You Asked: How do you feel about speaker lists created for conference organizers?

  1. By Ashe Dryden
  2. On July 06, 2014
  3. Tagged Conference Organizing Resources

I'd like to create a list of potential speakers for conference organizers. It seems useful, but fraught with problems. What do you think?

I've seen quite a few people create similar lists that are focused at conference organizers in their communities, so you're not alone here.

Speaker lists can be a helpful tool in communities that are just now approaching the idea of diversifying their conference lineup. When a community hasn't highlighted the work of marginalized people before, it can be difficult to identify who those people in the community might be.

Unfortunately, it can also become a problem. For one, the people who end up on such lists find themselves receiving a lot of requests to speak, so naturally turn down quite a number of opportunities that could go to someone else. Organizers begin to believe that every marginalized person they invite will say no, causing resentment on their part. When someone points out that their event isn't very diverse, it's not unusual to hear organizers say "every person we asked turned us down or canceled!", effectively blaming the very people they're attempting to attract to their event. This attitude isn't going to make marginalized people feel comfortable speaking or attending the event.

Additionally, when organizers begin relying on these lists, we see the same handful of people speaking every time, which isn't helping solve the problem of representation. We should be striving to see lots of new speakers or less-"famous" speakers have opportunities at our events. It's a sociological fact that people tend to know more people like them than not; it's hard work to actively work to correct this. Because organizers can come to rely on these lists (which are quickly dated), they're less likely to do the work that they should be doing to broaden their network: getting to know more people different from themselves, creating initiatives to identify and highlight the important work that's being done in their community by people from all backgrounds.

The community becoming more inclusive and empathetic toward people they haven't otherwise given a chance to - intentionally or otherwise - is the goal. As a conference organizer myself, I know how difficult this can be, but remember that you aren't working on this alone. Reach out to the community and tell them you want to know who the unsung heroes are. Whose blog posts have helped you think about something in a brand new way? Who is doing important documentation work? Who is making a monumental effort to coordinate a re-write of a popular library?

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