Beeta Ansari

Beeta is Ashoka U’s Exchange Director, the world’s largest global convening for social entrepreneurship education.

Exchange 2020: The Unfiltered Truth Behind Why We Need an Agenda Council

As far as Ashoka U was concerned, the 2018 Exchange was a huge success. We convened over 650 participants, we celebrated cutting-edge social innovations in higher education, and featured much-needed new topics like social innovation career preparation and changemaker impact measurement. We felt like this convening lived up to its potential and successfully advanced the social innovation field. Most of our evaluations came back with glowing reviews, and much of the feedback we received was easy to act on. What was there not to be proud of?

That was, until we read two reviews. Two reviews in a sea of hundreds. These two reviews portrayed the Exchange as the exact opposite of what we, its creators, thought it was and what it stood for.

This evaluation stated that our conference wasn’t an inclusive, safe space that lived the values of social innovation and social change we proclaimed. That it didn’t inspire. Rather, these reviewers shared that they the Exchange reinforced many of the negative and harmful experiences our attendees were living at home and on campus, putting social innovation and justice at odds with each other. And for them to travel all this way, spend their time and resources just to experience these types of exclusive behaviors and rhetoric was unacceptable.

Needless to say, this was a punch in the gut to myself and the rest of the Exchange team. In the wave of “Me Too”, “Black Lives Matter”, and other movements that brought marginalized voices to the forefront, we were confronted with the fact that our event needed to change.

After some honest conversations and soul searching about how to best proceed, our team decided we had to reach out to the reviewers to learn more. To our surprise, we received speedy responses that said there were others at the Exchange who felt the same way and a few of them would be willing to have a call to share more.

That subsequent video call was the first time I met Lauren Burrows of Wilfrid Laurier University, Sonia Galiber of Urban Creators, and April Gaddis of Miami Dade College. They shared multiple instances of attendees and/or presenters preaching exclusivity, elitism, and, to be blunt, racism.

By the end of the call, it was very clear that we could not keep employing the passive defense mechanisms that are so easy to evoke when planning a conference of this size:

  • How can I be responsible for the behavior of 650 people?
  • Why should I be expected to play moderator? Can’t attendees just stand up for themselves?
  • Am I allowed to even tell people what they are or are not allowed to say?

After just a few calls with Sonia, Lauren, and April, our conversations moved from problems to possibility. Together, we identified first steps and first questions that would serve as a north star for the design of the next Exchange:

  1. How do we create a safe space on the agenda for POC and marginalized communities?
  2. How do we lift up and better represent the diversity of expertise necessary for social change? like students, and community partners who’s lives are directly impacted by these issues?”

A Safe Space

Sonia and Lauren committed to hosting a safe space for POC at the 2019 Exchange. This took place in the form of a welcome dinner, the day before the Exchange. Sonia and Lauren selected a local restaurant and our team featured an invitation to the dinner in the program.

Based on a debrief with Lauren and Sonia, this inaugural dinner for POC was a success. Participants appreciated getting to know each other before the conference officially started and found themselves coming back together at several points through the Exchange experience. They have also continued to stay in touch after the conference.

Looking forward, we are considering hosting more than one gathering for POC to accommodate the various arrival times, departure times, and conflicting schedules that often dictate participation. We are also considering ways to reduce the cost of the dinner (last year, attendees paid out of pocket).

Diversity of Content

We also set up the first ever Exchange Agenda Council, with a mandate of not just selecting good content but identifying what was missing and who was missing. Equity and inclusion were at the center.

For the first eight years of organizing the conference, the Exchange team (a small but mighty team of three) reviewed all presentation submissions and determined who and what would be featured on the agenda.

The Agenda Council aimed to change that process completely. We selected, via an application process, six members of our community to help us review and select content. Initially, we had all the typical event-planner concerns – our process would take way too long, no one would agree, attendees would be upset if they were rejected, etc.

And yet again, our assumptions were wrong. It was AMAZING.

Council members dug right in and rolled up their sleeves. They were open minded, eager to jump in, and pushed our team to ask all the right questions regarding content. We also were able to leverage the networks of our Agenda Council to invite in more diverse speakers and community partners, who otherwise would not have made it onto the agenda.

As a result, we saw some improvement on the agenda with regards to representation. But we know this is just the beginning. We are looking forward to bringing back the Agenda Council, as well as a Student Council, and making even more progress toward fostering a conference centered around inclusion.

Looking Ahead

As we kick off the planning process for the 2020 Exchange, we want to build on the work of last year while continuing to assess our systems and our behaviors to ensure that we are letting our values guide our actions.

We are also looking forward to making the Exchange more accessible in 2020. This includes more accessibility from a financial perspective, but also from mobility, auditory, visual, and neurological perspectives as well.

Beyond the Exchange, we hope event organizers and community gatherers, on campus and beyond, ask the questions we were challenged to ask. We also hope to continue unlearning the practices that perpetuate inequality in the social innovation space, and relearning the practices necessary to address these issues. How have you seen conferences buck systems of oppression? How can we continue to put our values front and center?

We always say the Exchange is a conference by the community, for the community. The last 12 months have forced us to think deeply about this phrase and how true it actually is. We hope to bring this phrase back front and center in 2020 and fully embody it.