We felt that setting a particular tone for the conference was an important step in trying to make participants feel at ease during the event. As part of this effort, we created a short ‘Be Nice!’ policy, which served two purposes. First, it emphasised that we were aware of potential issues that might arise at the conference, thereby trying to position the conference team as a supportive point of contact in case of problems. Second, it aimed to raise participants’ awareness of potentially problematic or harmful behaviours, thereby making these less likely.
The policy was accompanied by a period of discussions, also with partners outside the immediate organising committee. These centred around the question of whether such a policy was even necessary in the first place, and whether explicitly ‘threatening’ people who violated it with explusion from the event was too harsh. Some feared that having the policy – and especially the threat of expulsion – on the conference website might deter individuals who disagreed with it from taking part in the conference.
In the end, we had to find a solution that seemed reasonable to the organising team as well as everyone else involved in the conference. We decided that it was more important to us to make those who may have been subject to harassment or other problematic or harmful behaviours feel at ease. At the same time, we tried to make clear that we trusted/expected the participants to share our basic understanding of mutual respect to not ‘frighten off’ individuals who weren’t familiar with such policies. (They are especially widespread at feminist and progressive technology-related events.) We also decided to frame it as an invitation to ‘be nice’ rather than a more contractual ‘policy’ as part of our effort to set a friendly tone for the conference.
This is what we came up with:
Changing Worlds is dedicated to providing an harassment-free, safe and inclusive conference experience for everyone, regardless of personal and professional background, gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, dis-/ability, physical appearance, body size, race, class, age or religion.
We do not tolerate harassment in any form.
While we operate under the assumption that all conference participants subscribe to the basic understanding laid out above, we take these issues very seriously and think that they should, in general, be taken very seriously. Therefore, individuals who violate this basic understanding may, as a last resort, be expelled from the event.
If you have any questions about our commitment to this framework and/or if you are unsure about aspects of it, contact us and we will do our best to provide clarification.
Other examples of anti-harassment policies / safer-space agreements
Here are some examples of (more extensive) anti-harassment policies:
- The safer spaces agreement of AFem2014, an anarcha-feminist conference in London
- A wiki post with suggestions for anti-harassment policies at geekfeminism.wikia.com
- The German-language policy of DINN_a*, a feminist early-career conference
Depending on your personal experiences, you might ask about an awareness team now. The concept has recently become more popular in activist and community spaces, and maybe not so much in purely academic environments. An awareness team has the purpose of makeing everyone feel welcome. It is the attendees’ contact point for any questions, concerns or problems that might arise in this context, or just provides someone to talk to.
Changing Worlds was not a big conference by any means – our main stage had less than 100 seats. So in this specific case (and in the cultural setting of a social science department), we ended up not having a designated awareness team outside of the organising committee.
For many conferences, especially for those on a slightly bigger scale, it makes sense to have a so-called awareness team in place. Just ask yourself if a certain demographic might feel more comfortable if there was such a team – And the answer to that is not only tied to the size, but also to the type of event you are planning and who is organizing it. A party differs vastly from an academic symposion or a workshop, so try to consider not only the scope of the event, but also the location and the expectations of the people to attend.
One (very easy to overlook) detail holds true for every attempt at creatinf a “safer space” – with an awareness team present or without: Efforts to make everyone feel welcome only make sense if attendees actually know about them. Advertise the policies (and awareness team if you have one) in advance, and post the information throughout the venue. Show people that you care, and let them know how to get in touch with the organizers or the awareness team quickly and without too much effort.