At last month’s 2019 Nonprofit Technology Conference, we included Racial Affinity spaces specifically for attendees of color to connect and communicate together. This was the first time we designed spaces for racial affinity within our conference and we learned a lot in the process. We have also received a number of requests to share how we planned it.
There are many organizations that have done far more than NTEN with regards to investing in and building space for racial equity — this is not a blog post to claim we are leaders, but to share our process in our continued practice of learning.
As a foundation for decisions big and small at NTEN, we have our mission and vision, our values, and our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Specifically, our understanding of and commitment to equity acknowledges racial inequity as the base and basis for all equity work. We focus a great deal on accessibility, in many forms, at the NTC. Recognizing and honoring our commitment to racial equity requires us to find ways to include goals related to investing in and supporting attendees of color as well.
After the 2018 NTC, we had a few attendees of color who shared feedback with us about harmful experiences they had during our event. None of those experiences were, unfortunately, things they hadn’t experienced before or even regularly. But the frequency of microaggressions, white dominant culture behavior, and inequitable access to professional development doesn’t negate the potential to diminish and eliminate those things with intentional planning and action. We started having frequent conversations with those folks, as well as engaging a number of other community members of color of varying identities as well as experience levels with NTEN and the NTC.
This group of a dozen or so individuals provided feedback to NTEN at least three different times, each time we would share an update on our thinking and plans, listen deeply to their feedback including questions and concerns, and then we would integrate their feedback and update our plans before another round of sharing. This iterative approach worked for us because it dispelled the common, white dominant notion that an organization can have a meeting and plan something and have it be “finished” or “right”. It also allowed us to test our plans and the communication around them ahead of more public sharing to ensure we were providing information in a clear way to the community. It also, obviously, helped us evaluate our plans through the perspective of actual participants (which is inherently different than the biases or assumptions we make as organizers).
We recruited a team of four facilitators that had different racial identities and had a comfort facilitating conversations about race, white supremacy, and nonprofits. The recruitment of facilitators was not an open process but included direct conversations and invitations with community members that we already knew through a combination of the community feedback process, NTEN programs, and personal networks. The facilitator team included: Lindsey Watchman, Melissa Chavez, Raj Aggarwal, and Vanice Dunn.
The facilitators understood that this was not a general education session like the rest of the agenda, and that the space would be clearly labeled as a session only for attendees of color. There was no pre-set agenda or presentations, and they were there to support the flow of conversation, any smaller group discussions, or other format that attendees who joined the space wanted. They were essentially available as needed in the room.
It was important to us that we recruit and confirm the facilitator team before we went too far forward with our plans or our public communication about them because it was important to us that folks leading/facilitating the space/s have a chance to inform the plans before they were finalized. Once at least some of the facilitators were confirmed, we shared the plans and made additional refinements from their feedback.
We held one of the session rooms in the first breakout session time as a racial affinity space. Yes, this meant it was in competition against other sessions (the educational sessions we know many attendees come to learn from) but the overwhelming feedback from community members was that putting the RA space outside of session times meant it was a burden and barrier on attendees of color – making it a competition with lunch, networking, access to exhibitors, or with personal time.
We also reserved one session room on the final day of the conference but did not promote it in advance. Instead, we wanted to reserve it in our logistic plans but wait to see if it was of value to the community. The facilitators knew that it was available and would offer it as additional space as desired by attendees.
Plans for 19NTC were communicated publicly in a few ways. First, we added a page to the 19NTC website specific to Racial Affinity at the NTC. This page outlined our reasons for making direct plans to racial affinity at the NTC, resources for folks who wanted to learn more about racial affinity spaces specifically or racial equity generally, information about the specifics of what would be offered at the NTC, and ways to communicate with us (both directly and anonymously).
Next, we sent a direct email to all registered attendees that provided a short version of some what was on the website, including some explanation of the importance of the RA space, link to the page for resources, basic plans, and two buttons: one to indicate that the reader was an attendee of color planning to join the session (so we could get an early estimate of attendee numbers), and the other directed attendees of color to a short survey to get input on potential space logistics, anticipated topics of conversation, and other ways NTEN could support their participation. The feedback from this survey was shared with the full facilitator team and informed their plans for facilitating content and conversation in the space.
