Organizing the LGBTI ALMS Conference - a Networkers Paradise

Amsterdam, 25 July 2012: If you want to contribute to social change, you get the main actors together and work out how to effect that change successfully. I am currently organizing a conference that aims to change the experience that gay men, lesbians, bisexual,  transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people have when interacting with heritage institutions.
An international conference is the working space a network organization expert like myself dreams of.

 Our vision is that when a young lesbian visits her national archive in  Europe or North America in 2020 she will easily discover lesbians in history, women living their lives fully. She will find lesbian artists in museums.  She will find lesbian novels in libraries. She will find that she is part of the ‘we’ that is society. As will gay men, bisexual and transgender people. And ‘society’ will notice that ‘we’ includes LGBTI people.

In this short essay I will dwell on where, in the process of organizing a conference, networked organization expertise help make outstanding results.  Networked organization expertise uses various tools in finding the players that are so essential in achieving the results you want. It also acknowledges that the circles of friends, relations and contacts in which each and every player is situated has the potential to provide value to the larger group. Value can come through the possibility of getting in contact with strategic partners (structural value), creating a sense of community and trust that supports players in developing challenging projects in their own circumstances (relational value) and building knowledge that allows participants in the network to gain ground (cognitive value). As a networked organization expert, my job is to bring all these levels of value to the project.

1. Defining the vision
When we started working on developing this conference, my client, the International Gay and Lesbian Information Centre and Archive (IHLIA) wanted to establish a network of LGBTI archives, libraries and documentation centres in Europe (both EU and non-EU countries). It is part of an international group of people working in LGBTI archives, libraries, museums and special collections (ALMS) that have met in the USA three times over the past decade. They call their meetings the ALMS conference. Most participants were from North America and a sprinkling, like my client, came from further abroad. When the call came at a previous conference for volunteers to organize the next conference came, IHLIA offered and was chosen.

I was hired to develop the concept of the conference and to take it – whatever ‘it’ was – from there.  Rather than taking the intention to set up a network as an ambition, I encouraged my client to first get a firm grasp on the vision of the conference. What change did they want to see happening in the world, as a result of their efforts?  Establishing the vision is a necessary first step to knowing the change you want to see in the world three years or more down the road and set up the team to begin the process of making that happen.

We asked a lot of questions when preparing for this visioning process. For one, how did IHLIA see its role in the Netherlands and beyond? What were its ambitions for the future? What resources did it have already and what resources did it need?  The organization had a strategic plan, but that did not give direct answers to the question of what value did the proposed conference have in meeting the longer and shorter term goals of the organization.  From this line of questions it became clear that the board and the management team should be part of the visioning process. It also became clear that key stakeholders in the Netherlands were clients such as researchers and people representing research institutions.

In the end we had three external stakeholders and three internal stakeholders involved in the visioning process.

Because the conference has an international history we realized there was, besides the IHLIA board, a whole community in the world with expectations of the next conference. We decided to test the vision against these expectations. We also felt it prudent to have buy-in from important stakeholders, to create a shared ownership of the idea of an international networking activity that would commence after the conference. We established an international advisory group. The  group comprised people who knew each other from the previous conferences plus, as the vision had a European-wide action radius, from organizations IHLIA knew or found in various parts of Europe.

After discussing the vision with the international advisory group, an important addition was made. Not only would mainstream heritage institutions make their LGBT content visible and accessible, grassroots LGBTI ALMS organizations would flourish. This is an acknowledgement that leadership in making LGBTI heritage accessible has always come from organizations within the LGBTI community. Great leaps forward happen when collaboration between mainstream and community organizations takes place.

2. Getting the right people to the table
We used stakeholder analysis, a key tool in networked organization, to find people for the advisory group as well as potential participants and speakers. In a stakeholder analysis, the client puts aside existing ideas of who ought to be involved and looks at the vision. What parties affect the outcome?  Who has a strong interest in the success of the vision and how much power do they have. By charting the relative position of stakeholders, the client begins to get a sense of what strategies are need to make the vision a reality. For example, they will see that some organizations that are key to success are powerful but not interested. Others are not powerful but very interested.
One conclusion of this exercise was that the program should be focused on bringing new actors to the conference. If, by 2020, cultural heritage organizations in Europe and North America make LGBTI history visible and accessible, we needed as many partners in the mainstream cultural heritage world that we could find.  This meant that in the outreach program we had to focus on people known to the client and people not yet known to the client.  

