Hal and CONvergence 2015: A Summary
I’ve been putting off writing about what happened to me at CONvergence 2015 for a myriad of reasons. I know a lot of people have heard rumors about it with varying degrees of accuracy. But I made the choice to keep a lid on it. It was a calculated choice, and it was my choice to make.
In the heat of the blowback and amidst all the rumors, I remained publicly silent because I felt the reaction (and any resulting press) to what had happened would damage the organization and the community in ways negating a lot of the work I’ve been doing over the last several years. I also felt it would be detrimental to any efforts towards an amicable resolution and the salvaging of productive and positive working relationships within CONvergence’s Convention Committee. Lastly, I did not want to paint a virtual target on the back of the individual ultimately responsible for how I was treated—I’m aware that my social network is not insignificant, and the possibility of something I said catalyzing the harassment of someone else, regardless of what he might have done, was not an option.
If you happen to know the identity of this person, do not let me catch you giving him grief. This all is passed now. I’m moving on; you should too.
However, it is very important for me to talk about it if I want to put it behind me, and the ticking over of a new year is forcing my hand. So I’m going to share enough for me to do that, but not more—basically for the reasons listed above. Since the beginning of this whole affair, I have been forthright about sharing transcripts with anyone in the community who asks, so if you feel it’s important to you to see these transcripts, just let me know and I will send them to you. While there is plenty I’d like to protect, I ultimately don’t have anything to hide.
This is going to be long, because there’s background information to give the whole thing context, and because I’m verbose when writing about personal things. So if you randomly clicked over here and aren’t particularly invested…
How to start? Okay. First, an overview of what I actually do and have done for CONvergence. This is not comprehensive, because that would be a lot longer. But it should give you good idea of the relevant things.
CREATED CONVERGENCE YOUTUBE CHANNELS
Prior to 2012 I was a member of the CONvergence Video/CVG-TV department, as I had a background in video production and of all the organization’s departments, that one was—and still is—the one most desperately in need of skilled volunteers. I was relatively rank-and-file at this point, but eventually was identified as someone who actually does things (anyone with experience in volunteer organizations understands this) and promoted. At this time, the whole department revolved around the production and mastering of DVDs, and I did that for a couple years. In 2011, I requested sales numbers of DVDs from the Merchandise department and discovered they were abysmal. It turned out we were spending several hundred hours and hundreds of dollars per year to produce DVDs that only about 15 people were actually buying. Well, that was just about the poorest use of resources I could imagine. So I put forth the proposal that the video department start seeing itself not as producing a product, but as a public relations & communications service, and part of that should be releasing video content for free online. I created the convention’s YouTube channels. I also managed them until my time was eaten up by other tasks for the convention . . .
DEALT WITH CONVERGENCE’S FACEBOOK
Quite a lot of people are aware of this because being a group admin is a very public role, and generally this is probably the context in which a lot of people in the CONvergence community actually know me. Here’s the short version: the CONvergence Facebook group was a fan-run group that the organization had no control over prior to 2012, but much of the public assumed was official. The group had no posted rules, and was chaos, with lots of spam and lots of people being really crappy to each other darn near constantly. It was a huge PR and branding problem for the convention and pretty toxic for the community. After the organization got control of the group, thanks to Sarah Morningstar, and I was not too much later (for reasons I won’t get into) de facto put in charge, I began to roll out what was essentially a three year plan to transform it to an environment that would be an asset to the community. I’m not going to list it all out in detail here, but I’m happy to talk about it whenever.
DESIGNED, DEVELOPED, AND WROTE CONVERGENCE WEBSITE
MANAGING CONVERGENCE’S SOCIAL MEDIA
Remember the three year plan I mentioned? Well, it took three years. Fortunately I had a great team of moderators to help keep it rolling. Additionally, I established the standard operating process of scheduled tweets/posts on the CONvergence Facebook page and @CONvergenceCon during the convention, and the creation of additional social media properties: CONvergence Connections, @CONvergenceLive, @CVG_Reminders. Pulled in a co-head, the amazing Meredith McDonald, to help manage the Social Media department so I could focus more on the website. Thank goodness for Meredith.
