Dinner plans for all: How conference organizers can make newcomers feel welcome

Woman wearing a hat and glassesThis is a guest post from Becky Yoose about the Newcomer dinner at the code4lib conference, going on at the time of this posting. Becky is the Discovery and Integrated Systems Librarian at Grinnell College, where she plans, implements, and maintains several critical technology initiatives at the Grinnell College Libraries. She prefers nano and vim over emac, knows enough python to be a danger to herself and others, and likes pie.

Figuring out what to do after the sessions end for the day is a challenge for most first time conference attendees, and underrepresented attendees feel an added level of stress in determining what, if any, safe and inclusive activities they can participate in during this free time. Sure, there might be brewery tours, game nights, dances, and movie screenings, but what if you’re not interested in them? What is one thing that all conference attendees, no matter who they are, have in common?

They all have to eat.

Take a small group of conference attendees (mix of new and veteran attendees), add a restaurant of their choosing, throw in some planning, and you get a conference social activity that provides a safer, informal environment that anyone can participate in. For the conference, planning these kinds of informal dinners is an opportunity for building inclusiveness in the community.

Recipe ingredients matter

Many conferences provide food at various social events, but the effect these events have on creating a more inclusive environment varies. Some conferences try to welcome first time attendees by holding a separate event, which traditionally includes some food; however, these events have their pitfalls and blind spots. You’re surrounded by fellow new attendees, but that’s about it. You’re still part of a big crowd, and if you don’t see yourself represented in said crowd that only aggravates the existing stress you’re already under. In short, the food meant to welcome first time attendees in this format itself causes anxiety due to the lack of a safer space for integration into the community.

When I attended my first code4lib conference in 2009, I managed to stumble my way through the conference, but there were many who were struggling to get a sense of the loosely-organized community. Since I’m not a drinker, my social options were limited; however, I ended up grabbing someone I didn’t know well from the conference and we went off to eat at a local foods restaurant holding a movie showing. The movie and food were both good, but the company of the attendee that went with me made the outing special. I started thinking about how to take this experience and repurpose it into something that can build community while being inclusive to everyone at the same time.

Building the recipe

I shot out the idea of an All Conference dinner, with the emphasis on getting conference veterans to mix with newcomers for the 2010 conference. Even though code4lib is a smaller conference, an all-conference dinner would still have fallen in the same pitfalls as the traditional events I described above. And then there are logistics! How do you fit 70+ people in a restaurant without paying for private room fees?

After some discussion with the code4lib community, the Newcomer Dinner was born. The base has stayed the same, but with a few tweaks each year:

  • The Social or Local Activities Committee compiles a list of restaurants around the conference hotel. Many conference goers have specific dietary needs – veg*n, kosher, allergies – so make the extra effort to seek out restaurants that can cater to specific needs, or at least note which restaurants have specific dietary offerings.
  • Schedule the dinner for the night before or the night of the first day of the conference. The connections made at this meal gives attendees a set of familiar faces in the conference crowd, making the big anonymous crowd a little less anonymous.
  • Around a month before the conference, create a place for sign-up for small dining groups, no larger than six to a group. Discussion becomes difficult when the group is larger than six, from experience.
  • Promote the dinner early and often! Encourage a mixture of new attendees and conference veterans in each group, and get the vets to lead the groups. This is where cultivating buy-in from various established community members helps! Sometimes you’ll need to persuade folks into leading groups, especially during the first couple of years of doing the dinners or if you have some shy folks in the same group.
  • In the sign-up page, give explicit instructions as to what the group leader is responsible for: reservations, leading the group to and from the restaurant, main contact for the dinner group in case people are running late, etc.

Recipe reviews

How does the Newcomer Dinner help create an inclusive community environment at a conference?

It provides the opportunity for marginalized folks to find each other and to connect – for those looking for others like themselves, the Newcomer Dinner becomes the opportunity to connect with each other in a small group environment. The dinners are planned ahead of time; people have the chance to do their research and stake out a group or restaurant. This focus on small groups and advanced planning provides a lower-pressure, informal safer space for underrepresented attendees who otherwise might not venture far from their hotel rooms outside of conference hours.

It provides the opportunity for others to listen and to learn from each other – in some groups, there are a mix of diverse people, and the conversation can and sometimes lead to an exchange of ideas and experiences by all sides. Again, conferences big and small don’t have a lot of opportunities for small group, face to face conversations outside the conference, which makes the dinner a place where people have dedicated time to share thoughts, experiences, and engage in conversations otherwise not present in the conference center hallways.

There are a few considerations for organizing a Newcomer Dinner. code4lib’s dinner is completely voluntary, which means that the people who really want to be there will be there if their schedule permits. There is also the consideration of the dinner group; not all group dynamics are ideal, but the focus on food gives some buffer for some groups that have one or two folks who like to talk. Lastly, even though the focus is on creating a welcoming environment with great food, having the Newcomer Dinner covered under the conference’s Code of Conduct helps ensure that if anything happens in the group, then there is a system in place to address any issues.

Make the recipe your own

The dinner has since become one of the rare traditions of the code4lib conference since 2010, and is one of the highlights of the conference for many people, including those newer to the community, leading to lasting friendships and professional connections alike. Past participants have even organized their own dinners in their own communities! The focus on conference veterans mixing with the newer attendees adds the dimension of networking opportunities for newcomers within the community. More importantly, it provides an opportunity for inclusive community building. Overall, the Newcomer Dinner is a good (and filling) tool to help build an inclusive environment for conferences and communities alike.

Ed. note: At AdaCamp, one of the more popular events is the Saturday night dinner in the form described in this post. AdaCamp Portland applications are now open!