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WisCon, Madison’s radical sci-fi convention, calls for help

Launched in the late 1970s, the event is now seeking to raise $76,000 and recruit dozens of volunteers.

Launched in the late 1970s, the event is now seeking to raise $76,000 and recruit dozens of volunteers.

Image: The WisCon logo against a blue background.

WisCon is making a dire plea for help this week, launching a $76,000 fundraising appeal and seeking about 70 volunteers to bring Madison’s homegrown sci-fi convention back to the downtown Concourse Hotel over Memorial Day Weekend 2022 (May 27 through 30).

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Shorthanded, accurately but perhaps inadequately, as a “feminist science fiction convention,” WisCon has been taking place in Madison since 1977. The event arose from and vindicated the theory that “people want more than just a single ‘women and science fiction’ panel at a convention,” as WisCon’s website puts it. Over the years, WisCon’s panels and readings have focused on the power of science fiction to shape our thinking not just about gender equality, but also about race, disability issues, gender identity, sexuality, class, and social justice writ large. If you’ve somehow managed to miss the sheer vitality and diversity of speculative fiction, WisCon will make it pretty clear.

WisCon’s annual guests of honor over the decades have spanned several generations of essential sci-fi authors: Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula Le Guin, Nisi Shawl, China Miéville, N. K. Jemisin, Charlie Jane Anders, and so on. Since 1991, WisCon has also served as a home base of sorts for the Otherwise Award (formerly the Tiptree Award, but renamed in 2019), which recognizes works of “science fiction, fantasy, and other forms of speculative narrative that expand and explore our understanding of gender.” 

“Part of our challenge is that because the con generally runs very well, people who are attending may not realize how many people it actually takes to put on the size of event that we do,” says Kit Stubbs, one of three co-chairs for WisCon 2022—along with Ira Alexandre and Aileen Wall—and treasurer of the convention’s parent organization, SF3 (short for Society for the Furtherance and Study of Fantasy and Science Fiction). The event is run entirely by a large group of volunteers. 

Stubbs laid out the challenges publicly Monday afternoon in a thread on the WisCon Twitter account, using the hashtag #SaveWisCon. Some larger donors have stepped up to offer $15,000 in matching funds, Stubbs says. As of Monday night, about $3,500 in other donations had come in toward the match, and 21 new volunteers had signed up. 

“I think we’re gonna pull through, and the fact that we’re bringing on more people, that’s great, because it means more perspectives,” Stubbs says. They note that people who want to ensure the 2022 con goes off well can donate via PayPal or via the WisCon website, but can also help by simply registering and/or booking rooms

Before Monday’s appeal, the WisCon community as a whole might not have realized how dire the situation was—even longtime attendees and authors who’ve been honored at the con. “A lot of the information in this thread came as a surprise to me, & may surprise you too,” tweeted Amal El-Mohtar, one of WisCon’s guests of honor in 2017 and one of several noted authors to voice support for the #SaveWisCon campaign so far.

Charlie Jane Anders, who serves as an at-large member of SF3’s board and was a guest of honor at WisCon in 2019, addressed that sense of surprise in an interview on Monday night. “I feel like today, literally, is the first day that a lot of people have heard about these problems,” Anders says. “I think that there hasn’t been enough public discussion of these problems until today. I think it’s really positive that we’re now having this conversation publicly, and I’ve been just overjoyed at the response so far, just the outpouring of support and love for WisCon.

“So many other people feel the same way that I do about this convention—that it’s a really special, amazing place, and that it’s kind of a unique environment to have these really incredible conversations,” Anders adds. “I’ve just been blown away by how many people have come out on Twitter and elsewhere to say that WisCon is essential to them and that they will do whatever it takes to save the con. I think the first thing that needed to happen was for us to find a way to talk about this publicly, which we’ve now done.”

You can get in-depth and serious at WisCon’s panels and talks—for instance, in 2017, writer Weston Richey presented a compelling, scholarly paper that offered a queer interpretation of Octavia Butler’s novel Dawn. But people also play games, socialize, indulge in desserts, bid on auction items to benefit the Otherwise Award, and just generally find a sense of community. That is just as key to what keeps people returning year after year.

