Founder's Forum: The Future of ConTessa
I apologize for being quiet since the election. It’s been a tough time for forward-thinking progressives looking for a more diverse and interesting world and equal rights for everyone. It’s one thing to deal with systemic bigotry and ingrained bias. It’s another thing entirely to deal with an incoming president and staff who actively and openly talk about you like you’re a second class citizen and advocate policy that would ensure you remain firmly marginalized. It was a gut punch, and talking about it here has been difficult for two reasons.
First, I’ve made it a personal rule not to downplay what’s happened. It’s terrible, and there are too many people out there trying to tell folks who are deeply and personally affected by this to just ‘get over it’. I won’t be one of them. We will move forward again, but it will take sustained effort, and there's no doubt that social equality efforts will take a step or four backwards.
Secondly, I’m very careful with my approach on this site. Many things have changed about ConTessa since we started out four years ago, but that hasn’t changed. Our purpose is to create a space in gaming that is open and welcome to people who feel anxious about whether or not they’d be welcome anywhere else, especially when it comes to conventions where you don’t know most of the people at the table. To that end, I try to make what we talk about here uplifting and positive. There are plenty of repositories on the internet for horror stories about the community and industry - plenty of reasons not to become a creator or get fully engaged within the community, but there are very few giving you reasons to become a creator or fully engage.
Those reasons cancel each other out. I can’t put a positive spin on what’s happened, and I won’t try to add a silver lining. The coming years are going to be tough in many ways for a whole lot of people. That’s a fact. It’s difficult and draining to be a marginalized person in a creative arena currently. There’s a certain amount of creative energy and time that inevitably gets sucked away by your need to fight for the right to even be in that arena. Current events mean even more of that time and even more of that energy is going to be pulled away.
I can’t be completely positive, but I can tell you how we’re going to help ease your troubles, maybe regain some of that space, time, and energy, and do some covert activism through healthy representation in the process.
This is what ConTessa was built for. We’re not strictly an activist organization. We don’t organize boycotts, protests, or advocate for lobbying politicians on individual subjects. We don’t publish articles meant to shine a light on problematic areas of gaming, and we don’t take stances against specific personalities or brands. This isn't to say there's anything wrong with being a strictly activist organization, that's just not our goal.
What we do ends up falling under the umbrella of ‘activism’ because we promote the power of representation. At ConTessa, we increase diversity within the gaming community by creating conventions-within-conventions. Programs of games, panels, and workshops led by a diverse group of people who gain support from our leadership, other ConTessans, and of course the thousands of people of all stripes who show up to play in our games, watch our panels, and participate in our workshops.
That’s a pretty big lead-up to the announcement I’m about to make, but it’s an important lead-up. We’re in the business of giving people confidence to use their voices and claim their space. We avoid content that’s primarily focused on how to be an activist or that’s intended for a non-marginalized audience to learn how to create for the marginalized. Those things are already being done by many other groups, and that's not our target audience. Instead, our content revolves around how your experience has informed the creator you’ve become with the purpose of using those experiences to inspire and energize others like you.
I’ve been thinking about expanding ConTessa for some time. This past year, I had our first question about whether or not non-binary people are allowed to run games at ConTessa events. After some thought, the answer ended up being ‘Yes, of course’, but with the reservation that they’d have to not mind being in a largely women-oriented organization. At the same time, I added wording to our ‘About’ page stating we’d do the same for any gay men that wanted to participate, but it sincerely bugs the crap out of me that they’d be participating in an organization billed and branded as ‘by women’.
I looked at that irritation as an opportunity, and decided it was time to expand ConTessa, but at the time I imagined us changing to suit all marginalized voices in a slow change that would happen over the next few years. The first step was to add a second game night to ConTessa’s Gen Con schedule where ConTessa would be sponsoring a diversity night open to all marginalized people. That work started only a couple of months after this year’s Gen Con and well before the election. After the election, though, everything changed. I spent a wonderful weekend representing both Swords & Wizardry and ConTessa in Michigan at U-Con and came back feeling empowered and ready to, and then Gen Con offered us enough space (if we can fill it) to run several ConTessa events all weekend long at Gen Con 50.
ConTessa is About Representation
From here on out, ConTessa is open to all marginalized people. That mainly means women, people of color, and anyone anywhere on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. These are loose categories, and we will always lean towards more inclusion over less inclusion, but I think the categories are important because one of the things we like to do is give people a space where they can meet other people like them with similar interests.
To accomplish this, we’ll have the overall umbrella of ConTessa, where events will be comprised of anyone from any marginalized group, and we’ll have three branches to facilitate events centered around three main groups:
ConTessa Women: This is essentially what we have right now. If the overall event is labeled with ‘ConTessa Women’, it means that all the games or panels within that event are led by women.
QueerTessa: We’ve had a strong LGBTQ+ presence at our other offerings, but now we’re setting aside a space specifically for queer ConTessans of all stripes. Games and panels that appear under ‘QueerTessa’ are all led by queer people.
ConTessans of Color: This is the space where I’d like to grow the most. All games and panels at ConTessans of Color events will be led by people of color.
It's important to note that we're not going to be looking under skirts or checking to see which marginalized group you belong to when submitting games or panels to be run at ConTessa events. The only thing we do is add a checkbox at the end of our submission forms to make sure you understand our requirements. That's it.