CONVERGENCE WEBSITE MANAGEMENT
With the help of long-time CONvergence Webteam admin Charlie Horne, who primarily does the very necessary grunt work of keeping dates and forms updated, copying things into the archive, and other housekeeping, I took up managing the CONvergence website. Nearly all of the updates to the CONvergence website, including edits to pages, creation of new pages, and news updates, were written by me. In the professional world, this job is called a “content manager”—a person who ensures an organization’s website is updated uniformly throughout, so that there is no conflicting or outdated information anywhere; a person who makes sure all content is up to the same standard in terms of accessibility, organization, style, and voice; a person who is strategic about what information goes where and why, in terms both of usability and SEO. Doing this job requires quite a lot of institutional knowledge and it is a specialized skill. Without a content manager, you end up with, well, CONvergence’s confusing, pre-2013 mishmash of a website.
FOCUS ON ACCESSIBILTIY & INCLUSION
While researching to write the Accessibility page for the CONvergence website, I learned all the ways in which we needed to do better. I endeavored to make the CONvergence website accessible, to use inclusive language throughout CONvergence’s web presence (both on the website and social media), and even worked in calls for disability awareness and gender inclusiveness here and there, just as a normal matter of business. But real systemic change was needed, not just one person and not just words. I’m a methodical weirdo, so I developed a three-part plan to execute over roughly two years:
- Research convention accessibility, for which I created a Facebook group (Fans For Accessible Conventions) to bring accessibility advocates in the global con running community together, and for which I visited with accessibility departments at other conventions. I spent much of 2014 doing this.
- Work directly with a few CONvergence departments to help them improve their accessibility for CONvergence 2015. I reached out to a couple department heads. This was proof of concept for a formalized process I intended to propose.
- Bring all this information to the convention committee in order to facilitate the creation of an Accessibility & Inclusion department.
I want to be clear here: nobody asked me to do this. I don’t think any of CONvergence’s leadership was even aware that I was executing this plan, and that was intentional. Sometimes change is top-down, and sometimes it’s bottom-up. Given CONvergence’s history with accessibility and my own history operating within the structure of the CONvergence organization, it seemed to me that the latter would be more effective in this case.
CREATED PASS AROUND GAME
Yeah, that was me too. I’d heard there were no plans for a pass around game for CONvergence 2015, so I proposed one.
2015 TO TODAY
HELPING WITH GUESTS OF HONOR
In the months leading up to CONvergence 2015, I expressed some concerns about inclusion/representation to the Guests department. Those concerns were recognized as a needed area for improvement. As such, and because I do a lot of networking in certain professional spheres, I was invited to join the CONvergence Guest Search Committee and help develop the Guest of Honor roster for CONvergence 2016 and 2017. I also helped develop and edit the Guest of Honor bios this year, also the result of a concern I’d previously brought up with the Guests department.
CART CAPTIONING PROPOSAL
As part of my efforts to catalyze better accessibility at CONvergence, I worked with Sarah Donovan to put together a 7-page proposal for CART for CONvergence’s closed-circuit TV feed and Mainstage, and we got the go ahead to try to make that happen for CONvergence 2016.
ACCESSIBILITY & INCLUSION DEPARTMENT PROPOSAL
Part three of my plan came to fruition shortly after CONvergence 2015 when I wrote a 10-page proposal for the formation of an Accessibility & Inclusion department and sent it to the entire CONvergence Convention Committee. In the following months, the department was established. I helped it along by providing the resumes of a couple qualified members of the convention committee who I felt would make good co-heads for the new department, and they were appointed. In the following months, I’ve been working with them to help develop the structure and procedures of the new department. We are doing what we can to make CONvergence 2016 more accessible and inclusive, and I think that will be evident at the convention. We are hoping to test some things out during the current convention cycle, and present a very strong front by CONvergence 2017. (We also need more volunteers to make some of these accessibility initiatives happen—watch the CONvergence website for a volunteer call in the coming weeks.)
WEBSITE . . . AGAIN
Still doing the content manager thing for the CONvergence website. It’s very time consuming; writing and editing takes time. I recognize that we need more content managers and copywriters in the department, and have begun to try to recruit people. The CONvergence Webteam needs process and standards documentation badly in order to train the new people. That’s next on my to-do list, and it’s a project I’m not really looking forward to. Then I will start training a team of replacements, so the whole project doesn’t hinge on me doing it. This has always sort of been the plan, similar to what I’ve done with the Social Media department; any process that succeeds or fails on the shoulders of one person is already a failure. Hopefully it’s evident by now that I make multi-year plans. It’s just how you facilitate lasting change in world where process tends to calcify; more jarring attempts so often crash and burn. Slow and steady is how you do it.
