Oh hey, did I tell you I’m organizing a conference?

published May 11, 2016

It’s been half a year since I started organizing Affect Conf and the venture has been so all-consuming that I forget I haven’t really told people about the what, why, or how.

Three years ago, I decided to switch from working for consumer-geared startups to working for companies involved in social good. If I was going to be putting in long hours, I wanted it to be for something I absolutely believed in, and I wanted to be able to use my privilege to help people. But, practically speaking, I knew we wouldn’t be able to live in the Bay Area with me bringing in a nonprofit salary.

I convinced my husband to move and we landed in Portland. While interviewing with Idealist, everyone was so refreshingly earnest and enthusiastic about the work that I accepted the job on the spot.

As it turns out, being mission-oriented adds an extra layer of pressure to your work. I wondered about social movements and how people might be moved from online to offline action. Whose needs were we meeting and whose were we ignoring? Were we doing enough? Was I? Was this even the right thing to be focusing on? And how did other nonprofits deal with existential questions and necessary tradeoffs? Did they ever talk about it?

I eventually left Idealist, but was determined to continue on the path of social change. It was down to two companies: one focused on civic technology and the other on highlighting social issues through media. After a long debate, I chose the latter, and began working for Upworthy.

Unfortunately, at the same time, I was already on a downward path to burnout.

My questions and perspectives shifted. How much do the ends justify the means? How often should we be exhausted and disillusioned? Are we actually focused on making a difference or are we more interested in the narrative that we’re doing good?

In between, I was constantly searching for social good events, but the ones I found were either highly corporatized or highly technical. It frustrated me: This shit is hard, why aren’t we coming together to talk about the difficult parts of the work from a high level? Where’s the community of people trying to create change?

One thing about me you should know: I won’t necessarily go to bat for myself, but if there’s someone else that benefits from me speaking up or taking charge, that’s the moment I jump into action.

When friends pointed out that I probably wasn’t the only person to want such an event and this might be an opportunity to boost others up, I started planning Affect. I looked up everything I could find on running conferences, I reached out to fellow organizers for advice, and I set aside personal funds so that speakers would get paid regardless of whether or not the event breaks even.

Affect is part conference, part volunteering; a place to break out of our siloes, share real talk about social change, and actively dig into the nonglamorous parts of our work together.

I designed the event so that there are gaps between every single talk, to give people time to absorb things and maybe chat with each other in between (or at least go to the bathroom). As an introvert myself, I’m also booking a quiet area in case anyone needs to not be social in between. I picked a Friday and Saturday for the conference because some folks can only take time off work to go to conferences and others can only go on weekends, but hopefully if people are traveling from out of town, that timeframe gives them time to either enjoy Portland or time to recover slightly before going back to work on Monday.

To get our speaker lineup, I scoured the internet to find the people doing the kind of work I wanted Affect to highlight and invited them to submit to our call for proposals. I also reached out to user groups and organizations that I’m a fan of. It worked even better than I expected because we got 101 submissions in all (I was thinking we’d be lucky with 40!).

It’s a giant labor of love (Affect is not for profit and I’m not paying myself). But it would be completely worth all the time, stress, and energy if I see people meeting each other, being open about their obstacles, and just supporting one another in their projects.

It’s not the biggest dream in the world, but it’s mine.