Facing Race Leadership Series: Creating an Inclusive Conference

By Jennifer L. Pozner Nov 03, 2016

In November, just two days after Election Day, 2,000 racial justice activists, artists, writers, and scholars will gather in Atlanta at “Facing Race,” the eighth conference of Race Forward, Colorlines’ publisher. Here, Rosana Cruz, Race Forward’s Leadership Action Network Director, shares how she has been working to create a robust, inclusive space for attendees.

Jennifer L. Pozner: Facing Race’s 2016 inclusion guide is extremely in-depth, offering physical accessibility, all-gender bathrooms, scent sensitivity, guide dogs, breastfeeding spaces, childcare, a safety team, and more. Why have you built this level of inclusivity into the conference?
Rosana Cruz:
We really strive to create this inclusive space because we believe the goals of racial equity aren’t abstract from people’s lives. As an organization, we have to fight for racial equity and justice inclusively; our work is explicitly about race, but race is not the only factor when people are fighting oppression. People of color have a variety of needs across the racial justice movement. We’re thoughtful about the needs of the trans community, for example, making all gender bathrooms available. We want parents to know that they have a place they can bring their kids, and where parents can nurse and pump. Modeling this kind of space is a way we live our values as an organization.


Pozner: Your amenities for parents are more comprehensive than I’m used to seeing even at feminist conferences: childcare, family rooms for nursing and pumping. How this has evolved, and why?
Cruz: The planning team includes parents of color and queer-identified parents, so that’s definitely a factor — but it’s also a reflection of the movement. If you think about the folks most impacted by racial justice issues, the large percentage of the folks at the forefront are mothers, or parents. Previously, a lot of social justice movements, even including feminist spaces, operated with a narrow interpretation of who was making up certain movements. As we try to expand and be responsive to and recognize the potential of the movement we gather, we recognize that creating a space for parents means that people who haven’t always been recognized they will be more able to access Facing Race because of these amenities. In environmental justice, immigrant rights, LGBTQ, and other sectors, parents are playing a vital role in movement work. Making sure parents’ needs are met at Facing Race is a reflection of how the movement is changing.

Pozner: You’re offering a Safety Team this year. How will they mediate conflicts and meet the safety needs of Facing Race attendees?
Cruz: The kind of culture we’re trying to create at the conference is a beautiful thing. Facing Race has evolved from being mostly experts and veterans of the racial justice movement to a space for a lot of novices, including white folks who are new to racial justice work. The conference attendance will inevitably include people who make mistakes, across race lines and other forms of identity. As we create an inclusive and intentional space, we need to be able to learn, and mess up, and learn from messing up, while at the same time being really disciplined and committed to transforming the forms of oppression that we bring with us into the conference. There are a couple ways we do that. First, our basic starting principle: just be explicit, name the problem. Our tips invite people to be aware of and check their privilege, and to engage each other directly in thoughtfully, in forthright, straightforward ways. We encourage kindness.

At the same time, there’s a possibility of conflict. So, we have a safety team — a group based in Atlanta we’ve seen work at other conferences — who will be embedded at Facing Race to create a practice of safety and reconciliation to address harm in ways rooted in the principles of the conference, as opposed to a harm-and-punishment retaliatory model. The team will be on call for any of the normal kinds of things that can happen when any group of 2,000 people gather in the same place (for example, if something goes missing, or verbal altercations), as an alternative to calling hotel security or police.

Pozner: You mention what a welcoming space Facing Race is… It seems that you’ve gone to great lengths to make the conference financially accessible as well.
Cruz: It’s important for our values to make it possible for people to attend Facing Race, whatever their means. As part of our efforts, we offer scholarships, volunteer spots, and we carefully consider all costs to attendees. This is our biggest Facing Race ever — jumping from 1600 attendees in 2014 to 2,000 attendees this year — but we managed to keep ticket prices the same as 2014 levels. Also, more than 25% of paid tickets are subsidized for students, folks who are underemployed, or paying out of pocket, made possible by our sponsors. Welcoming everyone who care about racial justice is part of what makes the Facing Race community so powerful.

Pozner: Tell me about the wellness spaces.
Cruz: We have four different spaces that comprise the “wellness cluster.” We have a team of healers available for different healing modalities, for folks to acknowledge the heaviness and the pain of racial injustice we carry around with us that can manifest in physical and emotional ways. We have a meditation room. We’ve added a movement room for folks to self-organize activities where they get to move their bodies take care of themselves through physical activities. And, we have a new faith practices room for religious activities.

Pozner: Will sign language and/or ESL translation be available in sessions and plenaries? And, what does physical accessibility look like at Facing Race?

Cruz: We’re still in the process of working to fulfill our aspiration of being a fully inclusive space, so we can broaden the reach of the conference to vital sectors of the movement. In the past we’ve offered language interpretation in plenaries, but those resources haven’t been as robust in breakout sessions. This year, we will offer ASL interpretation and Spanish language simultaneous interpretation for all the main stage events and will provide breakout session interpretation by request, as available.

There’s always an accessible entry into all workshop and plenary areas. Every place important to the conference is wheelchair accessible. Some workshops are happening in a pavilion separate from the main building of the hotel — it has a chair lift. We still need to do more work on making the conference accessible to people with visual impairments, since Facing Race is so text and visual heavy. We’re also looking for input from folks about their accessibility experience and needs for future conferences, and any sponsorship we can receive will go a long way to making more comprehensive services possible.

Pozner: Are there any other ways you work to make Facing Race accessible?
Cruz: One thing that makes Facing Race different from other racial justice gatherings is that we lean heavily on culture. We believe arts, music, dance, and film help us heal and help us resist racial oppression — and that art is another way we can offer inclusive spaces. Visual art is inclusive in terms of language access: people can find common experiences, find themselves reflected, express themselves. Our art gallery, film festival, and other arts-focused content will be in one big hall together this year, and we have performances woven through all the mainstage presentations. Our conference theme this year is “Our Stories, Our Solutions,” and sharing arts, media, culture is an important part of that work.