Monday, 21 May 2012

Intersect, Bristol 2012

Last Saturday saw the (possibly inaugural) Intersect conference in Bristol, which was a feminist conference featuring speakers from different communities discussing the intersecting oppressions they face and what we, as feminists and allies, should be aware of and what we can possibly do to help them. Before I talk about the day and the fantastic speakers we had, I'd like to talk about why I decided to put on Intersect, and the logistics of actually doing it, in the hope that it encourages others to do the same.

About six months ago, I applied for a job with a well-known feminist organisation where one of the roles would be to organise talks, conferences and other events. I really liked the idea of it and started thinking about the kind of things I'd like to put on, but also started thinking about the problems I'd had with feminist conferences in the past, which had put me off attending*. I didn't get an interview for the job, but the ideas I'd had wouldn't leave. Now that I'd thought about My Super-Ideal Feminist Conference, I wanted to make it happen. I wanted to see a space which a) wasn't based in London, b) was explicitly intersectional and didn't exclude anyone on any grounds but instead promoted them and gave them a platform and c) went some way towards making people aware of and tackling some of the biggest problems facing women and didn't feel rooted in academia or theory.

I began to consider the logistics of organising such an event myself. There were several barriers to overcome, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a good idea. There's a lot to be said for pointing out problems, but a lot more to be said for doing the best you can to get off your arse and offer a solution. So I mooted the idea on Twitter to gauge people's interests, and it all seemed really positive. Now that I knew there was a desire for such an event, I started looking into doing it. I've got a fair background in gig organisation and promoting, so I started thinking about it from that perspective. The first step was to find a venue. At the time, I was living in Bristol so it seemed obvious to hold it there - there's a great feminist community in place, so I knew people who'd offer help and advice too. I searched the internet and asked people I knew for suggestions about venues. Eventually I stumbled across the perfect place - Hamilton House in Stokes Croft. It's a fully-accessible, non-profit community space which was very much in keeping with my desire to have a relaxed setting where people could discuss their lived realities comfortably and not feel like they were being incredibly formal. Also it is attached to one of my favourite pubs.

Here came the first stumbling block - I needed a 50% deposit to secure the room, and I was on the dole. So, buoyed by the interest that people had expressed in the event, I put out an appeal to crowdsource the deposit. I gave it two weeks to reach the required amount, and said that if we didn't get it, I'd accept the lack of interest and scrap the whole idea. Thanks to people's incredible generosity, I reached the target in six hours. Obviously this meant I was now totally committed to the event which was terrifying, but also tremendously exciting.

I began to look into groups that I'd like to see speak at the conference. The basic idea had always been to give a platform to women who faced intersecting oppressions that I and many others are privileged enough not to face, in order for us to learn and to push towards making feminism more accessible to all. I began researching and speaking to several groups I had particular interest in, as well as people who didn't represent any specific group but faced intersecting oppressions because of their identity as women as well as another factors. I already knew Nimco Ali, Ariel Silvera and Paris Lees. A call-out on Twitter provided me with Emma Round and Becki, and after asking Kate Smurthwaite to host, she put me in touch with Women Asylum Seekers Together. A dream team was born, and I can't thank these women enough for their dedication and tremendous talks.

So eventually I'd found enough people who were able and willing to share their stories and experiences to fill a day's worth of talks. There were groups and people I'd have loved to have seen talk who weren't able to make it, which is part of the reason that, despite the hard work, I wouldn't rule out holding another one. So many tremendously important stories and ideas were shared on Saturday, but we only scratched the surface.

After this, I needed to sell tickets. I created Facebook, Twitter and email accounts for the event, so I could provide people with information and ways to contact me. My partner Chris designed a logo and a website and sorted all the techy things that I have no idea how to do, and we were off.

But this wasn't it by a long shot. As mentioned above, I wanted to make the event as  accessible as I could, and just making sure a wheelchair could get into the venue doesn't automatically mean you've catered for all people with disabilities! Chris managed to find a way we could livestream the event and record it for people to watch later (available here**), which meant that those who couldn't attend could still participate and hear what was being said. I continued to take donations so I could make the ticket prices as low as possible so as not to economically exclude anyone, and spoke to a local friend who works with women in extreme economic difficulty to offer them some free places. I tried my hardest to source some British Sign Language interpreters, but was unsuccessful, so I've also provided transcriptions of each speaker's talks on their pages on the Intersect website. We also live-tweeted the event and used the hashtag #INTERSECT on Twitter to enable people to see what was being said and offer their own contributions from home. I don't list what I did in order to give myself a pat on the back, and I know I'm not perfect. I'm just trying to demonstrate what I feel we should be aiming to do all the time, and welcome suggestions as to how I can improve. 

