true Michigan experience, embracing diverse fandoms and traditions, and looking both to our future and our past(s) while delivering a vital and enjoyable now.

I think Kim Kofmel and her Programming staff delivered on that promise.

Tammy Coxen: You asked how it went for us. I think it went really well and we achieved many of our goals. We got a lot of positive feedback from attendees about how much they enjoyed the diverse program and participants, and we heard from program participants of color who expressed how welcome they felt in our space. That was great! But we didn’t get it all right – which means we learned a lot about what worked, what didn’t, and how we could do things differently to be even more effective.

Christine Humphrey: The Diversity aspect was one of the reasons I decided to get involved on a higher level, even though I wasn’t necessarily part of the sci-fi world before. Even though I was relatively new to cons, I did consider myself part of the sci-fi community, but it’s been an off/on relationship. I was really proud to be part of something that was so committed to diversity and inclusion. The FANtastic Detroit Fund, in particular, is such a great way to reach out and grow the community and I hope to see it continued or copied by other cons.

Andrea Johnson: What was your favorite part of the Convention?

Christine Humphrey: For me, it was probably meeting so many new people, whether it was volunteers, staff, or congoer. I came away from the experience with lots of new, but solid friendships, not to mention the feeling of being part of a community that will be less off-on from here on out.

Tammy Coxen: Mostly seeing everyone having such a good time. That’s why I run cons – because I want to make people happy. Another highlight for me was hearing how much people enjoyed their time in Detroit as a city, not just at the con. Detroit’s gotten a really bad rap in the press, and we were able to show people the city in a new light. Including even some suburban Metro Detroiters who don’t usually come downtown.

Anne K Gray: Two things were really stand-out for me. One was our program items on Octavia Butler – on where to start people reading her work for the first time, and on the anthology Octavia’s Brood; on Butler’s work as it relates to and inspires social justice. The inspiration for those items was initially the work of Detroit author Adrienne Maree Brown, who is co-editor of the anthology, and we knew the book included an essay by Tananarive Due, who was also attending. But I, at least, had no idea that Steven Barnes once lived just a few blocks away from Butler, used to dine with her regularly and had all kinds of inside knowledge about her process and values, or that Nnedi Okorafor had been teaching Butler’s books and stories in her literature courses, and thus could offer a lot of practical experience on how people – both sf readers and those who are new to the genre – approach her writing. That kind of synergy just made for terrific panels, on top of how wonderful all of those authors were themselves as speakers.

The other part that I really appreciated was our panel on what’s new in diversity in fandom. I got to sit down with some amazing people and talk about what led us to the work we’re doing and where progress is being made. And I can’t help but to have been pleased to hear Isabel Schechter, who was not involved in planning the con, say that one of the things that made her feel hopeful was Detcon1. But the big thing I want to remember was that the panel was not just a breeze of us patting each other on the back; there were challenges and painful moments. I learned new things to say in response to statements I’d heard before, like, “but I don’t see what color you are,” which came at us from the audience. And Tammy forwarded me an email later from someone who sat in on that panel but was still confused as to why fans of color don’t just “discover” fandom like everyone else. These are not easy issues to grapple with. The process continues.

Like Tammy said above, not everything that we tried to do worked out the way we hoped it would. But we made a step in the right direction, and we learned a lot. I think maybe too much of the online discussion of issues at fannish conventions has discouraged people from ever attending them. With Detcon1, it seems like we succeeded in extending the fun, welcoming experience many people have had in fandom to a larger group of fans. I hope both conrunners and potential congoers are encouraged by that.

Andrea Johnson: I can only imagine how many volunteers it took to handle a convention of this size. If someone has attended a few conventions, and is interested in volunteering, what’s the best way for them to get involved at their next convention? What should a first time volunteer expect out of the experience?

Anna O’Connell: Most fan-run SF conventions actively solicit volunteers both before and at the con. Someone interested in working on an upcoming convention should look at the website to see how that planning committee is handling volunteer sign up. If there isn’t a specific person in charge of volunteers, e-mail the person responsible for the area or areas that sound most interesting, briefly describing the amount of time you can offer and any relevant skills or experience you have. You don’t have to start out skillful or be experienced , but we won’t dump a beginner in the deep end all alone, either. You might well end up invited to help with some of the work that needs to be done in advance, or with an early chance to pick a volunteer job or shift at the convention. If you haven’t signed up in advance, go to the Operations Desk or wherever the program book says volunteers are being scheduled.

If a person is new to SF convention fandom, working in registration, the hospitality suite or being a badge checker are good ways to interact with a large number of the convention attendees and planners. More introverted people might prefer to sign up for shorter shifts or to work on set up and teardown, in convention operations, running videos or a sound system, or in the art show or dealers’ room.

Christine Humphrey: Oh my goodness. I could talk about this for days, although Anna has covered a lot of the basics, especially about getting involved. Volunteering is such a rewarding experience for me. Most volunteer jobs are fairly simple and fun, and there’s a job to fit literally every single person.

A first time volunteer should expect to have fun, honestly. That sounds a bit trite and cheesy, but it’s true! Volunteering is a commitment and responsibility, but if a volunteer has fun doing their job, then most, if not all of the people that volunteer comes into contact with will have fun too–and the best way for a volunteer to have fun is to expect their job to be fun. Even something that might seem tedious, like guarding a door, can be a blast if you approach it the right way, people-watching, people-greeting, and sharing your excitement of the con with the other people who are passing by. I also think it’s great for the first-time congoer, even shy ones, because you have an “excuse” to greet people, a conversation starter, and you at least get to know some of your fellow volunteers.

Our volunteers were also amazing, most of them volunteering upwards of 10 hours. That’s easy to do at most cons, even around panels that you’d like to attend, but a significant commitment that is an essential part of any convention and certainly a successful one. And while the experience is full of its own rewards, most conventions offer perks for volunteers, like discounts or refunds on membership, prizes or even free crash space (which is known in the community as a gopher hole, I learned!).

Andrea Johnson: Thanks so much for giving us a behind the scenes look into DetCon1!

About Andrea Johnson (99 Articles)
Andrea Johnson also blogs over at where she reviews science fiction and fantasy novels and talks about other nerdy stuff. She's also an interviewer at Apex Magazine. Her apartment looks like a library exploded, and that is how it should be.
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