At Gen Con, ConTessa Women’s Game Night will represent on Thursday night, ConTessans of Color Game Day on Friday afternoon, and QueerTessa Pride Night on Saturday night. All other blocks during the convention will be open to all marginalized people and themed around types of game or around specific initiatives. We’ll release the full schedule once we’ve finalized everything with Gen Con!
As always, anyone is welcome to play at any of our games, and attend (or sit on) any of our panels. Our ‘marginalized’ requirement only applies to leadership - GMs and moderators.
In order to accomplish this goal (we have space to run hundreds of game at Gen Con this year), we’ve picked up a couple of new staff members! Emily and Bailey have recently joined myself, Darcy, and Ethel as full time staff members. Emily will be spearheading getting the blog up and running again with frequent updates, and Bailey will be handling a smorgasbord of goodies, but mainly our social media presence.
I'll give you an opportunity to meet Emily and Bailey soon through new staff interviews, but I am super grateful for their passion and dedication. Volunteers can be hard to find, but absolutely necessary to pull off the kind of big events we hope in the future.
At the moment, we have one online convention and two in-person conventions planned for 2017.
In February, we will be running ConTessa's Big Gay OnCon, making a return to the online convention stage. We'd previously put online conventions on hold due to Google+'s terrible degradation in service and abandonment of events while we looked at other solutions. In February, we'll be trying out a service called Warhorn for the scheduling of events, and we will no longer require events to be run via Hangouts on Air. Events can be run on any platform the GM wishes: Hangouts, Skype, Roll20, Discord, Appear.in, Fantasy Grounds, and anything else out there I don't already know about. Look for recruiting for this to happen soon!
Our biggest presence will be in a space at Gen Con 50 in Indianapolis August 17th - 20th. Unlike our previous two years at Gen Con, we'll have our own, dedicated space with 20 tables, and we'll be filling several blocks of games in that space as well as running LARPs, panels, and workshops in other parts of the convention. As such, we'll need a lot more GMs and a lot more staff, but we'll also have a lot more GM badges to give away to our wonderful volunteers! Recruiting for these events will start soon, as well!
We had such a great time last month at U-Con that we'll also be making it an annual stop! U-Con is a fantastic, open, and diverse volunteer-run convention held in Michigan, near Ann Arbor. Next year's convention will be from November 16th through the 18th. Look for our recruitment announcements sometime in the late summer / early fall as we start to set up events for this one.
Lastly, we're working on both finding the funding and the staff to hit up a few more conventions. Our short list contains: Geek Girl Con, Origins, Metatopia, and Big Bad Con. Being able to extend to these other conventions will entirely rely on whether or not we can raise the money for our expenses.
Want to know how you can help get us to all the places we want to go? There are many things we need to make all this happen. Because we're a gaming group/organization and not a publisher, we rely on donations and the purchase of our merchandise to fund our conventions, so the more we can raise the more we can do, the more places we can go, and the more representation we can spread!
At present, ConTessan Mandy Morbid has volunteered to run a GoFundMe campaign to pull in as many funds as we can. Coming soon, we'll also have opportunities to purchase T-Shirts, lanyards, and other goodies.
In addition, ConTessa runs entirely on the donated time of volunteers (myself included). Take a look at our 'Get Involved' page to see all our options for volunteering and staying up to date on all we're doing.
ConTessa has now been around for four years (we started in November of 2012). In that time, we've run hundreds of events attended by thousands of gamers, and added dozens of new voices to the industry. We've tried dozens of initiatives, succeeded at several of them, learned what we do best and where, and we've adapted to the changing environment several times. I'm very proud of what we've accomplished, and thrilled to see how far we've come in such a very short time.
The people who come to our events are some of the best in the community. My favorite part about running ConTessa events at conventions is talking to all the people who participate and run our events. It's very special to me when people come and sit down next to me, and tell me their story as a gamer. They're all unique, precious, and perfect stories, and they are the fuel that keeps me going even though there are times when being the founder of an organization like ConTessa feels like being target practice for trolls.
Because of ConTessa, I walk away from every convention with a huge smile on my face, a deep sense of love, satisfaction, hope for the future, and a whole bag of stories to share with others. Those who know me know that I'm an incredibly emotional person. At every convention ConTessa has represented at, I've had to take some time alone to cry with joy over everything that I see and hear.
Representation is power and vulnerability all at once. Every time a ConTessan leads an event, they make themselves vulnerable by representing who they are, and every person who goes to our events with an open heart and an open mind makes themselves vulnerable, too. Standing against the tide of hate hand-in-hand, unwilling to budge, unwilling to be someone we aren't. Being vulnerable together is power that changes the world.
You may think that just running a game at one of our events isn't enough to turn the tide, but I promise you, it is. Every person who's run a ConTessa event has touched - and changed - many lives. I can't tell you how many people have told me they've been empowered to create because they saw someone like them GMing at one of our events - there are too many to count. All you have to do is show up and run a game, and lives change, become enriched, become better. Your vulnerability, your power, your willingness to try something new and break out of the box you've been stuffed in inspires others in ways that change their lives forever. Never forget that.
With all my love, and all my hope for the future,
Stacy Dellorfano (firstname.lastname@example.org)
PS: I've got a lot of work to do on the 'About' pages and throughout ConTessa to line up with our expanded mission. There will be updates as I continue working on it. :)