Anna Holmes posed a critical question in her recent deconstruction of the word diversity in The New York Times: “Why is there such a disparity between the progress that people in power claim they want to enact and what they actually end up doing about it?”
She goes on to cite the ambiguity of the term (what does diverse mean, anyway?) and a range of other important explanations. Having been behind the scenes at TED and a host of other conferences — both grassroots and elite, and having co-founded FRESH, a speakers bureau dedicated to diversifying thought leadership, I would argue that the gap is also about the most practical failures.
In the context of conferences, even if you decide to invite speakers hailing from a wide range of backgrounds and fields up front, it’s easy to fall prey to the pale male status quo, especially if you are one yourself. Here are a few thoughts on how to make your intention a reality and, in so doing, plan way more interesting events:
- Make friends with people who aren’t like you.
If you create a more diverse network of friends and collaborators then you’ll inherently end up planning more genuinely diverse events. It’s no surprise that many of our keynote speakers, panelists, and attendees come straight from our proverbial Rolodexes. Value the breadth of yours. Get intentional about who you approach at parties. Go out of your way to email notes of specific admiration to people whose work you’ve noticed even when you’re not in planning mode.
2. Assign one person.
One of the most insidious forces, as mentioned above, is when the team behind an event gets big and unwieldy. Too many cooks in the kitchen. No one knows who’s on first. All the clichés that mean, in short, cluster$%^#. When this happens, it’s hard to honor an intention for diversity because everyone is fighting for individual speakers that they like, without a sense of the whole in mind. In this case, someone has to become the broken record-in-residence on diversity. Even better if this person is a white, wealthy dude — he’s a great messenger for other white, wealthy dudes and he’s saving some of his colleagues with less privilege from the extra emotional labor of always looking out for diversity.
3. Beware of replicating old dynamics.
Performance is obviously a form of thought leadership, but for all kinds of historic and contemporary reasons, we call bullshit on organizers who consider their events more diverse when really they are replicating racist practices of being “entertained” by people of color while positioning already privileged people as the official experts. As Gloria Steinem recounts being schooled by a Civil Rights marcher in her new memoir, “Singing isn’t speaking.” It’s awesome to weave music, dance, and poetry into heady gatherings, but make sure that the line up is comprehensively eclectic.
Duh. Ask someone on the team to do a weekly, or even daily (as things heat up), report on what the total count of speakers are in various pre-determined categories (gender, race, geography etc.). Counting doesn’t measure it all, of course; certain categories of diversity elude this kind of numerical evaluation. And you certainly don’t want your entire strategy to be reduced to checking boxes — that can leave speakers feeling tokenized and you feeling gross. But, sometimes the simplest interventions are the most instructive when it comes to culture-busting norms (check The Op-Ed Project’s byline count and VIDA’s literary arts count, for examples). Once you know the numbers, you can act from a more sophisticated place in figuring out where to tweak your curation.
5. Don’t forget the audience.
Speaking of curation, don’t overlook that the speakers on the stage aren’t the only area that can benefit from attention to diversity. A more eclectic audience means more interesting collisions on breaks and more powerful Q&As during the program itself. Again, some of the basic questions can be the most powerful in pinpointing how to shake up your strategy: who is your target demographic for the event? How can you make sure that people outside of this demographic show up? Is the barrier money? Communications? An unwelcoming or insidery culture? The time and/or place? Would onsite childcare help?
None of this is insurance against critique or a recipe for a simple production process. Because that’s really and truly not what it’s about. It’s about being a part of something that you’re proud to learn actually created a new conversation, not only allowed, but inspired disagreement, and seeded the kinds of silo-busting ideas that might just make lives more interesting, more humane, more courageous. That’s worth doing way more than just checking boxes or desperately padding binders; that’s worth being uncomfortable and inconvenienced, taking risks and fighting for.