How We Organize the AMC
This article was written by AMP staff in June 2011 and published in the AMC2011 program booklet. An updated version is forthcoming for AMC2012.
We want to "open source" the process of organizing the AMC. We want to share here our evolving practice for conference organizing and network-cultivation. As conference organizers, we learn so much from the AMC community each year, and we are honored to be able to reflect upon and share some of those lessons. Beyond this document, we want to develop more ways for all of the protagonists in the AMC to share their stories of organizing for, around, and beyond the AMC.
The Allied Media Conference emerges out of 13 years of relationship-building across issues, identities, organizing practices and creative mediums. Since the first conference (then the Midwest Zine Conference) in 1999, people have been compelled by the concept of do-it-yourself media. Later, as the Underground Publishing Conference, our emphasis shifted towards building a movement of alternative media makers. With the shift to Allied Media in 2005, the AMC began to attract more people who are interested in using participatory media as a strategy for social justice organizing.
Allied Media Projects and the AMC moved from its home in Bowling Green, OH to Detroit in 2007. This shift was marked by changes in leadership and organizational priorities. More young people, queer people, people of color and low-income communities were participating in the AMC. More artists and organizers from Detroit were participating, bringing with them the lessons from the city’s creative media and social movements. In moving the conference to Detroit and connecting with the city’s movement legacy and current practices of transformation, AMP began advancing a new model for how national conferences can relate to their host cities. We maintained the best elements of the do-it-yourself culture that had nurtured the AMC in Bowling Green, while fusing it with the social justice priorities of those who were starting to call the AMC home.
With the move to Detroit, the AMC gained more national attention. The SPEAK! women of color bloggers network, which had formed out of a workshop at AMC2006, grew into an entire conference track co-sponsored by the national organization, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. Youth media organizations, primarily from the Midwest, that had participated in the conference since its earlier years, began bringing more of their social justice allies, including groups like the Philadelphia Student Union and Palestine Education Project that wanted to learn how to incorporate media into their organizing strategies, and in turn helped define new practices of media-based youth organizing. Media reform activists saw the AMC as an important teaching and learning space; organizations such as Consumers Union, Free Press, and the Media & Democracy Coalition began sponsoring and participating in the conference in order to engage new communities in media policy issues and also to learn from the creative organizing strategies emerging from the grassroots.
Following the first AMC held in Detroit, in 2007, legendary Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs wrote:
At this conference, a new generation of youthful movement-builders came out of obscurity. Emerging in a special time in which there is an explosion of activity in the fields of alternative media, alternative education, and alternative ways of doing politics, they have accepted the challenge to direct this explosion towards a new movement to transform society.
Every year new national networks of social justice organizers, artists, educators and technologists make the AMC their point of convergence to share skills and develop strategy. Every year we face new challenges and opportunities. As a result, the work of organizing the conference changes constantly, and there is no perfect formula for how we do this work. But we have developed some ways of thinking about our organizing that have proven useful as we produce the AMC every year in a context of constant change and growth.
We think of the AMP Network as an ecosystem and in that context, the conference as a rich, deep soil for cultivating that ecosystem. We are conference-organizer/earthworms, tending to an AMC-soil in which extraordinary things can take root and grow.
We work to identify all of the right care and nutrients needed for our conference community to thrive. We learn of these from the network by embedding cycles of critique and reflection into the AMC organizing process. Some of the organizing lessons from the network are so consistent and widely practiced that they amount to a set of shared network principles. We have articulated these principles, to the best of our ability, so that we can all understand and guide the work we are doing together. You can read the AMP Network Principles here.
The AMC increased by hundreds of participants every year between 2006 and 2010, and the size of Allied Media Projects’ programs and budget grew exponentially each year during that same period. The AMP Network Principles are an important resource in helping use hold our values as we grow in big ways.
We work to make the AMC more accessible to more people each year because we know that our movements suffer without the brilliance of parents, of people with disabilities, of trans & queer people, of non-English speakers, of people living in poverty, of young people and elders, of non-male technologists and everyone else surviving and creating solutions in the face of adversity.
The work of making the AMC accessible changes shape from year to year. In 2007, we introduced childcare, making the AMC accessible to more parents. This evolved into a Kids Track, which integrates children as full participants in the conference. Now, in 2011, we have our first ever Elders track, shifting the AMC to become a more welcoming intergenerational space. We expand access to all types of learners by encouraging the practice of popular education in all tracks of the conference. The AMC’s radio transmitter-building and computer-hacking activities have made technology accessible to non-“techies.” For AMC2011, we now have a whole track around collaborative technology design. The staff at McGregor Conference Center become increasingly accepting of our gender-neutral bathroom with every passing year, and we work towards scent-free spaces wherever possible.