There are people within the CONvergence organization who have noticed my activities over the years, but I’m not usually very vocal about it. It’s just shit I have done because I care, and I happen to have the know-how. I’m not in it for the glory and honestly generally prefer to stick in the background as much as possible. But I think that’s part of why things went down as they did; some folks, including some members of the CONvergence Board of Directors, were more or less unaware of just how much my efforts have been a force within the organization, and other folks were very, very aware.
AT CONVERGENCE 2015
CONvergence 2015 started out pretty normal for me, and pretty well. The Transvestite Soup party room, which I help with, was extremely popular. Most of the panels I’d organized were well-attended and great discussions. The CONvergence social media, which I actively help manage during the convention, was reasonably quiet—that’s a very good sign during the event; it means nothing is going wrong. I’d got a couple emails about at-con CONvergence website updates, and replied to them. From my perspective, it was a fairly unremarkable, but good convention weekend.
Here’s a photo Peter Verrant took of me on Friday Afternoon.
At approximately 1:00am on the Friday evening of CONvergence 2015, I received the following email:
Due, in part, to the overwhelming needs of social media and in part due to recent web requests and the method and timing in which they are handled without any escalation discussion (with your director) or discussion with web co-heads, I am re-tasking web team work to alleviate any bottleneck and requesting your presence singularly in social media. To ensure and support this structural change your web access and web email subscriptions have been removed.
It is my sincerest hope that this change will help to alleviate your anxiety level as well as provide the best possible experience for our members and staff.
I appreciate your assistance while we make this change.
This was literally—and I do mean literally—the first I’d heard that there was supposedly a problem with me specifically. Charlie and I in tandem had raised concerns with this individual about his management of our department, which were never answered. And then this.
No discussion with co-heads? Lie. And the reference to my mental health? Are you kidding me?
For this to happen, other CONvergence directors—people with whom I’ve collaborated on this convention for half a decade—had to sign off on it. Ouch.
I felt awful. Really awful. I spent the rest of the convention in my hotel room, mostly just trying to sleep and waiting for the convention to be over, waking up every few hours or so to check on the CONvergence social media accounts, which I was still managing. After the fact, friends said they were impressed I continued to do my social media job for the convention through all of this. But part of my job is a direct interface with the members, and I didn’t think their convention should be affected by what was happening to me, so I tried to be business-as-usual.
I did cry a lot.
I posted about what had happened on a private Facebook group I share with some friends, some of whom are on the CONvergence Convention Committee, and most of whom were attending the convention. News spread pretty fast. Then people started sending me these photos:
After the convention, the Board of Directors sort of doubled down on the decision to fire me in an email sent to the entire convention committee. They didn’t call it that. They said I’d been “asked to refocus my efforts.” But, don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining, guys. I got fired, and it was done in darn near the more inappropriate way possible. I also received a couple non-apologies from board members. This was a total train wreck.
Again to that private Facebook group, I posted transcripts of emails demonstrating that the claims made against me were unfounded and that the situation was handled inappropriately. Others with access to the Facebook group began talking about experiences they’d had but been silent about. We discovered there was a systemic problem within the organization that was going to lead to the committee hemorrhaging volunteers if left unchecked.
Time passed. Silence from the CONvergence Board of Directors.
Before long, I reached out to ask for a meeting with the president of the CONvergence organization, and he agreed. We were each to bring a witness, and our meeting was audio recorded. We decided, given the rumor mill, that doing this was in both of our best interests.
To prepare for the meeting, I asked folks to write their negative experiences with the current CONvergence leadership so I could print them all and present the bigger picture both about the individual who fired me and about the health of the organization to the president. I also printed up email transcripts and chat transcripts that demonstrated both the truth of my own conduct, and the inappropriateness of my firing. Additionally, I printed up a webcomic, and drew a little illustration about project goals to help communicate some points and offer support around the concepts I suspected the organization’s leadership might be grappling with. So I had this whole folder of . . . stuff.
CONvergence’s president said most of the information I provided him was news to the Board of Directors, and later in the year when the Board released their meeting notes, I understood why. The individual who fired me had been telling them his version of the story, which to be honest, I’m not really even sure how to feel about. He said he thought I felt threatened by his authority, and some other stuff. Who knows what else he said I did, or whether he believed it? I’m not inside his head, so I can only guess, and I prefer not to tread that path. Of course, he never talked to me about any of this before firing me.
The president said he’d take all my documentation back to the CONvergence Board of Directors for me. The next I heard from the Board of Directors was an email that they sent to the convention committee to say that the person who fired me had been removed from his position.
