How a Detroit Conference Is Shaping the Future of Feminism

For a few short days at the Allied Media Conference, change makers immerse themselves in the world they’d like to live in.
Attendees of Detroit's Allied Media Conference

Attendees of a panel on women of color and science fiction that was held at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit. Photo by Walidah Imarisha.

For four days last month, those of us who attended the Allied Media Conference in Detroit played with what’s possible. We let imagination trump strategy and relationship trump transaction. Then we came back to the wider world to find that the volume had been cranked up on some of the most pressing political issues of our time.

You’ll rarely hear anyone at the AMC railing against patriarchy, racism, classism, homophobia, or transphobia.

The U.S. Supreme Court had gutted the Voting Rights Act, punted on affirmative action, and affirmed the legitimacy of marriage among same-sex couples. A Democratic legislator in Texas had successfully filibustered to stop the passage of an anti-choice bill in her state. Meanwhile, the immigration debate had moved even further to the right.

The news came as an immediate reminder that I’d been in a kind of parallel universe. I’d spent most of the Allied Media Conference, or AMC, in sessions focused on reproductive justice, family, and gender, but neither marriage nor abortion rights had come up much. I went to workshops about birthing and parenting, sexual health, and tech-enhanced, community-generated efforts to keep women and LGBTQ people safe. I listened to a 16-year-old girl from Albuquerque explain why she made a short documentary about her mother’s struggle with addiction. I spoke with an organizer at El/La Para Translatinas about recent assaults on transgender women in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood.

Immersed in these conversations, it was easy to lose sight of national policy battles in favor of the changes we can make right now within ourselves and our immediate communities. Each year, AMC participants construct a vision for the world they want to inhabit through a months-long conference planning process. Then they use their time together in Detroit to experiment with the ideas and practices they think can get us there. Allied Media Projects, the organization that hosts the conference and works on year-round education and digital arts programs in Detroit, is governed by a set of principles that sums up this philosophy. “We focus on the solutions, not the problems” and “we focus on strategies rather than issues” are among them. A do-it-yourself ethos underlies everything, a holdover from the conference’s origins 15 years ago as a place where zine publishers, Indymedia journalists, microcinema hosts, and other media makers came together.

What this meant in practice last month is that participants attending a session titled “Sex Esteem” received copies of a zine about masturbation, BDSM, and relationships, and watched a demonstration of how to make an inexpensive dildo harness out of a rope. Instead of bemoaning the persistence of abstinence-only education around the country, educators from the Los Angeles-based sex toy company Cucci offered practical tips for a self-directed sex life.

“We feel like a lot of sex education focuses on reproductive health, not the pleasure of sex,” Brenda Alvarez of Cucci explained during the session.

Similarly, when a conversation on birth and parenting justice hosted by Young Women United turned to the cascade of medical interventions that can happen during hospital births, participants pivoted to solutions. They discussed ways to make sure midwives and doulas can continue to support families despite the professionalization of these age-old roles and physician supervision requirements like the one in place in Delaware and under consideration in California.

At a different conference, the question might have been, “Are out-of-hospital births safe?” Here it was, “How do we better get the word out that Medicaid covers midwifery care in some states?”

AMC workshop facilitators subvert the institutions, people, and ideas given center stage in more mainstream venues simply by shifting attention elsewhere. Portland-based writer and organizer Walidah Imarisha has been part of a group of science and speculative fiction lovers who have been exploring the genre at the conference for the past few years. They believe that sci-fi offers a model for visioning and communicating about new worlds and parallel possibilities—pursuits of interest to many of the 1,600-plus people who show up at the AMC. Imarisha and others—including poet and self-described “black feminist love evangelist” Alexis Pauline Gumbs, writer Adrienne Maree Brown, and writer and activist Leah Laksmi Piepzna-Samarasinha—are making the work of women sci-fi writers part of the conference’s common language. Some of their favorites include Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin, Marge Piercy, and Nnedi Okorafor.

Workshop on Women of Color and Science Fiction Writing

Participants in a workshop called "Black and Brown Girls Write a New World." Photo by Dani McClain.

“Octavia Butler is the foundational piece of the whole science fiction track, and for me that’s incredibly important,” Imarisha told me. Butler is known for populating her post-apocalyptic landscapes with women and people of color protagonists. “We didn’t say, ‘Let’s talk about Octavia Butler as this black feminist figure and what that means,’” Imarisha said, “and yet it certainly happened.”

You’ll rarely hear anyone at the AMC railing against patriarchy, racism, classism, homophobia or transphobia, or verbally asserting their values from a place of defensiveness or a desire to convert. Instead, many of the attendees live at the crossroads of intersecting oppressions and come to the conference seeking a place to practice a different way of being, unburdened by the usual constraints.

For people whose politics already include a “change yourself to change the world” approach, the AMC can sound like a godsend. But to others who are more apt to think in terms of the number of good bills passed, voters mobilized or corporate misdeeds exposed, the conference can have the air of group therapy: high on self-indulgence and low on impact. I’ve gotten both types of feedback from colleagues and friends I’ve encouraged to attend.

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Whether and how to best bring the conference’s lessons to scale remain open, important questions. For example, the AMC has become a central networking hub for feminists of color, according to Piepzna-Samarasinha and Andrea Ritchie, a police misconduct attorney and member of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. During a workshop on the final day of the conference, these longtime attendees expressed appreciation for the space as an incubator and dissemination point for some of the best ideas and practices generated by people of color who are women, LGBTQ, or gender nonconforming. These voices are too often in the margins of our public debates, when they appear at all. So Piepzna-Samarasinha and Ritchie’s comments left me wondering how the conference and its surrounding infrastructure could provide a bigger platform for these same people and ideas year-round.

Being in a bubble isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it provides the safety we need to dream and the intimacy we need to build authentic relationships. How much further along might our movements be if we all took a few days each year to step into the futures we claim to be working toward?

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