Note: This editorial, by Barb Galler-Smith, appears in our current issues of On Spec Magazine. If you like what read please consider clicking Subscribe or Donate for more excellent SF!
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[Welcome to the return of something new! Once upon a time On Spec posted the editorials from its most recent issue on the website. This served as both a taste of what you might find in the current issue, as well as a chance to spread the editorial message a bit broader. As it happens, below is my editorial for the current issue, which I’m pleased to share with you. If you want to read more of Issue #109 and future issues, you can head over to our Subscription page to learn more. Or pick up individual digital issues through Weightless. Enjoy! – Brent]
“Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.”—Maya Angelou
As a child I found escape in science fiction and fantasy. That’s not news to anyone who knows me, and it certainly isn’t an uncommon story. I’m sure it’s one many of our readers share. As I got older, and childhood escape turned into teen and then young adult passion for SF, I began to seek out conventions as a place to share my growing passion. And it wasn’t hard; Edmonton already had a going concern when I first arrived, and there were cons I could attend in Calgary and Winnipeg. I was (am) a tabletop gamer as well, which just opened up more opportunities for weekend escapes.
I’m also a white, cis, hetero male. As uncomfortable as it is sometimes to acknowledge, the con scene and gaming and SF landscapes pretty much catered to me.
Flash forward to now. In addition to helping out as an editor for On Spec, I’m also the founder and current Festival Chair for The Pure Speculation Festival (www.purespec.org). We started back in 2005 with the best of intentions: create a space for local fans to share their passion for SF and nerd culture. And if you had asked me how we were doing in any of the years from then until 2015, I’d have told you we were doing a great job. While our attendance was never record-shattering, people came back every year and enjoyed themselves. Pure Speculation was a perfectly fine science fiction event. But if you looked around, again, most of the attendees were very much like me.
That wouldn’t change until after the 2015 festival. We had decided to move from Fall to Spring, and chose to take a year off rather than rush a festival together for 2016. This was a great decision for many reasons, not least because it gave me the opportunity to really dig deep on issues surrounding inclusivity and accessibility. After a bunch of uncomfortable reading, and talking with (more listening than talking, actually) folks most impacted by these issues, I had to accept that while I’d had good intentions in the past, my track record for inclusivity was frankly a turd. Not an easy thing to accept, and I didn’t at first. I struggled with the idea that I was somehow to blame in an SF culture that could somehow accept elves and aliens, but passively and actively make itself unsafe for women, people of colour, LGBTQ2S, our Indigenous population—basically, anyone who wasn’t me.
Faced with that, I really had only two choices. Go on as I had, now conscious of the fact that I was part of the problem. Or change and work to be better. (A third option, just shut the festival down and walk away, never occurred to me. I can be stubborn sometimes.)
I chose the second option. Which makes it sound easy, but it was anything but. Turns out it is a lot of work to un-train decades of unconscious bias, especially when I was unaware of most of them (unconscious, after all). Slowly but surely, though, I began to envision a festival that could actually be inclusive, that would welcome all sci-fi nerds regardless of, well, anything.
Vision was one thing. Of course, putting that vision into action was quite another. We made a truckload of changes to how and where we ran things. We moved from a hotel space to a community league hall, which had the twin benefits of cutting costs and giving us a much more intimate space over which we had better control. Plus, almost all the space in the hall is accessible to folks with limited mobility, as well as being wheelchair-accessible. The hall was in an evolving Edmonton neighbourhood we could work with and grow into. We made the festival free to attend, a huge shift for us, but it removed any financial barrier to taking part.
Those are all big changes, but we made small changes as well. We made pronoun stickers available at the registration table for folks to put on their badges so people could know their pronouns without having to ask. We also made conscious choices about moving to more gender-neutral language on our website and in any communication around the festival. We began to program more consciously, making sure we were trying to include marginalized voices on our panels, and not just to talk about their marginalized group. While it hasn’t been ratified yet, going forward there will be a policy that 50% of our panelists need to be from a normally marginalized group.
