It’s delightful because this is a convention where attendees are ready for—and expect—programming that transcends the ordinary. Sirens attendees aren’t looking for 101-level content and generic material that they could encounter anywhere, rewarmed versions of prior work, or presenters who talk down to them. They’re looking for innovative, thoughtful programming that is also provocative and demanding. Sirens is a conference that allows and encourages presenters to explore their limits.
That means thinking deeply about what we want to communicate when we propose programming, and assembling presenters who will do the topic justice, and perhaps bring a few surprises as well. For someone who relishes opportunities to dig more deeply and present people with fresh angles on even the most tired of subjects, this is very much my jam, both at the dais or in the audience. Whether I’m watching guests of honor in conversation with each other or attending a workshop, I know that I do so in a space that is created by attendees for each other, and that makes it a rich, intimate environment for exploring complex and sometimes fraught topics.
It’s a challenge for these reasons as well, of course, especially with such a slate of fantastic programming each year. The sight of people agonizing over program books as they compare notes with friends is ubiquitous at Sirens; I’ve walked past many a cluster of people complaining that there’s “too much” and it’s simply impossible to choose between two or three equally fascinating things happening at the same time—and I have done my fair share of complaining about this situation myself.
Being honored with a scholarship for submitting an exemplary programming proposal was, under these circumstances, a particularly meaningful recognition. Developing program proposals that entice attendees is difficult enough; creating programming that speaks to the spirit of Sirens and stands out to both the programming vetting board and the scholarship board is no mean feat.
Being recognized with a scholarship feels like an expression of belonging and value to the Sirens community.
When I received the news that my panel proposal had been accepted for a scholarship, it came coincidentally at a fairly terrible personal time. On top of a series of expensive and dreadful things happening to me in quick succession, I was having a lot of self-doubt and internal questions about the future of my career and the kinds of contributions I could make to communities like Sirens. That email happened to land in my inbox on a particularly unpleasant day, and it was incredibly affirming. That’s a feeling everyone should have on a regular basis; receiving a scholarship wasn’t just about the money, but about the recognition.
But it is, bluntly, also about the money. Conferences, and Sirens is no exception, can be costly to attend, and an unfortunate result of this is that their attendance can be limited to those most able to afford it, which means missing out on many lovely people and tremendously valuable perspectives. It means missing out on professional development and building community with like-minded people: the people I see becoming fast friends in the buffet line, being thoughtful and accommodating to make sure others are included, asking meaningful questions at panels and paper presentations, and roping newbies into groups going to dinner or headed for the hot tub. My people.
The efforts to make Sirens inclusive and affordable are only possible through the generosity of donors and the volunteers who put in thousands of hours of work each year to make this conference happen. I’m honored to have received a programming scholarship, but I’m also honored to be a donor, to continue paying that feeling forward to others. The Sirens community comes from a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and donating isn’t always possible for everyone, nor should anyone feel awkward or bad for not being able to make a donation. I believe, though, that the contributions of those of us who are able to do so are a powerful way to uplift Sirens—and make it, distinctively, a community, the only conference I make a priority to attend every year, the conference that has me refreshing the programming page on a regular basis for the year’s announcements, the conference I am always harping on friends to attend, not simply a few days I spend in a hotel every year. That Sirens feeling, from opening plenary to closing auction, is one I long to bottle up and distill against those dark nights of the soul.
s.e. smith is a Northern California–based writer and journalist who has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Rolling Stone, Vice, Teen Vogue, Rewire, Esquire, The Guardian, Pacific Standard, and many other fine publications, in addition to several anthologies, including The Feminist Utopia Project and (Don’t) Call Me Crazy. smith’s work focuses on an intersectional social justice-based approach to exploring social issues, with a particular interest not just in diversity and representation, but in those acting as creators, editors, and gatekeepers of media and pop culture.