My final big task was to compile a programme, in which I also included articles on the topic of feminism and intersectionality from other groups and individuals - Women's Views on News, s e smith and Black Feminists UK all contributed to this. I wanted to do this to allow voices other than attendees and speakers a place at the conference. These articles are available on the Intersect website, along with my introductory piece, but if anyone would like a physical copy of the programme, I have a few left, so please get in touch.

Finally, six months of work came to a head as Saturday rushed towards me. I had some great volunteers helping, my mum came down from Bradford, an attendee called Syca offered to lend whatever help necessary on the day and Chris was his every-generous self, sorting out all the tech issues and calming me down as much as possible (by 08.30 I was so stressed that I'd already burst into tears because there was some stuff I'd forgotten to do and I couldn't get a cup of tea. Both issues were rectified quickly though). 

Eventually, we'd all settled in and Kate opened the conference, talking about the need to talk about the issues we'd be discussing on the day as they are 'the coalface' of feminism, which is exactly the way I feel. She then introduced Nimco, who with typical flair and enthusiasm discussed the problem of FGM and the difficulty of stopping it, with focus on girls in the UK who are at risk of it. After Nimco came Emma, who delivered a wonderful talk on the rights of disabled people and how feminism can exclude a lot of women with disabilities, whether consciously or unconsciously. She also discussed the issues facing people with disabilities as a result of the government's austerity measures and the media's demonisation of them with the 'scrounger' rhetoric. After that, I read a piece from my friend Becki about her experiences of trying to escape an abusive relationship as a disabled single mother of five. After lunch, two women who are involved with WAST spoke heartbreakingly about their experience of the asylum system. Ariel followed them, talking about trans and queer rights in Ireland, and the place of trans people in activist circles. Finally, Paris discussed her work as a trans rights activist with Trans Media Watch, Trans Media Act and META mag.

I couldn't have asked for better speakers. They all opened our eyes and really helped us see what we need to be fighting against. I knew vaguely what to expect from them, but the information they gave to us was shocking. More than anything, it absolutely hammered home the point that "our feminism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit".

And that was that. I couldn't be more grateful to everyone who spoke, helped, donated, attended, watched online or just took notice of what happened on Saturday. I left knowing just how much we have to fight, but also just how damn important it is that we do, and that we can do it!

Some people have asked me about putting on another event, or talked about putting on their own conferences, and I'd really encourage them to do that. I'm happy to help out in any way I can - even happy for people to use the Intersect name and branding to do so, as long as they keep to the spirit of the original. If you're interested in doing this, drop me a line at and I'll give you as much or as little help as you need.

*I'm not saying no feminist conference does this, because there are some great events out there. Just not enough of them.
**Except Nimco's speech, which is transcript only.


  1. I think certain upcoming conferences which call themselves "feminist" while giving the rest of us a bad name (never has Flavia's line on intersectionality seemed so pertinent!) have shown just how necessary an event like this has become, and that you managed to pull it all together on nothing but enthusiasm and a prayer (and fuck all money) is a testament to your bloody brilliance. Hope it will not be the last such event we see your name on.

  2. Yes, well done indeed. It would be good to have an annual conference - maybe this time in the Midlands? I have contacts at Coventry University and so there may be space there that could be used. Maybe even for IWD 2013? Twitter: JLOsm

  3. That you managed to pull this off despite the constraints of being unemployed is nothing short of amazing. A massive well done to yourself and all others involved!

  4. So no sex workers spoke? And I see you've written against porn in the past. I guess 'intersectionality' just didn't go that far.

    1. No, no sex workers spoke. I did make enquiries to get in touch with Sheila Farmer to see if she'd come speak about her persecution by the police and so on, but the time I was trying to get in touch with her was around the time of her court date, so she was understandably busy and I didn't hear back (I can probably prove this if you want, I can get screenshots!).

      However, we also only had one day. There were several other groups I'd have loved to speak as well (Women in Prison being one of them), but there was only a limited amount of time. If I decide to do another one, I'll be using different groups and speakers to represent other areas of intersectionality.

      In the past I have written against the sex industry from an anti-capitalist perspective. This does not mean I am opposed to sex workers, I am very pro-sex workers rights and this is one reason I oppose the industry. Similar to how I oppose child labour, and that doesn't mean I hate children. You can dislike an industry and support the people in it.