Since July of last year, we’ve been deep in planning mode to bring our new vision of the AMC to life after a year in Chrysalis. But just as we were reviewing hundreds of your session proposals, COVID-19 happened. And the global pandemic led us to yet again another transformation: this year’s conference, happening July 23-26 2020, will be completely virtual for the first time in AMC’s history.
AMC co-directors Nadine Marshall and Brenda Hernandez are hard at work making this virtual conference a reality. As co-directors, they are focused on both the Detroit-based conference, now held biannually, as well as “AMSeeds,” or smaller gatherings organized in partnership with local communities.
Read our Q&A with Nadine and Brenda about what it’s been like organizing AMC2020 below!
Why the shift to a co-director leadership structure for AMC2020?
Nadine: One thing that became apparent during the chrysalis was that anyone who was organizing the AMC was kind of having a miserable time. With one primary person orchestrating every single piece of the conference, it gets to be a bit draining. One question we held in chrysalis was how can the magic and joyous nature of the AMC live through for the people that organize it? And in addition to that, we were brainstorming regional convenings. So it became clear that we couldn’t have one person organize both the AMC in Detroit, and also organize the regional gatherings (AMSeeds).
On top of that, the AMC has had co-directors in the past, so we were interested in revisiting that leadership structure, but also adapting it for our needs today.
Many conferences cancelled their programming due to the pandemic. How did you make the decision to hold an entirely virtual conference?
Nadine: I started to pay attention to what was happening with other conferences. The week that we were reviewing session proposals was when SXSW cancelled their conference. And one by one the dominos started falling down. It ultimately came down to two options: we could make the decision to implement a change to virtual or we could just cancel the conference entirely. We still don’t know when it will be safe to gather in large groups again and that’s one of those realities we had to hold. If we kept hoping for an in-person conference in June, we would not have had the time to put it online. The AMC has created the conference space as this “cauldron of ideas” – as adrienne maree brown would say – and if we’re thinking about emergent strategy and being adaptive and holding those principles then this is one of those moments in which we can practice those things.
We always knew there was going to be a portion that would happen virtually, for accessibility and to reduce the carbon footprint of the conference. The difference is now we have to cut our teeth in the virtual sphere a lot faster than we thought. And AMC will never be able to walk it back from this point – the lessons we learn now will apply to 2022 and every conference after that.
Brenda: Just as Nadine was checking out the trajectory of other spaces, we were doing the same thing with AMSeeds. And in organizing locally, it was important to think about and prepare for multiple outcomes and be responsive to each community’s needs. It was like I’m packing bags for different trips and once we know which trip we are going to take, we can take that bag. For example in Chicago, there’s been phases for reopening, but let’s say they open up in September and the virus spikes back, then we go back to phase 1. It’s not a linear experience. We have to think of ways our programs can adapt to what is happening in the public health world.
How does organizing a virtual conference differ from organizing a physical one?
Nadine: One of the most beautiful things about coming together in Detroit are all of our community partners: The Detroit Institute of Arts, New Center Park, Boggs Center, Detroit Historical Museum, Charles H. Wright Museum, etc. There were so many conversations we had, and since we’ve gone virtual there’s a whole part of the organizing that isn’t connected to those Detroit-based partners. For me that’s been one of the biggest challenges.
Another part of organizing I had to grieve was all of the tours. I’m thinking especially about the Eastside tour: “From Growing Our Economy to Growing our Souls.” It’s such a core part of the AMC. There would be no AMC without the Boggs Center, who leads that tour. If we had the capacity to do VR or record these tours, we would, but we had to consider what’s realistic within the timeframe and tools that we have? But the thing that’s been super fun is seeing community members say, “I’m a gamer, maybe I can create this.” People are down to brainstorm and think about new ways to create that vision of the AMC.
Brenda: Zoom fatigue is real… these past few weeks I have been sensing that people are hitting a wall. In the first month there was some level of novelty to it, despite the public health issue, there was this aspect of making the most of being stuck at home. But that novelty is fading away, and people are slowing down and that reality is hitting in a different way. People are needing more time to step away from work and re-prioritize their well being, now that we’re in this for the long haul.
Where do you look for inspiration in the organizing process? What keeps you going?
Brenda: This week what’s been inspirational is learning about all the tools and platforms that are out there, and engaging in the complexity of making a decision for the virtual space for the conference. We’re realizing there’s a big need for equitable and social justice-aligned technologies. There aren’t enough platforms out there that are not tied to big box companies. There’s no way around not using an Amazon server for example. I think people coming to the AMC in a virtual space might be inspired to imagine what’s possible. There was always an urgency to decentralize the internet, but now there’s even more urgency because so many people are on it and trying to do important and sensitive work.
There are independent self hostable video conferencing platforms like Jitsi, but none that have the capacity and features of zoom. We’re looking for some rad folks who are making self-hostable platforms and we’re wondering how can AMP and the AMC support some of that work moving forward?
Nadine: A friend of mine shared this quote from Rebecca Solnit that’s been keeping me inspired:
“In fact, in most disasters most people are calm, resourceful, altruistic, and creative. And civilian bombing campaigns generally fail to break the will of the people, making them a waste as well as a crime against humanity. What startled me about the response to disaster was not the virtue, since virtue is often the result of diligence and dutifulness, but the passionate joy that shined out from accounts by people who had barely survived. These people who had lost everything, who were living in rubble or ruins, had found agency, meaning, community, immediacy in their work together with other survivors. This century of testimony suggested how much we want lives of meaningful engagement, of membership in civil society, and how much societal effort goes into keeping us away from these fullest, most powerful selves. But people return to those selves, those ways of self-organising, as if by instinct when the situation demands it. Thus a disaster is a lot like a revolution when it comes to disruption and improvisation, to new roles and an unnerving or exhilarating sense that now anything is possible.”
This excerpt perfectly explains so much of the AMC and people who are coming to the AMC. I’m really excited to get to the point where this thing is live. I’m excited for the content which is what makes the AMC what it is, and I’m excited to see a beautiful explosion on social media.
What do you do to decompress from the stress of organizing?
Nadine: The gift of this whole pandemic moment is I have read at least 20 books. Reading is part of my self care practice and it’s also part of my practice as a writer. Reading is writing, especially if I wanna get better at my craft, I can get strange in those worlds, I can do all kinds of things.
Brenda: I sit in silence for 30 minutes and look out the window and reconnect with my block. I’ve also become highly domestic…cooking and gardening and landscaping and cleaning. If I’m gonna be home I’m gonna make home my best house. I’m totally nesting.