Column by Rob Salkowitz
Posted by Rob Salkowitz on August 7, 2017 @ 4:43 pm CT
Crisis on Earth GGC! On Sunday afternoon, members of the GeekGirlCon mailing list were surprised by a message announcing that five members of Convention Operations group responsible for putting on the event had resigned over some serious-sounding issues with Executive Director Michele Domingo and her supporters on the Board of Directors.
According to the then-unnamed insurgents:
"Actions by the ED and by the Board have made the current environment one in which it is impossible for us to continue. Over the last five months, while we worked with the ED and the Board in good faith to resolve the differences, we witnessed bullying, gender discrimination, racism, misuse of charitable funds, and many instances of unethical behavior. We can no longer support this organization’s administration as their recent conduct shows a severe lack of integrity, morality, and respect for its hard-working staff, volunteers and attendees."
The letter outlined several allegations against the organization that sounded like they were tailored to trigger concern among supporters of an event founded on inclusiveness, social justice and integrity. Based on early comments to Facebook and Twitter, it appeared to work, at least initially.
What seemed like a very long hour later, GGC responded with a statement of its own, attempting to put the issue in context: "As a volunteer-powered non-profit organization putting on our seventh con, we recognize that progress and change often come with conflict and differing visions for the organization. It is inevitable to run into disagreement. Despite these growing pains, we are committed to continuing our central mission."
Overnight, as the identities of the members who resigned became public, others with knowledge of the situation took to social media. Portland-based comic creator Audrey Redpath, who appears to have spoken to some of the principals and gained an informed perspective on the situation, fired off a tweetstorm shedding more light on the grievances that inspired the resignations. Redpath observed that the most explosive charge, alleged discrimination, was in fact against white men and women, and suggested that the group of dissenters failed to disclose that for fear that that would not be taken seriously on that basis.
Professionalism, not politics. The GGC situation is complicated and raises a lot of important issues about race, class and intersectionality. But fortunately, you don’t need to parse out the politics to come to a judgment about the right and wrong of the situation. Let’s back up a moment and look at the bigger picture.
GeekGirlCon is one of the more successful fan events to launch in the past decade. The nonprofit was founded to tackle issues of identity and inclusion within geek culture, and features a broad range of programming that looks not just at traditional fan interests like games, comics, manga/anime and entertainment, but also opportunities for women in science, sports and entrepreneurship.
GGC has not only stuck to its mission, but also made strides to address criticism around the narrowness of its agenda by becoming more inclusive of people of color, non-binary gender identities and other marginalized groups. It has grown in attendance each year, and has become a regional destination convention for geeks of every stripe.
Growing pains. The growth and popularity of GGC made it necessary for the organization to evolve in a more professional direction. In February, the Board hired Domingo, an immigration lawyer with a distinguished career and record in equity and inclusion issues, to be GGC’s Executive Director and first salaried staff member.
As anyone who has ever worked for or with a nonprofit can tell you, the transition from volunteer to professional organization is not always smooth. People who contributed to the growth of the organization may feel resentment toward an outsider brought in above them, whose job is to make tough decisions and impose management discipline on previously informal systems. As fair-minded and inclusive as you might want to be in that role, eventually you will piss some people off just because you are the boss and they aren’t.
It’s not unusual for longtime staffers to quit in these circumstances, sometimes in a huff. Sometimes, to really make a statement, they’ll resign in a group. If there’s something actionable, they can call a lawyer. And if they really want to leave a mark, they’ll take their dispute public via social media.
But taking over the organization’s official email to blast out their manifesto after they’ve already quit? Nope. NOPE. In no conceivable universe is that ok.
Scoring an own-goal. The stupidity of the insurgents here is bottomless. First, in the context of an event like GGC, the optics of being a bunch of white folks taking issue with their Filipino boss on issues of discrimination are, as the kids say, "problematic," for all the reasons Redpath and others have laid out.
But for the sake of argument, let’s allow they have a point; it is, after all, theoretically possible that white people could have a legitimate critique of their organization’s POC leader that is not in some way motivated by race and privilege. If Domingo’s management style and decisions really are that bad, the results will be clear when the event takes place in 7-8 weeks.
She’s accountable to the Board, which hired her to make GGC better. If it’s not, she’ll have to answer to them, which is more serious than having to answer to insubordinate subordinates. However now that the malcontents have detonated their shit-bomb, anything that goes wrong with GGC can reasonably said to be their fault, not hers. They basically guaranteed Domingo job security. Nice move.
Finally, even if you don’t have a strong view on the politics or the group dynamics within GGC, they discredited themselves with their tactics. Any organization is well-rid of people who feel entitled to do what they did, no matter how righteous their claims.
Nevertheless, she persisted. GeekGirlCon has always been an important event on the calendar as a statement about the role of women in contemporary fandom and geek culture. In today’s divisive political environment, where female professionals are harassed for posting pictures of themselves drinking milkshakes, it’s absolutely essential. Hopefully the people who left can be replaced, and the damage they attempted to do can be repaired.
Domingo was brought on to professionalize an organization that had previously run only on the enthusiasm of volunteers. She just learned the hard way that one important step is changing the passwords.
Rob Salkowitz (@robsalk) is author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture.
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.
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