Crafty’s Adventures at NOMCON

Going into NOMCON I had a few hopes and dreams. For once, I had left room for the unexpected, which is no easy feat for a action-oriented, order-loving person like myself. The experience was better than my preconceived notions. Meeting people, moving the conversation forward and learning things I could never have imagined about other people’s experiences was by far the best take-away.

I also have some critical feedback about two aspects of the conference: Inclusion and the Ambassadors Program. I am motivated to share this feedback because I think it might be productive (and some folks asked). My feedback, like all feedback, is mired in my own perspectives, and biased by my expectations.

I am a long time Bay Area artist and maker and for the last 3 years have been president at Ace Monster Toys makerspace. If you have never met me, let me share: I am light-brown-skinned cisgendered woman with physical limitations. I’m no stranger to lack of privilege, but I am also very privileged. If there was a scale, I would say I’m somewhere in the middle between being utterly SOL and a old rich white man. Much of the inclusion content in sessions, speeches, and talks was framed as if I needed to be “woke” to the basics of inclusion. With all the time spent in the “wake up” space, there was very little time to get past that to more pragmatic brainstorming or deeper discussion. Yes, I understand the purpose of having fundamental conversations about inclusion, and think those conversations deserved space at NOMCOM. I just wish there had been room for more dimension in the conversations. I had hoped to learn strategies about things like:

  • How to teach inclusive behaviors/culture to  homogeneous groups in order to attract diverse people.
  • How to attract women, poc, and LGBTQ folks without tokenizing or being patronizing.
  • How to get beyond the mirror-ball of your own social media to reach more diverse people.
  • How to avoid tasking your one or two diverse members with all the social labor of creating an inclusive culture.
  • How to best retain and celebrate diversity when you have it as to not lose it.
  • What inclusion looks like when you cannot and don’t want be all things to all people.
  • Growing in diversity when starting a space (aka co-creating) vs creating change for inclusivity in established spaces.

I heard precious little about white people or men, and when I did hear about them, it was usually to lament that there were “too many” or “they needed to be schooled.” I have a rough time with that. There is a concept of “meeting people where they are” that felt like it was missing from the conversation. I know these are difficult conversations to be having, and we don’t’ know how to have them, let alone get them right. That inclusivity was the theme and a primary topic was impressive, and one of my main drivers for attending NOMCON 2018.

I did come away with a few really amazing positives. The first was representation: I learned that if we want to look inclusive (one of the first steps to being inclusive), make sure that diverse folks are represented in our space. We have a upcoming “Make art for the space” day at Ace Monster Toys  and I am deeply inspired now to make my art about women makers. When it came to my personal experiences, with being included I was blown away by how kind people were about my mobility issues. Never once did I feel left behind or like dead weight.

My critical feedback on the NOM Ambassadors Program is much more pragmatic. Going in, I questioned the program. It seemed like once again some group was appointing themselves the default authority that was going to unify and add taxonomy to all these things called [pick the name you like here: hackerspace, makerspace, fablab, etc.]. I talked to a lot of people about it, read up about it, and learned the history of why it was what it was. A few of the key thing I learned about Ambassadors are:

  • Being a NOM Ambassadors comes with legitimacy and authority in some settings. Example: in some regions, the NOM brand carries weight with state, county, and city officials, perhaps even foundations and corporate funding folks.
  • Ambassadors were picked at random from a flawed data set.

To be clear, I think the decisions that were made, and what was created, was done with the best of intentions, in the best way possible with the resource limitations and information available at the time.

I could continue to deep dive on what didn’t make sense to me about what happened during formation of the Ambassadors Program, and how it has played out so far, but I won’t. Instead I would like to spend time talking about where we want to go for the future and what I am looking for from NOM.

I think the Ambassador Program is fundamentally a flawed model and needs to be reimagined. Please consider:

  • Avoiding a framework that appoints representatives. Even self appointed representatives should be avoided. I can say with confidence that I and my community have a lot of “feels” when it comes to people we had no say in selecting present themselves to the world as speaking for us.
  • Start with goals for the program before designing a framework. The idea of Ambassadors by State is very much a framework but to what end?
  • Incubating small regional hubs before trying to overlay a top-down structure that smacks of governance. The concept of having regional hubs does not have to be mutually exclusive with state ambassadors. It turns out there are several successful regional hubs in already existence.

NOMCON 2018 was really good. My experience included surprises, challenges, learning and best of all connecting. I cannot thank everyone who worked on putting it together enough. I very much look forward continuing the conversation and coming together again next year for NOMCON 2019.