The AWP Conference: To Go or Not to Go South

After we launched the first Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) in May, we started to look for opportunities to increase the reach of the work we do – advocating for underrepresented voices in the literary industry.


We pitched two sessions to the annual conference for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs – an American organization “that provides support, advocacy, resources, and community to writers, college and university creative writing programs, and writers’ conferences and centers” by fostering and advancing the literary arts and serving “the makers, teachers, students, and readers of contemporary writing”.


In the fall, we received notice that one of our sessions had been selected for the AWP 2017 program, which would be held in Washington, DC. The session, Creating Space for Marginalized Voices: How to Create a Diverse Programming Lineup, will focus on how targeted initiatives and intentional approaches can effectively address the diversity gaps in the publishing industry. FOLD Artistic Director Jael Richardson will moderate the panel, which includes #DiverseCanLit pioneer, Léonicka Valcius, and industry professionals from Plenitude Magazine, Room Magazine, and Shab-e She’r – a poetry series in Toronto.


While some of the panelists are employed in the industry, many of the panelists do all or part of their work championing marginalized voices on a volunteer basis. To help with the substantial costs involved in travelling and attending the conference, we applied for grant funding via Access Copyright. In January, we received word that Access Copyright would generously support the experience. All of our panelists could attend the conference without paying out of pocket for their conference fees or travel costs.


There were so many reasons to be unequivocally excited about this opportunity to increase opportunities for marginalized voices.


Then came Trump’s executive order which banned travel from seven countries, preventing artists and academics (among others) from travelling to the United States for any reason. In protest, and in support of those who could not attend conferences across the United States, many academics decided to eliminate all travel to US events in solidarity. Writer Linwood Barclay cancelled all of his American events and bookings.


These are all bold and worthy responses – responses that remind us of the gravity of the times. They are responses that encouraged FOLD team members to take thoughtful pause about the message and impact of our attendance. Were we undermining our work if we didn’t take a firm line against this kind of discrimination by staying home and joining in the boycott?


This weekend, we made our decision. We decided to go ahead with our travel to the AWP conference because we believe that there has never been a more pressing time to discuss the importance of creating space for marginalized and underrepresented storytellers. We will have this discussion in Trump’s new neighbourhood, humble in heart and mindful of those who were unable to attend based solely on their country of origin.


The AWP has given us permission to record the session, where we will acknowledge our brothers and sisters who cannot be with us, and where we will acknowledge the unceded land we are fortunate enough to present on. After the event, we will post the recording and share it via social media, so that those who cannot attend – for all matter of reasons – can benefit from the ideas that are shared and generated.


There is no one way to be an activist. And we believe that this is the best way for us to actively fight against oppression. We respect your right to disagree with our stance, and we wish all those who fight alongside and on behalf of those in need – those overlooked and undervalued – all the very best.