Last month I blogged about my experience at the Animal Rights National Conference. This month I’m writing about how I think it could be better.

I have attended several conferences over the years and have consistently had a wonderful and productive time. I expect I will attend next year.

I have several ideas on how the conference could be improved. I’m sharing this with the conference organizers. I hope they find them inspiring and useful. If not, I trust their judgement to make the best conference they can. I have already shared some of the following ideas with the conference organizers, and I will write to them privately to discuss this post.

As you see, I have a lot to say. Here’s the the single most important thing  I’ll say: I recommend organizing the conference with the idea that the attendees need to share with peers. Attendees are already doing critical work to advocate for animals, and the role of the conference is to bring them together so they can feel powerful, have agency, learn from each other, and collaborate as they see fit. There’s good news in this perspective: there isn’t a need to get attendees the ‘right’ information or have the ‘best’ experts give lectures. The key is to facilitate their exchange.

I share this post publicly because it’s not just the conference that I want to change, but I want to encourage activists to think about being involved in the conference and indeed the movement differently.

Before I get into how I recommend changing the conference, here are a few things that I think went well:

  • The conference included more connections with other social movements. For example, all of the awards (Animal Rights Hall of Fame, Henry Spira Grassroots Activist award, etc.) given to women/femmes, including women of color. There were many workshops connecting anti-racism work, pro-LGBT work, and other issues.
  • The conference included talks about burnout and fatigue
  • Although not organized by the conference planners, there was a Gender Equity in Animal Rights conference that preceded the Animal Rights National Conference.
  • The hotel, conference, bar, were all in one place, and that made networking easy
  • The conference planners and leaders were all very enjoyable to work with, and were clearly devoted to the movement

Here are my suggestions on how to improve the conference:

  • Have less programming. This is the easiest thing to implement. I have found that my most productive (and fun) time at the conference is the informal time where I’m talking to people. Sometimes it is unplanned, sometimes I gather with some folks. And if there is less programming, it’s easier to set up the time. The most formal way I’ve done this was organizing with a group of vegfest organizers at two of the conferences. These were my peers working on the most important event of the year for me. The problem was that we had to cut into conference time to gather. Perhaps the programming can go from 9 am to 5 pm each day, with nothing in the evenings and an hour and half lunch break (with no programming during lunch). The best part about this suggestion is that it is less work for the conference organizers!
  • Give speakers their own slots instead of grouping speakers together. This will give more opportunity to have speakers create engaging presentations where attendees can interact with each other and be a part of the process. It’s also easier to write a detailed description of what the speakers will be saying. There may be speakers that would work well for a short talk, so some time slots can be shorter than others. Since the online program is less limited for space, it would be a good place for longer bios and descriptions of the talks. I spoke twice at the conference, each time with other people which limited my opportunity to make the presentation interactive.
  • Instead of most sessions being led by speakers, have facilitators that lead workshops. Following on the above suggestion, when one person leads a session, they are able to lead sessions where there is plenty of interaction.
  • Have longer time slots for these session, perhaps 1.5 or 2 hours. This gives more time to lead workshops. Workshops take a lot of time. For example, if you ask a group of 40 people to break into 10 groups of four people, that alone can take several minutes! And pulling them back together takes a few more.
  • Find ways for conference attendees to connect with the people they want. This could be based on geography, issue interest (e.g. animals used in entertainment), skill interest (e.g. fundraising), programmatic interest (e.g. leafleting), and other ways that attendees can determine themselves. As I mentioned before, I helped organize a gathering of vegfest planners (but we had to cut into conference time).
  • Perhaps have some networking time with rooms set aside for different interest groups to help facilitate attendees connecting with each other. Have light facilitation that helps people interact, and limit the number of people in each room to make it manageable. For rooms that will likely be more popular, have multiple rooms (e.g. farm animal sanctuary activists rooms 1 and 2). Maybe have fast pitches (people can sign up for 1 minute talks to explain an idea or project) here for people to congregate.
  • Prioritize speakers / facilitators that are the highest quality, rather than people who cover various issue groups or constituencies. For example, It is ok if facilitators who are advocating for circus animals get more time if their workshop will be of a high quality. This could even include speakers who are not directly involved in the animal protection movement but bring valuable skills or advice! This could also be an opportunity for movement bridge building, to bring somebody in, say, from a anti-sexual violence organization who cares about animals and can teach our movement about fundraising.
  • Use an app like Sched that gives the chance to give electronic feedback immediately. (Admittedly, I do not know how these apps are in terms of the back end). Getting feedback quickly can help get a better sense of which workshops and activities are of high quality.
  • Have a workshop for men and masculine folks about how to be good allies. Have this be accountable to women, femmes, nonbinary folks. Perhaps have a full day workshop with space for people who identify as men to be vulnerable, grow, and learn. I would be interested in helping to plan such an event!
  • This year’s conference included a truth-telling session about sexual harassment, but it was not formally part of the agenda and was not well attended. Make this part of the conference agenda.
  • In the future, host the conference in different cities like Seattle, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago to make it more affordable for people in different parts of the country to attend.
  • This idea and the next two are from Dave Rolsky: Give all attendees a sort of “bingo card” where the goal is to fill in all the squares with people’s initials. The squares are things like “first time conference attendee”, “attendee from Europe”, “employee of an animal advocacy org”, “visited a farm sanctuary”, etc. The idea is that this gives people some conversation starters. When you fill in your card you can turn it in to be entered in a prize drawing.
  • Have a wiki for the conference for attendees to will post ideas here and others sign up to join the Birds of a Feather, then the person who first posted it sets a time & place. Typically these happen in the evening or over lunch.
  • Similarly, the wiki can be used to organize social outings. A person can pick a restaurant, make a reservation, and people sign up. Dave and I both have attended post-conference animal sanctuary tours, organized and attended by conference attendees.
  • Use more technologies for attendees to connect with each other such as an online discussion forum, a slack group chat, a Facebook forum or some other online way for people to connect. This year they had a Facebook group for attendees.
  • To reduce the problem of hero-worship, where we see the movement’s success hinging upon a small number of charismatic people, recruit speakers who promote collaboration, co-operation, raising the voices of others and making them look good.
  • Include other organizations in planning the conference instead of the conference being organized by one person. Including women, queer, trans, working class people, people of color as well as organizations and people who are working on other social justice issues can be an opportunity to connect with other social justice issues.
  • Disinvite Alex Hershaft. Leadership transitions are important in organizations, and Alex has a history of sexual harassment and the conference is best served without his presence.
  • Include more talks about practical skills like fundraising, event planning, or running a college group.

In writing this post, I received a lot of input from other folks, including Lisa Rimmert, Julie Knopp, and other women and femmes.

While long, this post is by no means comprehensive! In particular, I had hoped to write more about how to connect with other social justice issues. I am grateful that others are doing this work and I hope to write more about this in the future.

I have deep respect for the conference and I understand it’s an enormous task to plan the conference. I write this post with a desire to make a more powerful animal protection movement. I am grateful for all the dedication and hard work of the conference organizers and all they have accomplished for the animals.

For the comments, please see the original post on my old blog.