Conferences: honest reflections on enjoyment mixed with some discomfort and guilt

Dr Rebecca Foster, Research Fellow, Salvation Army Centre for Addiction Services & Research, University of Stirling.

Have you ever gone to a nice conference and enjoyed it, but felt a bit uncomfortable, a little guilty and a bit hypocritical at the same time?

This year (2019) was the 8th year of Pathway/Faculty for Inclusion Health’s international symposium of homeless and inclusion health. The conference took place in March and was held over two days. The aim of these annual symposia is to bring together key individuals working in the field of homelessness and inclusion health to share learning, practice and develop solutions to the complex issues in the field. There is a broad range of personal and professional expertise represented – delegates include people with lived experience, practitioners, clinicians, policy makers and researchers.

” Conferences raise questions around equality and inclusion … who gets to go, who are they actually for?

Wez, one of our study Peer Navigators, and I had the privilege of attending this year’s conference and presenting on our NIHR-funded study ‘SHARPS’ (Supporting Harm Reduction through Peer Support). I met new people, learnt about novel and ground-breaking research and practice (a huge variety), and had the opportunity to introduce our study to a receptive audience who asked thoughtful questions. It is one of the best conferences I have attended and had the opportunity to present at.

However, I did have quite a familiar nagging feeling. It was not lost on me that this was an Inclusion Health conference taking place in a 4 star hotel in Kensington, the London borough with the highest level of income inequality. The conference attendance fee was considerable, particularly for third and public sector organisations with already stretched resources, and when the cost of travel and accommodation (where needed) is factored in.

The difference in worlds shared, discussed and reflected upon, and our plush surroundings could scarcely have been starker. Conferences and similar events – I want to stress this is just a recent, singular example – prompt some uncomfortable feelings which we may cast aside or discount with (entirely legitimate) attempts at justification. For example, ‘it’s an opportunity to bring the learning back to the office and team’; ‘it’s an opportunity to showcase our work’; ‘it’s an opportunity for networking for career development and progression.’ But they also, inexorably, raise questions around equality and inclusion – who actually gets to go? Is the opportunity available to all staff or is priority given to certain roles/positions? Who pays for these conferences? Where does the money that pays for them come from? And, most challenging of all, who are these shiny conferences really for?

Conferences are important and valuable, for a range of reasons, and I enjoy attending them (this one in particular!). This is not a criticism about this conference per se – it simply raised these questions and acted as a prompt to share these feelings.

Is there room to think more critically about how we organise and promote conferences, to make them more inclusive for a greater number of individuals and organisations? From conversations with others, I don’t believe I’m alone in feeling uneasy and conflicted like this. I also feel uneasy and conflicted writing this blog, but it’s a feeling I think I’d like to confront and challenge.

Image showing homeless person on the street of a city
Image credit Ev Style via Unsplash

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