Two weeks ago I wrote an open letter to the AWP (The Association of Writers and Writing Programs) about my experience at their conference earlier this year and a response to recent goings-on that has cast a harsh (yet necessary) look at the organization, its conference and how it operates. (For a summary of what happened read my open letter and for a post responding to what happened recently as well as a treasure trove of links click here.)
I emailed a copy of the letter to the Executive Board of Trustees. Writing the letter was not about ranting or discussing a “hot topic” that week – it was about opening (or participating in) a dialogue that needed to take place. I felt like a lot of people were being silent on the issues brought up within the last month – the Executive Board included. I felt like a lot of the people who weren’t being silent were shouting or even if they weren’t shouting, would come across as shouting. I didn’t want to shout, but I wasn’t going to lead with niceties and worry about people’s feelings more than worrying about being truthful. Change is hard and the truth can be harsh, and both were needed. Both still are needed.
I emailed the six individuals that I did because they seemed to be the inner sanctum of the organization’s governance. I didn’t want to just reach out to the Chair of the Board, but I also felt like reaching out to every person in the organization’s leadership would be seen as shrill – that’s a couple dozen people after all.
I wasn’t expecting much, but I was hoping that something would happen. Someone would listen, and perhaps the beginnings of change would be seen. Something might happen…
Within 24 hours, three of the six people I reached out to replied back to me. Two of them were form letter responses that were so generic I don’t even think they bothered reading my email beyond the first paragraph. Both emails, while different, stated the same pieces of information and nothing more.
- Thank you for contacting me, your feedback is valuable.
- David Fenza apologizing was a first step.
- You’ll find we are changing for the better – please check out our website in the future to see how.
Not exactly inspiring. Neither of the responses even acknowledged my experience. Neither seemed particularly interested in having a dialogue, which I do believe is necessary in order for things to change. And while both seemed to find my feedback “valuable” they both stated I should wait and check out the website to see what changes they decided to make. My biggest response was, “How do they know what changes need to be made? Shouldn’t they be having a conversation with people whose experiences they are trying to improve?”
But the third response was different. It was short, but I wasn’t expecting a novel-length reply. First, the responder apologized for my experience, and said as a member of the Executive Committee he is committed to working with staff to improve the conference for all who attend. First thing he did was acknowledge me, and what I had to say. Yes – that was needed and up to this point had been lacking. Then rather than telling me to check out a website, he encouraged me to become involved with the newly formed disability caucus. He tried to include me in the change. Yes – that was another difference, and one that mattered. And no, he did not tell me that David Fenza’s apology was first step – he didn’t mention it at all. Anyone who has been following along can probably guess why. He also did not tell me to wait and check out the AWP website.
The following day, the two final Board members (with the exception of Fenza) got back to me. Again, both of these responders were like the third person. The first thing they did was acknowledge and affirm my experiences while stating that change was obviously needed. Neither of them told me to wait around and check out a website. They both mentioned the disability caucus, and the Chair of the Board (one of the two responders) stated she wanted to have a dialogue with me. It was an invitation. Rather than throwing me in with all of the other voices, some angry, others frustrated, all valid – she said, “Let’s talk. I want to hear from you.”
I never had a clear goal in mind when I wrote my letter. I had an ideal agenda:
- That David Fenza apologize to Laura Mullen and the community as a whole. (He did the following day, no it had nothing to do with my letter, but the timing was literally the following morning, so I added an update to my letter stating he did apologize.)
- That at least one disability panel be accepted.
- That a dialogue occurs and changes made so there would not be anymore ADA violations at their annual conference. (I experienced at least three myself.)
I didn’t expect any of these things to happen. But by the end of the week, the first one had, and the third one looked like it might be beginning. Sadly, it also made it seem like the second was going to be completely ignored and was a lost cause.
Three days later, the conference director reached out on behalf of David Fenza. Now I never expected Fenza himself to reply to me, based on his actions. In my letter I made the comment of keeping him on a short leash, because from a PR standpoint he was a disaster – he first bullied a woman and tried to intimidate her when she asked about panel selection transparency, and then he defended a piece that was written by someone who was on the panel selection committee. The piece itself was vile: racist, homophobic and yet it was actually targeting people with disabilities. He defended the very piece, in which he has a starring role shooting Indians. Obviously, not a lot of sense when it comes to publicity. So I was genuinely surprised that anyone reached out on his behalf, but there it was.
That response was the longest, and also the most substantial. It acknowledged my experiences, but it also stated specific changes (many not on the website yet) that were going to take place. Changes I, and others, have suggested. He stated how many panel proposals there were, how many were accepted, and how many were disability-focused (four including the caucus, but I don’t view that as a panel and that was accepted, so three). This small number of proposals does not change my view that they should have the best of those three present at the next conference, but I see an unwillingness to do anything with that, so I’m going to put it away for a minute (because I can’t promise I’ll drop it, but I can set it aside for now).
One thing that was mentioned was that it was suggested that panelists who refuse to accommodate those they reasonably can (and are legally required to) will face some sort of penalty. I strongly support this – and I feel it needs to happen. While some of my accommodations fell on the AWP as a whole, using my receiver so that I could hear presenters, fell entirely on the panelists. And many were not keen on using it, some vehemently refused. But legally they are required – period.
I could be a bitch. I could make a scene. I could take out my phone and record them saying that they were refusing to accommodate me and then post it on social media right then and there. I could contact the person’s place of employment with a copy of the video. I could state loudly that they need to accommodate me as required by federal law or enjoy the legal fallout when I sue. I could do any of these things. I could do all of these things. But I don’t want to do any of them. And why should I have to?
One thing that is so glaringly clear is that a lot of people try to present at the AWP conference. It’s an honor and a privilege to be selected – it is not a right. So if a panelist refuses to accommodate someone when they can, and are legally required to, they should not be allowed to present – period. The panel will survive sans a single panelist. If the entire panel is refusing, then the panel should be canceled. No penalties needed – it is that simple.
I would think the AWP would be all over this because while the AWP does not have the staff to attend each panel, and make sure the panelists are doing what they need to, they are liable when panelists don’t. Any ADA complaints, any legal action the organization takes on. From that standpoint, they should have no problem drilling such expectations into all panelists and moderators for all of their events. Accommodate participants with disabilities or prepare to have your event canceled. End of story. And they should post this on their website. They should make sure any and all participants know that if they are not being accommodated and the panelists are able to accommodate them but are choosing not to – that is unacceptable. And don’t let the panel go forward.
Personally, I don’t think it would ever come to that. People want to present – being on a panel is a big deal. Why throw all of that away just to break a federal law and discriminate against someone with a disability? See, when it’s put like that (and that’s exactly what it is) everything seems pretty clear. I don’t think anyone is stupid enough to cross that line once someone draws the line. But the AWP hasn’t done that in the past, and hopefully going forward they will. I really do believe a zero-tolerance policy for events taking place needs to be instituted and common knowledge among panelists, moderators and attendees.
I wrote all six people back, but I only received two responses, and one was for a form letter. (If they take the time to write me a form letter response, I can write them a form letter back.) Unfortunately, the conference director still had not responded to me, which is disappointing because he had the most to say, and as the conference director – his say means a lot. I know the staff is small, so I am hoping he is just behind and in the next few days I will hear back. Otherwise, it feels like what happened when I made arrangements for my accommodations all over again: An initial positive response that is followed by nothing but crickets chirping. Last time it was a lot of hot air.
The initial response was positive, but it’s the follow-up responses that really make the difference in having a dialogue and demonstrating they’re not just saying what they think they need to say, because while they need to say it, they need to mean it too.