The team of staff and volunteers who manage conference logistics ensure that the conference is as accessible and stress-free as possible. In 2011, the AMC volunteer roles include: childcare, A/V support, accessibility, documentation, registration table, after-party support, translation, and relaxation room. Each of these roles is coordinated by a team captain who solicits volunteers, orients them to their role and creates shift schedules. We thank our volunteers with a post-AMC appreciation party in July.
In 2010, disability justice activists launched Creating Collective Access, an initiative to go beyond the logistics of accessibility, to create a wholly interdependent community of people all working to meet their own and each others’ access needs during the ten days of the AMC2010 and U.S. Social Forum. Creating Collective Access helps us imagine how we can use conference spaces to not only strategize towards the world we want to see, but to actually create it. In that spirit, this year the Eco-Media for Survival & Sustainability Track presents a youth farm-to-table dinner and "solar powered open mic/lens" showcase at AMC2011, practicing the connection between communications and our environment that we need for a sustainable future. The first ever Healing Justice Track of the AMC is holding space for sustainability and wellness throughout the 2011 conference weekend, in the healing practice space and relaxation room. The second iteration of Creating Collective Access will be practiced at AMC2011 as well, as part of the Disability Justice: Creating Wholeness Track.
PARTICIPATORY CONTENT DEVELOPMENT
AMC2011 features 19 participant-organized tracks. Tracks are series of AMC sessions held together by shared practice, interest, issues, and/or identities. Networks of individuals and organizations come together in AMC tracks to advance ongoing organizing and to share strategies for using media, technology, art and creative communications for community problem-solving. AMC tracks are spaces to share success stories, cross-pollinate across networks and to seed new projects and partnerships.
Through the track organizing process, we are able to draw upon the resources of the AMP network to develop and coordinate a huge amount of content for the AMC. Drawing upon this network resource helps keep a low staffing overhead cost for the conference, and develops the decentralized leadership of the network.
Each AMC organizing process begins with reflection on the previous conference. We scour the Internet for blog posts, Twitter comments, photos and videos about the conference and we conduct an online survey of participants, gathering feedback on everything from workshop content to logistics. We listen to the extensive footage that is gathered by our volunteer documentation team and AMC-FM Radio Station. We do phone interviews with track coordinators to assess what they accomplished through their tracks and how they see their work continuing over the coming year.
Throughout the Fall, we solicit and develop new tracks, based on the ideas generated through the feedback and reflection process. We support returning tracks to build upon the lessons and successes of the previous year. For AMC2011, everyone who submitted a track proposal was invited to review and rate all other track proposals. AMC advisers and Allied Media Projects staff also contributed reviews. We asked reviewers to evaluate proposals based upon these criteria: Is this proposal grounded in media, technology, art or other creative communication strategies? Does this proposal align with the AMP Network principles? Does this track build upon the ideas and organizing that came out of past AMCs?
AMP staff synthesized the reviews of each track proposal and made final decisions about how the proposal could be incorporated into the AMC. We worked with track coordinators to finalize the scope and vision of their track, based off reviewer’s comments.
We developed a clear sense of the projected work involved in organizing a track. Our 2011 track organizing process was rigorous, but designed to spread the workload as evenly as possible between January and June. Individuals and all-volunteer organizations were invited to lead many tracks, but because of the projected workload, we strongly recommended that every track be supported by at least one organization who could contribute paid staff time to the organizing process.
We invited AMC2011 track coordinators to a weekend-long planning retreat in Detroit in January. This retreat was a space to deepen the intersections between tracks and share skills in track organizing. The skills we shared included popular education techniques, communications, accessibility, grassroots fundraising and facilitative leadership.
Shortly after the track coordinators meeting in Detroit, we launched the call for session proposals. We used an online form to collect proposals. This began an online workflow moving the proposed session through peer review, editing, collection of logistical information, and ultimately exporting into our web and printed programs. Our session proposal form asked for: title, description, presenter names and bios, kid-friendliness level, travel and housing scholarship requests, and if the proposer wanted to affiliate their session with any of our 19 accepted tracks. We also asked for the name and contact information of a point person who will coordinate the session organizing process in the event that it’s accepted.
For the past few years, we have received roughly twice the number of session proposals as we have space for. To make the hard decisions of which sessions to accept, we engage an extensive network of advisors, made up of track coordinators and other key supporters. In 2011, more than 100 people reviewed session proposals. In their reviews, they were asked to consider: Does this session advance media strategies for a more just and creative world? Is this session aligned with the AMP Network Principles? Does this session build upon ideas from previous AMCs? Track Coordinators then divided the sessions proposed under their track into piles of “absolute yes,” “maybe, if changes are made,” “not for this track, but maybe for somewhere else” or “no, this doesn’t belong at the AMC.” AMP staff reviewed all of the sessions, weighing strongly the recommendations of track coordinators and made final decisions about the content of the AMC.
