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Growing Pains, Opportunity for Nation's Most Influential Queer Gathering

Why Everyone Wants to Go to the Creating Change Conference

The National LGBTQ Task Force has been bringing thinkers together at the Creating Change conference since 1988. This year's event may be the most important one yet.

It's been called life-changing, inspirational, chaotic, and most often transformational, all at the same time. It's an essential gathering for support, strategizing, learning, and creating a vision for the way forward, especially as this country is facing a political lunge to the far right after this election.

The event is the Task Force's Creating Change Conference, and it is needed now more than ever.

This annual event is where you can experience the liberating feeling of being surrounded by thousands of other LGBTQ people and allies for the first time, the exhilaration of a late-night debate about the hottest issue of the day, and the joy of developing lifetime friendships. It started with just 300 people in 1988 and now attracts more than 4,000. Attending Creating Change has become a rite of passage for many in the LGBTQ community. Tens of thousands of people have been trained and mobilized in the last 29 years, and they in turn have influenced millions.

Our next conference will be in Philadelphia in January 2017 -- the weekend of the inauguration of the most right-wing and anti-LGBTQ presidential administration in our nation's recent history. Conference participants will again play an essential role in working with others on how our movement will meet the challenges ahead. As we take on these challenges together, the conference itself is about to evolve for new generations of change makers. We know, together, we can continue to progress. We can move forward as long as we do not let our enemies divide us. We need spaces like Creating Change now more than ever.

If you've been to Creating Change and loved it, you might be saying to yourself, Why evolve at all? Well, there are a number of reasons, including the conference has grown significantly in size and scope; it has changed from a conference of primarily LGBTQ-focused movement leaders and activists to a broader social justice conference with people from multiple movements; and a lot has changed in the LGBTQ movement, in progressive activism, and the country in the last nine years since our last adaptation of the conference.

Over the last 10 months, the Task Force has undertaken a comprehensive review of the conference, engaging a broad range of stakeholders. The insights we've gained from this review are needed now more than ever, because of the political situation we are up against -- which is like nothing we've dealt with before. The review described several core strengths of the conference: the breadth of issues that affect the lives of LGBTQ people; its forward-thinking approach; its emphasis on intersectionality; and the experiential way attendees build their knowledge, skills, and strategies through their interactions with advocates and activists from across the country. The review showed an appreciation for Task Force staff and their hard work in producing the conference with an attention to detail including gender-neutral bathrooms, intentional inclusivity, self-care resources, and the centering of voices from often marginalized communities. The review found participants describe their experience of the conference as more of a family gathering or a family reunion than a conference.

As one of its strengths, Creating Change is also one of the most diverse gatherings in the entire LGBTQ movement. Last year alone, the conference participant demographics included 45 percent people of color; 50 percent under 30 years old; 27 percent trans/gender-nonconforming; 30 percent with a household income less than $35,000; and 8 percent straight/heterosexual.

Of course, with success come challenges and the imperative to evolve and adapt. The conference has grown by over 1,000 percent since its inception and we've not significantly increased the staff capacity to produce it. Some of the ways we produced a smaller conference simply don't work for a larger scale.

We know we've made mistakes, mistakes which we seek to learn from and correct.

It's not just the size that presents an opportunity to adapt. It also has to do with supporting the evolution of new generations of activism, a renewed focus on social justice work that reflects the connectedness of issues and identities, and the increasingly hostile political climate, which isn't likely to be short-lived. Also, we've intentionally made it a space where we invite the 4,000 attendees to bring their whole selves -- to "be you" openly and proudly. And, sometimes those whole selves come into conflict with each other.

Some of the challenges we face -- and the mistakes we can make because of them -- manifested at Creating Change in Chicago this past January. Our mistakes included initially scheduling a caucus session with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials (which we then canceled) and the handling of a reception by A Wider Bridge and protests of the reception. These mistakes alone gave the false impression that we supported ICE's policies, when we do not, and drew us into the Israel-Palestine conflict, a dispute that we don't have a position on. Bottom line: Our mistakes led to pain and fear not only for those directly involved but also for the many who are affected by these issues. We regret and apologize for our mistakes and are determined to prevent them moving forward. Our errors also highlighted some of the areas for improvement that we are now working to systematically address.

The recommendations from the review are both short- and long-term in their scope, including a complete reimagining of the conference and making it at least break even financially. We will undertake work on the longer-term recommendations starting in February, following this year's conference. We've posted the consultant's report on our Creating Change website. As for the near-term recommendations, we have already put into place a number of changes that are intended to improve the conference experience as we all gather in Philadelphia in January, which are described in our Action Plan.

For example:

Programming: In response to criticism about the proposal selection process as well as a major increase in the number of submitted proposals, we have created a more robust and inclusive review process for programing proposals, including expanding the use of expert reviewers in all topic areas. Also, we will be programming 75 percent of the 2017 conference toward the Task Force's organizational priorities to provide more programmatic cohesion.

Safety planning: In response to incidents at last year's Creating Change as well as the increase in violence and hate crimes towards LGBTQ people and people of color since then, we'll have an increased focus on physical safety and security measures.

Protest guidelines: We are creating protest guidelines that take into account the safety of our attendees while supporting thoughtful debate and freedom of expression.

Physical space: All major components of the conference -- sessions, receptions, and plenaries -- are being reviewed to ensure there is ample space for 4,000 attendees to participate in events safely.

Creating a culture of welcome, respect and community: We will be communicating the type of conference community we intend to create through our registration welcome language (https://www.creatingchange.org/registration/), from the plenary stage, and throughout the conference.

If one thing is true about Creating Change, it is that it has and must continue to adapt as the social and political context changes. We must use the conference not only to respond to that change but to proactively compel progress and the visionary leadership of thousands of people across the country. Creating Change should always be a space where you can "be you" with complete candor, where we can express political disagreements and differences while at the same time holding our respect for and interdependence with each other.

The stakes are very high for our ability to work together as activists, as we prepare the 29th Creating Change Conference. The future of our movement and this country require our smartest most strategic work to challenge the threats to our progress and to democracy and to insist on a future that expands freedoms, not restricts them. We are a powerful force for good, and we will achieve freedom together. Our community has faced horrible odds and has been under siege before, and we know that we rise to the challenges by being at our creative and strategic best.

Now more than ever, we must come together to oppose the direction of this next administration. If you are as disturbed as I am about the threats posed by the incoming administration, I invite you to come join 4,000 other passionate people working to make a difference. Come share what you know, learn from others, and participate in the creation of the future of the LGBTQ movement.

REA CAREY is the executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force.

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