I think they thought doing this would put the matter to bed, but that was not the case at all. The problem was not this individual; the problem was that CONvergence had turned into an organization where this kind of thing can happen at all, and now everybody knew it. The ball was already rolling. Over the next two months, three things happned.
First, a group of CONvergence Committee members (of which I was not a part) presented a list of suggestions for addressing the organization’s systemic problems to the entire committee. This was met with a mixed reaction, as quite a few people on the Committee were not aware of what happened to me, nor that there were systemic problems at all. The CONvergence Convention Committee is very large, and some parts of it are rather insular departments that simply haven’t experienced the problems that others have. However and to their credit, the Board of Directors were extremely receptive to the ideas; I think they’d been aware of some of the problems themselves, but just didn’t know how to address them. So that was good.
Second, I was asked to return to my role managing the CONvergence website. I did.
Third, after concerned parties contacted them on my behalf, the CONvergence Board of Directors asked me to a meeting. There I explained the ways in which their actions (both firing me and the subsequent emails concerning my firing that they sent to the CONvergence Convention Committee) damaged the relationships I’d spent years building within the community, and thus impeded my ability to perform my roles as a communication facilitator since all communication exists within the context of trust relationships. Therefore, I requested that they send another email clarifying the situation.
On August 31, 2015, the CONvergence Board of Directors sent the following email to the Convention Committee:
To the CONvergence Convention Committee
On July, 8, 2015, the CONvergence Board of Directors sent ConCom an email containing inaccuracies that need to be corrected.
The email stated that Hal Bichel was asked to focus her efforts on Social Media. However, this wording did not acknowledge that in effect, emotionally, and in reality, Hal Bichel was fired from CONvergence Webteam, one of the two ConCom positions she held at the time. The email also did not acknowledge that the method and timing for her removal was handled poorly, which it was.
To that end, we’d like to clarify that Hal was fired from the Webteam co-head position at approximately 1 a.m. on Friday night\Saturday morning of the convention. Subsequent to that, at the concerns of the convention committee regarding what transpired, the Board of Directors reviewed the situation and determined that an egregious error was made.
As it was determined that Hal’s firing was erroneous, we felt it was appropriate to ask Hal to return to co-heading Web Team. That invitation was issued and Hal did elect to return.
We regret that the July 8 email contained inaccuracies that may have caused confusion about the situation, and we apologize to all concerned. We will strive to, at all levels of the organization, ensure that such errors do not happen in the future.
It is important to us to assert that CONvergence volunteers are not treated this way and we want to make sure they are never treated this way again.
The Convergence Events Board of Directors
SO NOW WHAT?
The silver lining of this situation for CONvergence is not hard to see—Convention Committee members were calling me “Mockingjay” for a while. What happened to me, and how I chose to respond, mobilized committee members with a vigor that’s been missing from the CONvergence con running community for a very long time. It made a lot of people wake up and realize just how much they give a shit about CONvergence, and that nobody else was going to fix its problems for them. We all need to step up to fix the problems. The convention, after all, is our gestalt. Without us, it is nothing at all. When we actually show up, it can be amazing.
Personally, this whole thing knocked the wind out of me. It was suggested that I should just walk away from CONvergence after this, but I feel like that would be expecting the organization to be something it isn’t. What it is, is a volunteer organization made up of people. Every person, including the Board of Directors, is doing this in their spare time, for free, running on limited bandwidth themselves. And people sometimes make mistakes. In this situation, the appropriate response is not admonishment, but compassion. My friends and collaborators made some mistakes and those mistakes hurt me very deeply. I understand why they made those mistakes, though, and that’s why I did my best to help them understand the situation better. It was emotionally challenging to do so, don’t get me wrong. But I believe it was the right thing to do.
That said, my relationship with CONvergence has definitely changed. Before CONvergence 2015, I would prioritize work for CONvergence before work for my other big project, Twin Cities Geek. Now I do it the other way around. Also, my ability to trust the CONvergence Board of Directors has been tarnished, and that saddens me quite a bit. Before CONvergence 2015, I’d never really considered that I’d want to stop working on CONvergence. Now I’m starting to form an exit strategy. But don’t worry—like everything else I plan, it’s probably going to be a slow burn.
This experience has also made me pensive about how I regard myself and how others see me, which is a dichotomy worthy of its own blog post, if I’m honest. Before, I guess I didn’t really care much how others saw me, or at least assumed they saw me how I see myself. Now, I’m not so sure.