After we determined the final content of the AMC, we asked each presenter to post an outline of their session to an internal message board on the AMC website. All session presenters had the ability to read through the outlines, exchange workshop formats and activities that will make their sessions as creative, accessible, and interconnected as possible.
The creation of the AMC schedule is the final step in the AMC content development process. We solicited scheduling requests and audio/visual needs, and then assembled a matrix of time slots and room assignments. The AMC2011, grid consists of 11 session blocks each with 12 – 14 room assignments, plus caucuses and off-site activities and tours. In crafting the schedule, we considered: presenter availability, diversity of content within a session block, anticipated audiences for concurrent sessions, room sizes and space requirements, and availability of A/V equipment. We also considered the overall flow of content within a track, and throughout the conference as a whole. We want the AMC to be experienced as a progression through layers of ideas, relationship and strategies. The Opening Ceremony on Friday evening and the Closing Celebration on Sunday provide a frame for these experiences.
The majority of the communities that come to the AMC have little monetary wealth. Each year we’ve become more hands-on in supporting grassroots fundraising efforts that builds on the non-monetary wealth of relationships, experiences and skills in the AMP network to ensure that more people who want to participate in the AMC can.
Beginning in 2009 we became more intentional in supporting the decentralized fundraising of the AMP network. To resource people to get the AMC, we wanted to limit the growth of a centralized AMC scholarship fund, and instead invest in supporting fundraising efforts that would build local groups’ capacity.
In 2010 and 2011, we began offering AMC Track Coordinators $500 seed grants to be used to raise funds to support people in their network to come to the AMC. Track organizers used these seed grants for drag show dance parties, herbal medicine and poster sales campaigns, and anti-apartheid t-shirts. Combined, these efforts have raised funds many times greater than the initial investment. At our planning retreat in January, some of the AMC2011 Track Coordinators produced a guide, "How to Raise at Least $1,000 With a Dance Party,” along with other fundraising success stories and resources. AMP Staff directly supported local fundraising efforts by connecting groups with funders, facilitating planning processes for group travel, assisting with grant writing, and in one instance, traveling to DJ at a fundraising event.
Our success at growing the grassroots fundraising strategies of the AMP Network has been due in large part to the strategic use of seed money from supportive foundations, beginning with the Media Justice Fund of the Funding Exchange in 2005, and continued to date by the Media Democracy Fund, the Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Open Society Foundations.
FUN & BEAUTIFUL THINGS
We put as much thought and care into the evening activities of the conference as we do the daytime activities. We see amazing work and connections in the sessions of the AMC, but lasting relationships are forged on the dance floor, in late night conversations in dorm rooms and in other social spaces that participants create for themselves. When curating the content of the Friday and Saturday evening events, we fill the line-up with Detroit’s incredible community of cultural producers – of emcees, bands, DJs, producers, spoken word artists, cellists, harpists, and more. Our showcases celebrate queerness and genre-defiance. We aspire to create transcendent moments that expand our belief in ourselves and each other!
Our Friday night bowling party is an AMC tradition that persists from our days in Bowling Green, OH, and lives on at Detroit’s historic Garden Bowl, one of the oldest bowling alleys in the country. We bring in a karaoke DJ to the party because we believe that our music should be as participatory as our media!
We prioritize awesome graphic design in all that we do. We want to create a space for people to be inspired and access their inner genius. As Andrea Smith said at the AMC2009 Closing Ceremony:
We need to create a beautiful revolution. When we start to create communities that are beautiful, we start to rethink the way we see ourselves ... What creating a beautiful revolution means, is not just organizing people who have the title ‘artist’ but recognizing the artist within us all, because what we are doing is creating a world that we can’t even fully imagine...and that’s why we need artistic work: to unleash our political imaginary.
THE SHAPE OF AMP TO COME
We’re so excited to be with you here at the AMC, learning from each other and evolving our work. We want to keep sharing ideas and organizing models with you. This article has presented a few fragments from our process. Some day soon, we’ll be launching an official organization blog so that we can share more lessons and learn more directly from you.
We are expanding out website’s message board system, now known as AMPTalk, and we want this to be a space for continuing collaboration, idea and resource exchange. After nearly two years of research and development, we are launching the Allied365 Training & Exchange Bureau, an online catalogue to share the trainings, performances, consultation, and other offerings of the Allied Media Projects network. We are building these infrastructures to enrich our connections year-round between AMCs.
Here in Detroit, we are facilitating the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition and the Detroit Future Media program, working with hundreds of Detroiters to expand our skills in audio and video production, graphic design, web development, and then applying these skills as educators, entrepreneurs and social justice activists. We are building towards a vision of Detroit transformed by creative and community-led media. With your innovations and energy, the AMC community adds fuel to our local projects each year. We hope you have also been enriched by you experience here in Detroit.
Let’s keep sharing, building and creating, together.