And we’re not finished there. I’m currently looking into the viability of having ASL interpreters at our panels; a few to start, and eventually all. And if we can’t make that work right away, then we’ll look at setting up speech-to-text displays during panels for those hard of hearing. I’m exploring the possibility of panels in other languages besides English. I’m actively searching out and recruiting potential organizers and board members from the LGBTQ2Sand Indigenous communities, as well as persons of colour, because I want their voices at the table when we’re putting this festival together. Hell, eventually I want one of them to replace me!
That all sounds like a huge amount of work, right? Well here’s the secret that a lot of cons, who like to talk about how hard it is to be inclusive, or claim they can’t find people from marginalized groups to be on their panels and boards, don’t want you to know: once you get over yourself and make the choice to do it, organizing an inclusive event is no harder than organizing one that isn’t. You may be conscious of the work in a way you weren’t before, so it seems more difficult at first. But the work remains the same, whether you’re focused on inclusivity or not.
Let’s look at the most recent WorldCon as an example. I won’t go into all the details, you can find those on the internet with the skilled use of a search engine. But when WorldCon initially announced its lineup of panels and presenters, it was decidedly lacking in… well, people who didn’t look like me. Which the internet, Twitter in particular, was quick to point out. In response, WorldCon organizers tried to claim that they tried to make a more diverse lineup, but they just couldn’t find any diverse panelists. This despite an entire Hugo nominee list packed with diversity, any of which they could have contacted. Twitter was quick to point this out as well, and suggest dozens of alternative presenters besides. To their credit, WorldCon did then revamp their panel schedule, adding many of the folks suggested on Twitter, including previously uninvited Hugo nominees.
(I say to their credit, but I don’t want to go too far with that. If Twitter could supply them with literally dozens of suggestions for diverse programming in a matter of hours, they had no excuse to not have done that work themselves.)
So it remains that the only reason to not be inclusive, to not make your con or your festival or your group or whatever nerdy thing you organize welcoming and safe to as many folks as possible… is because you choose not to. You choose not to examine, acknowledge, and work to set aside the biases which make your convention, event, or group an uncomfortable space for the marginalized.
And if that’s your choice I really don’t know what to say to change your mind.
I know those aren’t the types of events I want to attend anymore. I want different viewpoints, from people who don’t look at the world through my lens. I want to be challenged by sci-fi and fantasy, I want to read and talk about work that pushes me to think and be better. I want to hear the voices forced to be quiet, I want to hear them big and bold and brassy.
And I know that isn’t the kind of event I want to run. Because if I had kept running Pure Speculation the same way as before there is so much I would have missed. I wouldn’t have seen the repeated looks of delight when, to the folks to whom it mattered, they discovered we had pronoun stickers. I wouldn’t have overheard a young girl whisper to her dad, “I want to be a writer like her!” about one of our Guests of Honour (I won’t say which one, as they are all worthy of emulation so it could have been any or all). For that matter, I might not have had a father bring his daughter to the festival in the first place. I wouldn’t have been thanked, repeatedly, for including panels on mental health issues (for which I can take no credit, as both of those came from the community). I would never have seen all the new faces at Pure Spec this year, people who had never come out before but came this year because there was finally a voice like theirs talking about SF, where before there wasn’t.
Usually at the end of a Pure Speculation weekend I am completely drained, physically and emotionally. But because of all the experiences I just mentioned and a bunch more I just don’t have room to talk about, while I was certainly worn down in body my spirit was light. I actually felt really good, and for maybe the second time since I started Pure Speculation, instead of feeling drained I was immediately excited about next year. I felt like we had finally made something close to the vision I had in my head when I started the festival back in 2005, and it felt damn good.
So if you’re around Edmonton next June I hope you’ll join us. You’ll all be welcome.