“It’s an incredibly fun and really warm community,” says Anders, who has been attending since at least 2005. “Every year, there are all these somewhat silly events that happen at WisCon, like the Dessert salon and the Otherwise auction, and we’ve been doing a dance party called the Floomp. It’s a really fun, silly convention.” Anders says she has written a couple of her favorite short stories on the flight home from WisCon, and she even talks about the con’s influence in some of the story intros to her just-published collection, Even Greater Mistakes.

From 1995 onward, WisCon has taken place over Memorial Day weekends at the Madison Concourse Hotel, and the guests of honor usually hold a reading at A Room of One’s Own. Part of the financial problem WisCon now faces is that it has a contract requiring it to book a block of hotel rooms at the Concourse in advance. That’s never been a problem before. 

“In pre-pandemic times we would be looking at 900 to 1,000 attendees,” Stubbs says. “We’re not as big as some of the really big cons… but for me, it’s the perfect size of con. We really are able to build a community, and we love being at the Concourse, we love being in Madison.”

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But if the con can’t fill those rooms, Stubbs says, “We run a very significant risk of just owing the hotel more money than we have.” That would also make it harder to hold a block of rooms for future editions of WisCon. Stubbs stresses that the hotel’s contract is fair and that WisCon has a good, long-running relationship with the Concourse. “There’s people at the concourse who have been working WisCon for 20 years,” they say, adding that they love having the con at a unionized hotel.

During the pandemic, WisCon scaled down its planned 2020 event to a successful weekend of online programming, and for 2021, kept it to what Stubbs calls a “chill one-day hangout,” also online. “That also kind of gave us a break so we’re grateful for the help,” Stubbs says. The 2022 con will also include some online components. 

Still, Stubbs says, the pandemic “amplified the challenges we’re facing,” people are worn out from dealing with the stress of the past couple years, and participation on SF3’s Convention-Planning Committee has dwindled. Though some volunteers stay involved for years on end, the cast can still shift quite a bit from one WisCon to the next. “We have challenges with institutional memory that I think we’re dealing with pretty well all things considered,” Stubbs says.

Anders points out that these are common struggles for organizations that rely heavily on volunteers. “People who volunteer for a long time tend to find ways to make themselves irreplaceable, and it’s an issue,” she says.

As WisCon tackles these challenges, it is also trying to get better at being an antiracist convention. “In particular in terms of antiracist work, most WisCon attendees have been white, most WisCon organizers have been white,” Stubbs says. In November WisCon organizers held a town hall in November, listening to the experiences of people of color who have attended the con. “A lot of it has to do with making sure we center people who are harmed over people who may be making racist or ableist remarks, making sure we support volunteers,” Stubbs says. Addressing various forms of oppression requires moving on from WisCon’s roots in “white feminism,” as Stubbs puts it. 

“For me, WisCon is home… This is the con that’s not perfect, but it recognizes many of the ways in which we are still addressing racism, ableism, and is trying to do better,” they say. “I love WisCon. I will not rest until I have done literally everything I can possibly do to make it happen.”

Anders also reflected on this ongoing process in our interview. “We’ve talked about ways to make people feel more safe at the con, and to make it easier for everybody, including Black and brown people, to volunteer and to be involved in leadership at the con,” she says. “I think the main thing is just being open to having a dialogue about it and being able to listen, and not getting defensive or hiding your head in the sand.”

Even 44 years in, WisCon also wants to build stronger connections and awareness in the community where it takes place. “It’s not a given that people in Madison know we’re here and have been since 1977,” Stubbs says. They add, later in our interview: “Most of our volunteer base is outside Madison. That’s super weird for a science-fiction con.” In fact, Stubbs is based in Boston, and Anders is based in San Francisco. People come to the con from all over the country, and their passion for enjoying this particular event in this particular place is striking.

“It’s actually an event that’s had a lasting impact on a lot of people and on science fiction and fantasy for sure,” Anders says. “It’s changed things in a really important way, and I hope it can continue to do so.”


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