Information about the session was included in the online conference agenda as well as in the conference app, just like all of the general education sessions, so people could see the room location, see who the facilitators were in advance, and easily review the reminders that this was a facilitated session and not an educational session, that the facilitators were available to support attendees but would not be making presentations, and that it was exclusively for attendees of color.
We also tweeted about the plans and linked to them in other attendee emails.
We received several messages — a mix of direct and anonymous — expressing their anger at our plans. We anticipated that some folks wouldn’t like this explicit investment in attendees of color — it can be uncomfortable for folks who have never had to think or talk about race to have it presented so prominently. Our feedback and stance on their push back was to redirect them to the information we already provided on the website about why we were doing this and to the resources listed there for further learning and reflection. Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy – The Workbook is a tremendous resource that we recommended to attendees and encourage anyone embracing racial equity work — at an individual, organizational, or systems level — to use.
We had roughly the number of attendees join the session as we anticipated based on the pre-conference email poll. There was one attendee who seemed to miss the information that it was an affinity space only for attendees of color but they removed themselves once that was made clear. At the end of the session, attendees and facilitators confirmed they wanted to use the additional space we had reserved, so we added it publicly to the agenda and app (and announced the addition from the stage). There were some folks from the first session who attended again on the final day, but it also meant that new folks were able to join who couldn’t previously.
Learnings and future plans
Process: In debriefing the full process as a team (as staff and with the facilitators), we felt really happy about how it went for the first time doing something like this. Not everything was perfect, as nothing ever is.
We saw throughout and after places where we could have done small things differently. Mostly, this was timing and planning. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and we came to realize that we would have had to pause the general conference planning to “figure everything out” first. The successes we had were due instead to our commitment to a process: that racial equity in general is a process, that there would be no “final” plan as we were constantly in communication with the community about how to make it what was needed, and that we anticipated challenges or mistakes, so any that came up felt expected.
Community: None of this would have been possible or successful without an engaged community that was willing to share feedback with us and co-create something together. We are so appreciative of the community members who gave so freely of their time, energy, and experience to support us in putting resources into a racial affinity space, including folks who were not even at the NTC this year! There’s really no way to imagine successfully investing in racial affinity spaces of any format (or racial equity work at all) without doing it in deep collaboration with the community. We are still in conversation with those folks — and even more — to keep our planning centered around them.
Facilitators: We found it valuable to have facilitators onboard early and will do the same in the future. Along with that, we found that having a facilitator team in the room was valuable because it took the pressure off attendees to participate in dual roles when the purpose of the space was to enable them to connect with others (and not be mediating the space for others). Of course, not having a set agenda meant some folks found it to be great and other attendees wanted more structure. This is something we’ve debriefed with the facilitator team about to inform planning for the future.
Communication: Our use of various channels — website, email, social media, etc. — helped us reach people and offer clear ways for folks to offer feedback. Next year, we can have it listed in the agenda as soon as that portion of the website goes live in the fall so it is visible to folks evaluating their decision to attend.
Space Logistics: Thanks to feedback from participants this year, we are considering what it would mean to have the RA space be a resource onsite like our prayer and meditation room, quiet room, or even the lactation room — all spaces attendees use to form community, with connections that we know lasts beyond the conference. Removing it from the agenda would mean that attendees would either need to opt out of a session (already the expectation if it is in the agenda as a competing session) or opt out of other networking or personal time to join, but it would come with the benefits of not having time-specific boundaries, providing multiple ways for folks to use the space, and offer an as-needed/in-the-moment outlet for community.
Planning for 20NTC is already underway. We have a number of folks who we have heard from and that we know want to be part of the planning conversations for next year, and we are so grateful for their support and input! If you would like to be part of that group or otherwise want to connect about racial affinity at the NTC, please let us know.
Additionally, if you were at 19NTC and an attendee of color that was not able or chose not to participate in the racial affinity sessions, we’d also love the opportunity to talk to you and hear your experience.
If you have thoughts, experience, or feedback about running an RA space at your events or through your work, we’d love to hear from and learn from you. If you’re open to sharing your reflections and ideas, or want to discuss our process in more detail, we are happy to set up time to connect.
For any of these things or for additional feedback, you can reach us any time at firstname.lastname@example.org.