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Diversity Do’s And Dont’s For Conference Organizers

Estimated reading time ~ 4 min
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Founder and CEO of Yoga Foster, Nicole Cardoza

As the founder of Yoga Foster, a tech-based nonprofit that equips schools with the resources and training to integrate yoga into classrooms, I'm often asked to speak at conferences. Event organizers reach out to me with invitations to participate in panels on entrepreneurship, technology, wellness, and education, and I’m usually honored to be included – but not always.

The exception is when I know — and have at times been explicitly told — that I’m invited to participate at the last minute simply because my presence helps events appear more diverse.

I’m always happy to share my perspective when there's inherent value, but as a woman of color, I resent being included solely for the sake of the photos. And, as a woman of color at the helm of a company that’s building a tech product, that happens far too often. In those instances, I politely decline the invitation because my tacked-on participation – or that of any minority – cannot alleviate a lack of organic diversity. Speakers need to feel welcomed, supported, and valued.

So, how do I separate the inauthentic requests from the genuine ones? First, I ask: Will this opportunity help me elevate what I care most about? Is it directly and strategically aligned with my vision? If so, I say yes. To get more of those yeses (and not just from me), conference organizers must work to cultivate true inclusion and diversity.

Here’s my list of do’s and don’t for them.

DO: Focus on curating panels for perspectives, not photos.

The diversity of a conference as it appears in photos should come second to the actual diversity of backgrounds, perspectives, ideas, and inspirations presented. Focus on finding a range of speakers with genuinely varied experiences instead of peppering in a token person of color, woman, religious minority, etc. In your research, consider the panel members individually; look into the steps they took when building their companies, the types of responsibilities they might have in their daily roles, and the moments in their lives that shaped them. If each panelist has a distinct outlook and/or set of experiences, your audience will benefit from that breadth.

DON’T: Treat minority speakers differently.

Conference speakers deserve to be acknowledged for their contributions, monetarily and otherwise. Don’t bring on "diverse" speakers with the intention of paying them less or inviting them to participate only when another "minority" speaker slot occupied falls through. It’s also unwise to simply promise “exposure” or, worse yet, the opportunity to inspire “people like them” with their story. Acknowledge us for our time and talent as you would anyone else.

DO: Create an inclusive space.

Sometimes conference organizers, as well intentioned as they may be, realize when the programs are about to go to the printer that they have a diversity problem. Trying to introduce some semblance of diversity at the last minute is often unnatural and readily apparent (not just to the speakers, but to the attendees as well). A few ways to help plan for an inclusive event from the start:

  • Ensure that you’re making the conference as accessible as possible to a wide range of attendees, whether that means checking your sponsors’ commitments to diversity and inclusivity through their products and services and/or making sure your venue is physically accessible.
  • Make the bathrooms gender neutral.
  • See to it that any swag bags or universal attendee giveaways are useful to everyone, regardless of their gender or ethnicity.
  • Let attendees choose whether to preface their names with “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” “Ms.,” “Miss,” or something else.
  • Check to see if your own conference staff aligns with the inclusive space you want to create.
  • Include stock photography that honors diversity and representation in presentations and printed materials.
  • Be aware of ideas related to your industry that assume universal norms of access, equity, or freedoms.

This mindfulness should be built into the fabric of your event, not tacked on toward that final stage of planning.

DON’T: Ask diverse people just to speak on diversity.

This is all too common of a pitfall for conference organizers, however well-intentioned, trying to make their events more diverse

People from historically underrepresented backgrounds may absolutely have an interesting perspective on what diversity and inclusion looks like, but that doesn’t make all of us the most-qualified candidates to lead the conversation. More importantly, keep in mind that just because someone has a certain minority lens or experience doesn't mean they are bound to be particularly and/or exclusively interested in speaking on diversity. Maybe they would rather share the story of their life’s work. If you ask speakers to speak on what they’re most passionate about, their content will shine most brightly.

DO: Get feedback.

If you’re wondering how to effectively reach a new audience, ask them. Bring diverse voices and perspectives into your decision-making process. Create an informal group whose members can provide feedback on all aspects of your conference as it develops. And, yes, ask for their support when reviewing and choosing speakers. Do they have any recommendations? What conversations and topics do they find most engaging? A culturally-responsive framework helps to ensure these initiatives develop and come to life in an authentic manner.

Some additional resources:

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