Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Westercon: a wild and wonderful big tent

photo by Christine Doyle
Westercon 66 rocked the thunderdome.

It was the first time Kelley and I have been co-Guests of Honour at a convention and it turns out we really liked it. The photo above was taken at Opening Ceremonies on Thursday, July 4th. As you can see, we're already having a blast. It was my first July 4th as a US citizen; apart from the heat (it was 110° in Sacramento that day), it was fabulous in every way.

Not only were we writer Guests of Honour, we were celebrating the 25th anniversary of our Clarion '88 class with a reunion. Seven of our class of seventeen showed up. Here we are:
Yes, I'm over-excited to the point of looking completely insane. What can I say? It was a big day. (We took several pix. If I get better ones I'll replace this blurry, mad-looking thing but, hey, until then, this is what I've got.)

I could tell you lots of stories of the weekend: about the cocktail-making robot (it made me a kamikaze), about finally meeting a woman I first talked to about books on AOL almost 20 years ago, about learning a couple of things about how to moderate a great panel, about the wild and varied world that is science fiction fandom, about my understanding about how much the Clarion/Clarion West model matters to me, about how heart-warming it is to watch truly smart organisational dynamics at work.

But today I think I'll keep to only one: how fabulous this Westercon was and why you should plan to go one day.

Westercon 66 was a beautiful demonstration of true understanding and acceptance of, and planning for, diversity. People of many different ages, physical abilities, identities, interests and focus (filkers, readers, costumers, gamers, writers, Star Trek fans, Dr Who fans, writers, podcasters and so many more I lost count) came together in a big, brilliant tent staffed by smart, kind, organised, and efficient con runners.

For me there were two particular high points, one right at the beginning, one at the end.

The night before the convention proper, Kelley and I had dinner with convention staff, members of the con committee, and fellow guests Bjo and John Trimble (the pair who spearheaded the fan effort that saved Star Trek). We heard the story of how the co-chairs, Kevin Roche and Andy Trembley, began their bid to run the convention as a joke but ended up with the serious intent to breathe new life into--electrify, sprinkle with fairy dust--a venerable institution.

Andy and Kevin had a vision: to make Westercon great again, and great for the 21st century; a place where it doesn't matter what your art or fandom or business focus is, it doesn't matter what your gender is (or isn't), it doesn't matter how well you do (or don't) walk, or whether you do or don't have money, you are welcome.

On one panel, about gender presentation in public places (great panel, very ably run by Lance Moore), one of the panelists, Leigh Anne Hildebrand, introduced the term radical hospitality. This means (if I'm interpreting correctly) to anticipate the needs of others and provide for them. In advance. In other words, don't make anyone ask for help; make sure there's already chair at the table, in every sense. Basically, not only Don't be a dick but be actively kind. So, for example, in terms of physical ability: if you see someone looking tired ask if they need a chair--or something else--and make sure you find one. Even better, make sure there are plenty of chairs there already. Make sure the bathrooms are accessible. Make sure there are handrails on the steps to the dais or a ramp. Really go there. Imagine what people will need. Provide it. Beforehand and on the spot. Make everyone feel equally welcome.

This applies to everything. Gender, race, physical ability, religion, diet...

And then at the end of the convention, at the feedback session, we watched in action the most amazing example of one of our personal mottos: Play nicely. Kevin and Andy, together with the con chairs on the two next Westercons (Westercon 67, in Salt Lake City; Westercon 68, in San Diego), sat on stage and solicited--and responded to--every comment, question, and complaint offered by hundreds of attending members.

It was lovely. Most fans offered considered comments, at least half of which were kudos. And for almost every "This is the problem I had," the member offered a possible solution for the future. Sometimes these (in my, admittedly inexperienced, organisational opinion) seemed a little, hmm, impractical, but they were thoughtful, and non-angry. And the con chairs responded: That was a judgement call, or That was totally our mistake, we'd do it differently next time, or I hear you. Here's why we did it that way. And Here's how we'll address that in San Diego, and We will absolutely take that on board for Salt Lake. I loved it; I wish the whole world worked like that. And here's the thing: all those people were different. Different ages, different concerns, different expectations and attitudes and needs. But they all played by the same rule: Be kind, work towards the greater good.

We left the session before the end because it occurred to us (belatedly) that someone in the audience might want to offer a comment/complaint about what we did (or didn't do) as writer Guests of Honour. But otherwise we would have stayed for the whole thing.

Westercon66 reminded me why I love the science fiction community so much. If you get a chance, you should go.

Special thanks to Christine Doyle, Dawn Plaskon, Kevin and Andy and every other staff member who made our time at Westercon not only enormous fun but easy.

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5 comments:

  1. Nicola! It was so lovely having you and Kelley at Westercon! I'm sad we didn't get to spend more time talking.

    I think you've done a great job of summing up my ideas about radical hospitality. What I should be more clear about is that I don't expect anyone to be able to anticipate every possible way of making others feel welcome. We live inside our own skins and experiences; as a result, we can try to empathize and learn from others, but we're never going to be able to do that perfectly.

    What's important to me is that people transform the approach to accessibility, accommodation, pluralism and welcoming that is frequently standard: "If you need something, just ask." While that approach is meant to be inclusive and affirming it often ends up putting the onus of arranging accessibility and educating hosts/venues on the marginalized or newcomers. Worse, I sometimes see it used as a justification for what is clearly just bad planning: "We didn't make our panel rooms accessible because no one asked." Or "We don't have a harassment policy because no one has ever reported harassment."

    For me, radical hospitality is about making welcoming the norm, not an exception that must be requested. That still leaves room for improvement; we're always going to be approaching full inclusiveness asymptotically. What I love is when the response for, "It would help me/us/hir/them if there were extra chairs" is not "You/They should have said something/emailed/given us more warning."

    Anyway, wonderful having you at Westercon, wonderful having you mention this idea. :-) Thank you.

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    1. We can't read minds, I know :) And I hear you about making welcoming the norm. It's something I've always tried to do but find less easy--particularly at something like a party--as I get less mobile.

      Many thanks, again, for the phrase, that has crystallised so much of my inchoate thought/feeling on the matter.

      BTW, are you on Twitter? I'm @nicolaz.

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  2. Leigh Anne, we had so much fun meeting you! I'm sad about the talking time too, and hope there will be more chances. I think your presence and your perceptions are terrific.... thanks for rocking the panels we were on together, which were enhanced enormously by your presence.

    And yes to steps toward inclusiveness. We can't read minds, but we can learn to question assumptions and to provide what's asked for as opposed to providing excuses. One of the many things I love about SFF is that we are a learning community. Not always true of some of the other places I walk in.

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  3. I'm so glad things went as well as they did, and that you and Kelley had such a good time.
    I'm especially glad to hear your impressions of the feedback session; afterwards Andy and I were afraid we'd explained too much and not listened enough.

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    1. We had a fabulous time. Thank you so much for inviting us.

      I most definitely liked the explanations. Partly because the fullness indicated that you were listening, and partly because it really helped me understand how conventions work behind the scenes. And, wow, they're a lot of work: I admire the planning, experience, and efficiency of the whole enterprise.

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