Networks add value at a structural, relational and cognitive level
Finding people we do not yet know is the playground of a networked organization expert.  In the networks surrounding each and every one of us there are “weak” and “strong” ties – concepts coined in the 1970’s by a researcher by the name of Granovetter. “Weak” ties are the connections we have with people outside our immediate (family, work) affiliations that give us access to deals, knowledge, tips and connections. They are not part of our “circle” and our circle gives us access to them.

Here are two good examples of how we used the structural value of networks to find the people that could help make our vision a reality. To find archivists throughout Europe who may be interested in working with us in the future, we used our connection with the director of the Dutch National Archive.  He is a leader in the international community of archivists and he enabled us to have access to the relevant email addresses.

When IHLIA’s director recently visited London, she had an experience that led to the creation of a new weak link. She came across a permanent ‘trail’ at the British Museum, pointing out the various objects of same-sex desire exhibited throughout the museum. These objects are and always have been part of the permanent collection, and since the advent of the 'trail' visitors can easily find them. The British Museum provides visitors with a folder , available at the front desk.  Keen to get in touch with the people behind the trail, our interns dug deep and found the person responsible. We invited him as a keynote speaker to the conference. As a representative of a world-renowned heritage institute he is an important binding element between mainstream and community heritage organizations at the conference.

We used network theory to define the content of the conference. Network theory has it that the whole is made up of the sum of the parts, and the magic that happens when these are brought together. It is not the act of bringing together that causes magic, it is how people are brought together that make a difference. We all have experienced reading a book in which many ideas from different people are collected. It does not often have the feeling of magic to the reader – although the process of creating the publication may have been magical to those involved. The magic at a conference happens when the knowledge that one person has, is purposefully added to the knowledge another person has, and that they together create something new. The program was developed cognitive value of networks with this in mind. The program looks at what exists, what tools and resources there are and leaves space for developing the many divergent sorts of collaborations that are possible when community and mainstream organizations meet and share ideas, knowledge and ambitions. In fact, the program also acknowledges that we live in connected times and that there is no reason to wait till some time in the future to pour our ideas into a room. This was the reasoning behind creating a blog on which all contributions were shared before the conference. In this way, the participants could use their value face time at the conference to get to the point of the conference: creating collaborations to make out vision possible.

We developed the relational level of the conference purposefully. If this conference is to be a starting point for future collaboration, people need to know and trust each other.  They also need to have a sense of community of like-minded people. The job at hand – the future we are living into of LGBTI history being visible and accessible in every country in Europe and North America, is for some people quite daunting. We know for example that the Slovenian national archive does not accept the existence of the lesbian archive and has actively worked, unsuccessfully, to close it down. In the Ukraine and Russia, talking about homosexuality in public places has just been declared punishable by law.

For these reasons, an important part of creating the conference is creating a common ground, a meeting place of people sharing the same values, vision an goals. By setting up a facebook page, with its built in mechanisms for sharing and getting to know others interested in any specific field or subject, and by presenting information through the conference blog, the conference established itself as a set of relationships, even before the conference started. These relationships extend beyond the people in the room. They will be friends of friends and they will be needed in the next phase of realising the vision. Clearly, the people in the room at the conference will not be able to make the vision happen on their own. They will need a community. A vast network of people who stand in a future that says that ‘we’ are part of this great thing called ‘society’, its history and its future.

The proof of the pudding
At this point, with the conference about to happen, we do not know how the participants will take the vision and ensure its implementation. We do know that the future will be caused by actions. These actions will have predictable and unpredictable results. They are already happening. While we were preparing the conference, the librarian of a European capital city received our invitation to participate in the conference shortly after attending a meeting on women in the library world. At that meeting, a young woman presented a very emotional statement. She was upset because while the position of women in society were discussed, there was never reference to lesbians. The librarian listened and was moved. She happened to come from the same place as the young woman. When my invitation to attend the LGBTI ALMS 2012 conference arrived a week later she knew what she had to do: work with the young lady to make material that is relevant to lesbians visible and accessible in her library. In a way, our work was done in that city before the conference happened. What we anticipate is that all through Europe, librarians, museum personnel, archivists and people running special collections will find ways of making their LGBTI content visible and accessible. That is our vision.

Lin McDevitt-Pugh MBA

Lin McDevitt-Pugh is director of NetSHEila and expert in networked organizations. She provides training to schools, universities, public and private companies and employee networks, supporting them to do more, with more fun, by utilizing the circles of people in which they operate. 
For more on the conference, see the conference website.

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