Ten Lessons Learned from Organizing Diversity-Focused Events

Here are some methods I've learned over the past two years to create well-attended, diverse events.

by Catt Small on October 29th, 2014

In order to create an event with diverse speakers and attendees, you need to push outside your comfort zone, ask a lot of questions, and fail a lot of times. Instead of just focusing on ticket sales, we should build events that make people from diverse backgrounds feel safe and confident to attend.

Many events I’ve organized over the past two years within the tech and games industries have been focused on diversity. Two of my most well-known contributions to the New York scene are Tech Under Thirty, a meetup focused on connecting young adults in the tech industry, and The Code Liberation Foundation, a free initiative to teach women to program video games. Tech Under Thirty has hosted 11 events and is composed of over 350 members. Code Liberation has taught over 190 hours of game development using eight different tools. Both groups regularly hold events that garner attendees from varied ethnicities and backgrounds.

Drawing of a person kicking through a glass ceiling.

Here are some methods I’ve learned over the past two years to create well-attended, diverse events.

1) Create a simple, straightforward anti-harassment policy.

Anti-harassment policies are especially important for events centered around topics like gender and sexuality, but are also beneficial for other kinds of events and meetups. In general, they help to establish boundaries and let people know what to do in the case that someone is being harassed.

Your policy doesn’t have to be five pages long — the policy for the Super Love Jam, a game jam I organized about sexuality, gender identity, and relationships, was only 3 paragraphs. Your policy does, however, have to show that your event takes a clear stance against any form of harassment and that there are consequences for violating the policy such as disqualification, being ejected from the premises, and/or getting reported to the authorities.

2) Help attendees be inclusive.

Even if your event has all-gender bathrooms and name tags with preferred pronouns on them, bad things can still happen due to ignorance. Some attendees might not understand microaggressions. One great way to ensure that an inclusive event will go well is to provide tips for inclusivity in the form of an introduction presentation.

Some things we covered in our tips for inclusivity were the use of positive terminology, having empathy for others, and avoiding labels and stereotypes. These tips were shown on a single slide and elaborated on in the presentation.

An introduction presentation is also a great time to mention your event’s anti-harassment policy and who to talk to in the case that someone violates it – that way, no one can say they didn’t know about it!

3) Offer alternatives for people who don’t or can’t participate in certain activities.

Make it easy for people to feel included rather than judged or ignored. Buy gluten-free, nut-free, and dairy-free snacks for events when possible, especially long events like hackathons. If you order from a restaurant, send a survey around beforehand asking if anyone has food allergies or dietary restrictions. Place water, soda, and juice options in the same area as alcohol at social events. Additionally, provide more than just beer when there is alcohol; some might prefer wine, cider, or cocktails.

Events centered around grabbing alcohol and walking up to people can be awkward and frustrating for some. Besides mixers and talks, Tech Under Thirty also holds events that allow people to connect with each other in pressure-free environments. Events of this kind include activities such as playing board games, presenting side projects to peers, and collaborative drawing. We switch between mixers, talks, and alternate styles of events often so that all Tech Under Thirty members have the opportunity to build their network.

4) Reach out to other communities not only for attendees, but also advice.

Do as much outreach as you can to make sure people have no reason to refuse to attend your event, and ask for feedback once it’s over so you can learn what was done well and what wasn’t. In addition to reaching out to LGBTQ gamer meetups around New York City, I asked Different Games for advice regarding ways to make the Super Love Jam a more inclusive event. In Tech Under Thirty’s signup form, we ask what types of events people would prefer to attend in order to make sure we’re catering to our audience. And at the end of each Code Liberation workshop and series of classes, we send out a feedback form to make future classes even better. Each event you organize is a learning experience.

5) Make events free or low-cost.

Even a $10 fee prohibits people from attending your event – that money could be going toward paying for food, clothing, or a phone bill. Tech Under Thirty attracts people from different classes by keeping our events free. Code Liberation’s events have been increasingly diverse because we don’t charge attendees and offer loaner laptops for those who can’t afford their own.

It’s likely that your attendance-to-RSVP ratio will get smaller because people are less committed to attending free events. Tech Under Thirty has about a 50% attendance rate on a good day. If this worries you, consider offering a sliding-scale ticket price so those who can afford to will pay (and therefore more likely show up). If you’re worried about funding your event without ticket sales, see below.

6) Be persistent and creative to get funding.

Cold-emailing isn’t the best way to get sponsorship or donations, but it can work. Tech Under Thirty was started without any capital and is still running without any, despite the number of emails I sent to companies that should be supporting young adults getting into the tech industry. The Super Love Jam, on the other hand, was funded by MailChimp. We also contacted many other companies, but most rejected us or didn’t respond.

Many companies have contact forms where you can submit requests for event sponsorship. Companies usually take weeks if not months to respond, so plan your event several months in advance. If that’s not possible, consider allowing people to donate small amounts of money to support your group. Code Liberation has a donate button on its website and allows people to donate during registration for events and classes.

If you’re unable to get funding and need a venue, reach out to companies that might be open to hosting your event for free. Bootcamps, schools, and startups looking to hire are likely to have space available. You may have to reach out to many companies before one agrees to help, so be persistent. Besides email, request help on Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of social media – Tech Under Thirty once found a free space after posting on Twitter.

7) Find new speakers and teachers within your audience.

There are so many people with interesting ideas. Instead of only inviting people you know and top industry professionals to speak at your events, provide a platform for new professionals to build their speaking ability. This practice will increase the diversity of people in the industry with visibility.

Tech Under Thirty regularly asks attendees to propose talks and show off their work. Two successful presentations by previous attendees were about entrepreneurship and the user experience of cars. We also hosted a side project show-and-tell event that went incredibly well and encouraged attendees to experiment with technology in new ways.

Code Liberation encourages students to help each other, become teaching assistants, and eventually teach their own game development classes. One of our students, Fatima Zenine Villanueva, had little experience with programming and is now a computer science major with teaching and speaking experience. In 2014 alone, she has spoken at 3 industry events. We plan to continue this process with other students as well in the hopes that new voices get heard in the industry.

8) Connect people and encourage mentorship.

A figure drawing lines to connect diverse faces to each other.

Events are often about creating and/or bettering a community of people. Get to know your attendees and their interests so you can connect them to new opportunities. If someone reaches out to you with an opportunity you can’t take and you don’t know at least one person to recommend, you should connect with more people at your events.

Mentorship and guidance is important when you organize events, especially classes and conferences. Code Liberation students often reach out to us with questions about various topics. We share as much knowledge as possible and put them in touch with people who can help them even more. Hopefully, these students will pay it forward in the future!

9) Collaborate with other groups.

Interested in creating an event about something you don’t normally cover? Try partnering with another community. There are many ways groups can work together to solve common goals.

Black Girls Code teaches young girls of color to code, and Code Liberation teaches young women and adults to program video games. We are joining forces to organize a short game jam for girls. Black Girls Code knows best about working with young girls, and Code Liberation is well-versed in game development. Through collaboration, we can make something truly great for our communities.

10) Accept failure and fear.

Events won’t always go well, and it’s likely that you’ll make mistakes. Acknowledging this fact will make you a stronger person and a better event organizer. Own up to your failures, learn from them, and make sure they won’t happen again in the future.

The first event I organized wasn’t that great, and neither was my first teaching experience. I have a fear of public speaking and rampant Impostor Syndrome. Despite those impediments, I continued because regret for inactivity is stronger than any other kind.

Failure is natural; it’s impossible to be successful all the time. Practice, persistence, and humility will help you conquer fear and improve your event organization skills. If you have an idea for an event, don’t be afraid – just do it.