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BinderCon LA: A Review

I’m just back from Los Angeles, where the second iteration of BinderCon was held this past weekend on the campus of UCLA. Described by organizers Leigh Stein and Lux Alptraum as “[a] symposium to empower women and gender non‑conforming writers with tools, connections, and strategies to advance their careers,” and by male trolls on twitter as a “militant” man-hating mafia (no, really), BinderCon included keynotes, panels, workshops, speed pitch sessions, and plenty of time for socialization.

I’m a pretty critical person. If you know me, you might consider me to be the most critical person you know, and I’m ok with that. When I criticize, it’s because I really believe things and people can be and do better. But even I can’t find anything to criticize about this conference. In fact, of all the conferences I’ve ever attended–and I’ve been to a lot–this one is, hands-down, the very best, and here’s why:

1. It is extremely well-organized.
If you ever attend a conference and pay close attention to the organizers, they always look harried and frazzled and seriously stressed, and there is inevitably something that goes wrong. This wasn’t the case at BinderCon. Stein and Alptraum were always busy, but they were focused and present and had clearly prepared so well that I, at least, wasn’t aware of a single hitch. This is likely due to the fact that they had assembled a team of volunteers and arrived on-site a day before to train them. No doubt there were a hundred other actions taken behind the scenes to make sure that things ran smoothly, and that’s what a great conference should do: seem almost effortless from the vantage point of attendees.

2. It makes the conference accessible.
With ticket prices over $100, organizers knew that the conference wouldn’t be financially accessible to everyone who wanted to attend, so it made scholarships available. Twenty-two of the participants were scholarship recipients.

3. It sets a tone for attendees.
I’ve been to plenty of conferences that felt like a loosely held together jumble of presentations, all to be passively sopped up by attendees. At BinderCon, participants were invited to engage repeatedly, and in multiple ways. For one thing, they all agreed (by virtue of being there) to a code of conduct, which established an atmosphere of collegiality and respect. Organizers made a phone number available to which participants could send a text if they experienced a code of conduct violation. But the tone-setting went beyond that, and was reinforced in multiple ways via multiple media. Inside the conference agenda, participants were encouraged to be friendly (engaging other writers), responsible, and bold, owning their own space and sharing of themselves generously with others, engaging in challenging conversations, and taking breaks if necessary. More than one participant took to twitter to remark on how easy it felt to connect with other attendees, even though they typically found networking events and conferences socially challenging.

The atmosphere of active attendee engagement was also a core feature of panels and workshops. Many workshop facilitators engaged participants not solely through Q&As, but other exercises. The assumption was that everyone had something valid and valuable to share, and I suspect most attendees would agree that their “take-aways” were all the richer as a result. Because I was a panelist, I know that the BinderCon organizers who handled programming planning specifically set out to create this type of environment; it didn’t happen by accident.

4. It wasn’t intended to just inspire.
One of the common features of conferences is that you feel energized by attending– by connecting with like-minded folks who share your interests and by the new knowledge or skills you’ve acquired–but one of the things that typically occurs is that you leave without a sense of how you can apply these things in your life at home. Facilitators and planners were required to create actionable, resourceful take-aways for participants, actually useful tips, strategies, or information that could be applied after the conference ended.

5. Its values were reflected in every aspect of planning and programming.
From the bookseller to the photographer on hand for headshots, supporting women and their work was a value that was evident the entire weekend.

6. Keynotes were conversations, not speeches.
Two of the three conference keynotes, including the first one of the weekend, were conversations, not just speakers pontificating about their own ideas. To me, this was one of the single-most effective ways of establishing a sense of what participants could expect from BinderCon. It was incredibly refreshing to have two powerhouse people in conversation rather than one person plucked from a speakers’ bureau, reading prepared remarks they’d probably read a hundred times before.

7. There was actual diversity in every room.
Lots of conference organizers–like lots of publications–say they want diverse attendees. Far fewer conferences actually DO have diverse attendees. BinderCon could (and should) be a role model in this regard. If you’re a conference organizer, you don’t have to guess at how Stein and Alptraum brought together a diverse spectrum of women and gender non-conforming writers; Alptraum explained the process in this piece she wrote for The Advocate.

8. The conference managed to provide value to writers at various stages in their careers and in various genres.
If you’re not a writer, you might not realize just how much a feat that is. But from inviting writers and editors to host topical tables during a networking lunch (an essayists’ table, travel writers’ table, and freelancers’ table were a few among them) to organizing and offering speed pitch sessions in which writers could connect with editors from magazines as well as literary and screenwriting/TV agents, there really was something for everyone at BinderCon.

9. It provided practical added value.
A few weeks before the conference, after seeing the agenda, I tweeted to organizers that the only thing that might please me more would be if someone was on-site to do headshots for writers. And don’t you know it, they were actually already in the process of identifying a photographer to do just that? A local professional photographer came in on Sunday for headshot sessions (plus free make-up, provided by Glam Squad), offering free headshots… or $25 for non-watermarked portraits. It was a deal.

10. Everything started and ended on time.
Do I even need to say how amazing that is?

The next BinderCon will be held in New York City in November. Learn more here.