Sunday, January 19, 2014

To Charge or Not to Charge? Improving Conference Accessibility for Low-Income Persons

I lived in Fort Collins, Colorado for about four years, which was only a little bit more than an hour away from Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary.  I love PPS, they do amazing work. They are the only explicitly abolitionist sanctuary that I know of.  Not only do they provide immediate relief to farmed animals, but they also work to educate the public, hosting visitations an providing literature for activists.  But in all the four years I lived on the prairies of Colorado, not once did I go visit PPS.

Why?  In addition to the gas money, event tickets usually cost thirty-five dollars or more.  As a person who has lived near or below the poverty line for most of my life, I just couldn't afford it (I grew up poor in Appalachia, survived on student loans and part-time jobs through college, and I currently teach for three universities and make about $10,000 a year).  Neither have I attended any major conferences for that same reason.  I use my tax refund money to afford my yearly pilgrimage to the American Sociological Association's meeting (a requirement for anyone hoping to land an academic career), which costs about $200 for membership, $200-250 for conference admission, and several hundred dollars more for travel and hotel fees.  I've heard that vegan conferences are sadly comparable in cost.

Which is really a bummer, because I would love to attend these conferences.  Like anyone who does animal rights "full-time," I want to learn more, network, and be more involved in the movement.  As a low-income person, that is just not a luxury I get to afford.  Animal rights advocacy is (and has always been) highly correlated with middle-class status.  Many conferences offer scholarships, but they tend to be extremely limited and generally do not cover the entire cost of attendance.

This is why I was so pleased to participate in the Western Ontario Vegan Society's conference on Friday. While the other three speakers were physically there, I was able to participate via Skype by paying $10 for an upgraded account that let me share my screen and present a powerpoint (believe it or not, $10 is still a lot of money for some of us, I ended up having to borrow from my mother).  There was no admission fee, this information was free to the public.  I was happy to present for free (free to viewers and nearly free for me).  For this reason, I am also very excited about my upcoming web-conference that I'm co-hosting with Animal Liberation Ontario.  It is available to those who cannot afford to travel to Canada, and it is also available to those who could not afford a ticket price.  The ALO has decided to make e-tickets donation-based.  For those who can afford it, they are encouraged to chip in.  The ALO is attempting to redistribute those funds to the speakers.  Whatever money I might get is going towards server costs for my vegan advocacy website.

My concern is that so many conferences insist on high ticket prices, and, likewise, some speakers actually require significant monetary compensation before they will participate.  Sometimes this is to cover travel costs, but other times it works like a mandatory donation that will be handed over to the speaker's non-profit of choice.
The tension here is between inclusiveness for low-income persons (a group traditionally marginalized by a largely middle-class movement) and supporting organizations that rely on fundraising for survival.  Where should our activist priorities lie? Should we reach out to those excluded from our outreach efforts or continue to support those already active on behalf of animals?

I am also concerned with the relative power that non-profits hold within the social movement arena.  Unlike individual low-income persons, organizations with non-profit status have a team of dedicated individuals, many of whom have expertise in fundraising and enjoy other resources.  Indeed, non-profits dominate the animal rights landscape.  While I understand that some smaller non-profits majorly rely on donations like this (especially groups like PPS), if I were to place non-profits on a hierarchy of concern with individuals who have been marginalized in our advocacy, I'm going to have to side with the individuals.  I am more concerned about including a diverse group of people, as it is this diversity and alliance-building that is critical for movement success.  Fundraising is important, but it should not be the central focus of our work.

I suggest that our movement is desperately privileged, and this is not a good thing if we seek to reach large-scale influence.  A movement that is mostly white and mostly middle-class is going to have difficulty resonating with the large numbers of persons who do not fit these categories of privilege.  True, organizers for many university-based conferences have the ability to request funds from their institution, but this assumption should consider a few points.  First, student groups tend to be grossly underfunded.  Secondly, Nonhuman Animal rights interests tend to go under appreciated (and even more underfunded).  For that matter, students who are organizing these events oftentimes lack the expertise, time, or social power needed to successfully request monies.

Our movement is highly professionalized.  Professionalization is a product of privilege and also a protector of privilege.  The voices of the vulnerable are systematically silenced.  I believe it would be in our best interest to start actively working to overcome structural barriers that so many of us face.  This is not simply a moral issue, this is a political issue.  Unchecked privilege and a disregard for accessibility will seriously restrict our potential for growth.

Groups should start exploring alternatives that are more welcoming to low-income persons.  And, for those groups that rely on admission fees to survive, it might be prudent to offer sliding scale fees (including free admission).  For those who require a fee to present, I would also encourage them to be mindful of the event's audience.  That is, I'm not sure it's very ethical to refuse participation (if that participation is of no cost to them, as is the case with web-conferences) if the conference organizers cannot guarantee deliverance of certain fees because of their desire to include low-income persons.  Of course, conference organizers should be aware that several funding sources may be available.  Organizers should also consider that, for academic conferences, academics tend to be reimbursed by their department for participating and should not be requiring any payment from the conference.