Post by Jennifer Shirk, Caren Cooper, and Anne Bowser
The CSA is returning to North Carolina for our 2019 Conference after a 2017 boycott of discriminatory laws. Returning is complicated, both politically and financially, and is a decision that our board has discussed extensively these last few years. Here we strive to be up front about the factors at play, and what is in the works to keep our values at the fore.
In 2016, CSA’s then Chair Greg Newman first explained the decision to move, which was, “… based on our firm believe that our conferences ought to be held in locations and in ways that welcome all people into a safe space to discuss and advance the field of citizen science.” Greg also explained the care and consideration that went into this decision, noting, “… we found ourselves thrown into many tasks such as surveying our membership and community of practice to gather your feedback; communicating openly and transparently about our process and progress; gathering as much data and information as we could on various financial liabilities; working with our local host planning committee to gain insights and advice; and reaching out to our own working groups – specifically our Integrity, Diversity, and Equity; Ethics; and Conference Working Groups – to solicit their opinions and guidance.”
A subsequent post by Board alum Raj Pandya called “Setting the table: An open letter to North Carolina” further addressed how this decision necessitated CSA’s return to Raleigh in 2019. In this post, Raj mentions financial reasons (“… rebooking for 2019 was the only way we could get out of 2017 venue contracts without huge financial penalties”) as well as pragmatism. He writes, “If moving in protest doesn’t work in 2017, we will try a different approach in 2019– partnering with local activisits, highlighting the contributions LGBTQ communities [make] to citizen science, and promoting citizen science that advances LGBTQ priorities.” The entire political landscape in NC and nationwide is different now and different tactics are needed, tactics that unify allies and provide more resources and support to allies, rather than keeping allies isolated.
CSA stands by our initial decision to host CitSci2019 in Raleigh, as well as our call to act and commit to supporting our core values of diversity and equity by working with LGBTQ communities. Recognizing also our value of transparency, we are writing this to try peel back the layers of what has led to this choice. These details are relevant to why we are returning to a state where in-name-only policy improvements still leave many people marginalized and unsafe, and where boycotts in light of this are upheld by other states, banning state-employee travel there. Although finances are by far not the only thing to consider in our return to the state, we feel it important to make this information available as context to why we are returning to North Carolina. We also write with a call to action for how make our return to the state.
Our original contracts for 2017 – to three hotels and the City’s Convention Center – were for over $400,000 of business in rooms and catering. To leave the state outright, CSA faced $143,162 in cancellation fees – something that this organization, with an operating budget (in FY’18) of $83,468– could not cover. When given the option to rebook in Raleigh for 2019, we felt this gave us the opportunity to contribute to the moral and financial impact of a boycott, and gave the state time to respond to the boycott with more just laws.
It is important to note – to the credit of the three hotels and the City of Raleigh – that these venues could have held us to paying the cancellation fees. They made this choice at their own financial risk for 2017 – in other words, they willingly went along with the financial consequences of our boycott of the state. For this, we are grateful, and appreciate that they helped us contribute to what some have estimated was a 3.7 billion dollar hit to the state’s economy.
By taking the option to postpone the event, CSA did need to sign contracts to return to Raleigh in 2019. These contracts now (after some negotiation) commit us to fulfilling just over $310,000 worth of business to two hotels and the Convention Center. Per the terms of our contract, were we to cancel outright at this point we would still owe 75% of the anticipated revenue to the hotels: over $200K.
Also, in the time since these contracts were written, the whole business model of travel has changed. We are locked into 2015-era hotel contracts in a 2018/19 world of AirBnB’s. We learned this in Saint Paul, where we did not meet our hotel commitments and faced over $20,000 of fees for unfilled rooms (we are ever grateful for the patience of those hotels, generous and creative local partners, and our booking agent, who helped us address these commitments through other means). Nonetheless, in Raleigh CSA has signed contracts committing us to over $260,000 to two hotels, whether or not our attendees fill the rooms.
This does leave us in a bind regarding the remaining travel bans for some state employees to travel to North Carolina. We do not want to undermine the power and utility of such remaining boycotts, as we do not want to encourage (implicitly or otherwise) policies that we find abhorrent. We also face financial risk if we decide to facilitate remote participation, and limit who books Raleigh hotels.
So for CSA, the question is not whether we hold the conference in North Carolina. We are committed, both by finances– moving again would be an existential risk for our young Association– and to our patient partners in Raleigh. Instead, the question becomes how we hold the event there to uphold the values of CSA’s board and members, which initially motivated the move, and also to respect the values and basic rights of individuals.
We need to not miss the opportunity, articulated by Raj Pandya in 2017, to intentionally pay attention to equity and justice in the way we hold this event. Members of the citizen science community are already mobilized to bring leadership and momentum to ideas for improving this event and CSA’s work more broadly. Here are several efforts already underway:
- Drafting a Code of Conduct (for CitSci2019 and eventually for CSA) – read more about codes of conduct at meetings
- Visioning actions for equity at CitSci2019 – discussion here
- Reflecting equity and justice in conference symposia, workshops, and talks – share the call for proposals and sign up to review
- Discussing options for employees of states boycotting travel to NC
If you are interested in contributing to this conversation and efforts, please don’t hesitate to reach out. The passion, commitments, and creativity of this community are what move ideas – and this organization – forward. You can contact the organization and conference leadership with questions, ideas, or concerns via email@example.com, or reach Interim Executive Director Jennifer Shirk via firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Note that the comments feature on our blog has been temporarily disabled in the wake of a website hack – for public comment, feel free to Tweet us @CitSciAssoc]