Since about 2013-2014 anti-harassment and anti-racism statements for conferences have become the norm, or rather, they should be and are becoming one. It’s certainly spread further and faster since then as things like Occupy and #blacklivesmatter have pushed to the forefront.
A good policy has the following things going for it: A statement of what it is, how it will be enforced, how to report an incident and staff training. All of these are important. Don’t think you can draft up a policy and slap it up on a poster and on the website and you’re done. It’s as simple as googling Wiscon harassment or Readercon harassment to see that just having a ‘zero tolerance policy’ led to huge problems for both of those conferences. You have to enforce that policy consistently. Don’t post a policy that doesn’t have full buy in from the senior leadership. Reach out to cons that already have one if you have concerns or questions and let them be your resources and sounding board.
Why have a policy at all? The very short answer is because sometimes humans suck. The longer answer is that inherently in culture there are power imbalances around gender, race, size, religion, ability among other things and a conference is a space that brings all of those things from the larger culture into its microcosm. A conference brings together people with a common interest and is often an escape from the everyday life and that space should be welcoming to everyone with that common interest. Sometimes it isn’t and you need to protect those who are most likely to be harmed. You need to name the thing and say ‘this is not okay’ because unspoken assumptions are what get you in trouble. The rules, as we all know, do not apply equally so you need to make a system that provides that equality. Naming a thing gives it power. I would also say if you think you don’t need one because no one has complained you aren’t listening to what people are saying.
For the conference I’m involved in it popped up in 2013-2014 and I was very fortunate that there was a template to work from. I pulled from The Geek Feminism wiki which was in turn originally created by the folks with The Ada Initiative (defunct as of the end of 2015). If you are looking for one to draw from it is a Creative Commons Zero version and I strongly encourage you to look at it and copy it. It’s a well tested policy but also check it against your state and local laws.
For that con there was a lot of work already done in that we had an internal event team on radios, trained in taking incident reports as well as being visible security already and there was precedent around reporting harassment as well as discrimination. There was still some training done around this in particular: understanding what the policy said, what was actually enforceable as well as making efforts to diversify the team itself.
Publishing the policy for the con in many ways was publicizing that effort and making it clear to all the attendees that it would be enforced. After the policy was written it was shared at a department head meeting so that the leadership of the conference was fully aware of what we were asking of them. It was also explained in detail at the full staff meeting in advance of con. Given that your regular conference staff will often answer questions outside their ‘job description’ you can’t count on just your operations staff to be the ones to understand and be able to take reports. More knowledge and transparency is key, right down to the last minute volunteers.
Having the policy was not a magic panacea nor did it give the con instant credibility. It won’t give it to you either. Instead what it’s done in the three years since (as I write this) is slowly created an environment where change is happening and the culture is changing. Yes, there were incidents in 2014 and again in 2015. We had incidents in 2016 too. It’s going to happen but people feel safer reporting them. Actions were taken to remove the offenders. The diversity at the con has grown each year, partially due to this policy. The work has been worth it.
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