CONvergence was this past weekend. It was generally wonderful. I was finally able to meet people I’ve admired and interacted with for years. I was able to take some time with old and dear friends and some with newer friends I only see in Beigeland. I enjoyed a parade of cosplay that were works of art and imagination and absurdity, including the tiniest Harley Quinn, who lives only in my memory because she wasn’t there to have her picture taken. I had great discussions with complete strangers that other people seemed to find helpful. I entertained and educated.
I also missed some people I really wanted to see entirely and got to speak only a few words to others. I left a wedding reception early. I let some ugly and harmfully wrong things that were said pass or be marked only with a broad disagreement. I missed out on other discussions I know would have been fascinating. I dealt with a remarkable number of men who implied I was worth more if I didn’t look my age, one of whom–a complete stranger–put his hand on my shoulder “comfortingly” while saying it. I went with little sleep and came home with minor injuries.
All that happened because I volunteered.
Of course, all of CONvergence happens because people volunteer. Between programming, party room set up and clean up, and the parties themselves, I estimate I put in almost 30 hours over the last five days to help make con what it was, and I touched only the tiniest slice of the experience. For example, I didn’t cosplay or spend significant time on con planning. The number of volunteers and amount of time required to make CONvergence a place 6,200 people can attend and generally have a good time and let us all leave behind something other than a wasteland boggles the mind.
Then there’s the amount of work the year-round volunteers put in. I know several of them, past and present, and CONvergence is never something that isn’t on their plate. They build and maintain the framework on which all that other work can be hung to the great effect it is. It is a part-time, unpaid job.
One of those volunteers was fired by the board Friday night. Hal Bichel tweeted at 1 a.m. on Friday that she’d just been removed from the webteam. She had been in charge of the website and is widely credited with making it more accessible. (It was not a few years ago. It was a difficult site to work with even without disabilities.) She did the same with the con in posts like this that codified the culture and practices that make CONvergence so good for so many people.
I don’t know Hal. I don’t know exactly what happened before the firing.
I do know that CONvergence now has a problem.
I spoke to a lot of upset people Saturday and yesterday. I spoke to year-round volunteers reconsidering their commitment to the con. I spoke to former guests of honor and in-demand panelists questioning the competence of the board. I spoke to volunteers I won’t identify more closely than that who feel Hal was fired because her drive to make the website and, thus, the con better was challenging to the board. I saw “Hal is awesome” posted to the walls of the con almost instantly and on Twitter then and now. I heard the word “revolution”. I spoke to someone who feels this decision will tear CONvergence apart.
Yes, nearly all of these people needed more sleep and were exhausted in other ways, but I’ve seen this kind of undercurrent before. As before, I’m terribly afraid the board will underestimate or dismiss the reaction they see. I’m afraid that, if they are capable of making the decision to fire a volunteer of this caliber during con, they are more than capable of thinking this will all blow over, that this is just Hal’s friends being upset. It won’t. It isn’t.
Volunteering is just as at-will as any other kind of employment. No organization is required to keep any volunteer. These things are both true.
However, it is also true that volunteers may walk away at any time. It is also true that volunteers who subject themselves to short nights, extra work, and difficult panelists, audience members, and partygoers are not necessarily willing to subject themselves to disrespect from the organization that benefits from their work and sacrifice. No volunteer has to work for an organization that jerks its volunteers around, particularly during the part of their service that is supposed to be the reward for and fulfillment of all that hard work.
I don’t know what the board needs to do, specifically, to make this right. I do know they need to understand they screwed it up in the delivery even if it was the right decision for reasons I’m not currently aware of. I know they need to listen to what their volunteers need in order to keep CONvergence someplace people want to pour their energy and talents. I know they need to listen particularly to people in positions similar to Hal’s, because those people are now wondering about their own futures with CONvergence.
CONvergence has some of the best volunteers around. I want to see that continue. I sincerely hope the board understands what that will take.