Dear ESA colleagues,
Many thanks to our members who provided feedback in response to concerns about inclusion, equity, and diversity issues due to the location of ESA's 2019 meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. ESA leadership and members questioned attending a meeting in a state with discriminatory laws such as SB17, which passed in 2017, more than four years after ESA signed contracts to hold its meeting there. It is a "religious freedom" bill that reinforces the idea that students should be free to express religious or political viewpoints free from "reasonable" restrictions. Although it is not a "bathroom bill", SB17 is nevertheless troubling and discriminatory because it allows school groups to exclude individuals from participating in activities including those of the LGBTQ+ community. Because California law AB1887 prohibits state funds from being used for travel to states with discriminatory laws such as SB17, some ESA members in California may not be able to travel to the ESA 2019 meeting.
Well before SB17 was enacted, Louisville updated its local civil rights laws by passing LGBTQ+ Fairness Ordinances in 1999. Decades earlier, in December 1967, Louisville became the first major city in the South to pass an open housing law, forbidding discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, and sex. In a move to promote racial equality, Louisville joins many cities across the nation by planning the removal its Confederate statues by the end of this year.
In response to our email sent to ESA members on August 17, we received approximately 200 comments, expressing a wide range of thoughtful and sensitive perspectives. The ESA Governing Board reviewed each comment, as well as further research done by staff members, and voted late last week to keep the 2019 meeting in Louisville.
The Society's leadership is committed to mitigating, as best we can, the many current challenges -- social, political, regulatory -- to the values that are so important to our scientific community: an environment for intellectual exchange and development, free of harassment, welcoming and accessible to all.
We are taking the following actions. For attendees, ESA will invest in making the meeting as accommodating as possible; for those who do not attend in person, ESA will use technology to improve the accessibility and value of the meeting's content. We also commit to establishing an ad hoc committee to develop a policy for selecting future meeting locations, one that incorporates the inclusion and access considerations that have been expressed in this recent discussion. Finally, we are extending the deadline for symposia and organized oral session proposals to
Monday September 24.
Why have we decided to continue with the Louisville location for 2019?
- A large majority of the comments received from members expressed a preference for keeping the meeting location as planned rather than paying the penalties and losing the invested time and effort (cancelling the meeting would also impact ESA programs that serve its members).
- Many members supported using some of the dollars we would spend on penalties (if we were to cancel) to improve access to the meeting for both in-person participants and members who cannot or do not attend physically, and to support the local community including LGBTQ+ organizations.
- While commenters understood the situation of those from California and other states where institutional and state funds cannot be used for travel to Kentucky, there were numerous others who expressed strong support for having the meeting in this south-central location where it will be affordable and accessible to those in the region. We were reminded that there are many ESA members who rarely or never have institutional or state funding to subsidize meeting travel, and who appreciate opportunities to participate in a meeting closer than the East or West coasts.
- The comments about greater access and affordability of this regional location included several pointing out that institutions in the region include a number of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and that this meeting may therefore be more inclusive in terms of race and institutional type than many of our conferences.
- Several commenters felt strongly that it is as important to support local governments (such as that in Louisville) and local LGBTQ+ communities in their inclusion efforts as it is to exert economic pressure on state governments with exclusionary laws.
Improving the accessibility and value of the Louisville meeting
None of the above points change the reality that some of our members will not travel to a meeting in Kentucky under any conditions; some respondents said that they do not feel safe traveling to a state with religious freedom legislation and/or that they believe the boycott of such state governments to be a moral position equivalent to the historic pressures exerted against apartheid-era South Africa. We respect the diversity of opinion and the deep personal commitments of our members, and we do not want the pragmatic decision to continue with Louisville to be seen as any attempt to minimize the seriousness of the issues. We will work to maximize the value of the Louisville meeting, to those who attend in person and to those who cannot.
- The Program Committee has established a subcommittee charged specifically with working with the local hosts and ESA staff in developing strategies for equity, access, and inclusion.
- Many sections and chapters use their own funds, and/or portions of Long-term Planning Grants they may have received, to make travel grants available to students or other members. We will encourage the sections and chapters to consider diversity and access in their travel grant decisions, and we will commit additional funding (through the Long-term Planning Grants, to sections and chapters, and/or through a Society-wide mechanism) to support attendance at the Louisville meeting for diverse members.
- ESA staff members are actively exploring "virtual registrations" for making portions of the meeting accessible in real-time (e.g., live-streaming), as recorded content, or both. We will encourage sections and chapters, in particular, to consider ways in which they might maximize the value of their conference-week activities for their members, including those who do not attend in person. We recognize that many ESA members choose not to attend the conference in any given year, whether due to location, timing, reluctance to fly, or lack of funding; we are committed to using some of the funds we would have forfeited due to cancellation to pilot an aggressive approach to using technology to maximize the value of the conference for all.
Crafting a policy for future ESA conferences
Many respondents urged us to develop a proactive policy for choosing locations for future meetings. Priorities established by previous Governing Boards have ranged from explicit attempts to circulate among all regions of the country (to provide affordable geographic access) to the intention to identify 2-3 primary locations for a consistent rotation (to ensure consistent high attendance and to facilitate forming community partnerships). We also cope with the realities of city and conference center logistics, affordability, and negotiating power. The current debate highlights the additional need to be explicit in considering how our members experience and perceive the accessibility of a given location. This fall we will establish an ad hoc committee of ESA members to craft a comprehensive policy that can be adopted by the Governing Board and used to assist members and ESA staff in finding locations for future meetings. If you would be willing to serve your colleagues and your Society in assisting with this effort, please let me know (
) by Thursday September 20.
We want to express our appreciation to the Program Committee and the local hosts who have already put so much effort into planning the 2019 meeting in Louisville. We are also grateful to those many members who shared their thoughtful and heartfelt perspectives in response to our earlier query. We are committed to honest, transparent communication as we continue to work on your behalf to support you, our colleagues, and the science of ecology.