This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email email@example.com
Voluntown, 1977 — SftP Conference
by Freda Salzman
Science for the People held its annual conference this past spring in Voluntown, Conn., on the weekend of April 15-17. Previous gatherings have been called “Northeast Regional Conferences.” This one was billed as an “Eastern Regional Conference,” but, with almost every active chapter in the country officially or unofficially represented, the focus of the gathering became national in scope.
The goal of the conference was to evaluate the past practice of SftP in order to define future directions for the organization; and then, it was hoped, to formulate a national program for SftP centered around specific issues, like nuclear power or recombinant DNA, selected by the conference participants. The agenda, as planned, was:
Friday evening. Arrival, meeting people, a skit on political economy.
Saturday. A morning plenary (full session of all participants) on history and analysis of past chapter practice, composed of reports by all chapters of the previous year’s work. Then, in the afternoon, small group discussions on specific issues, like the China trip or occupational health, examining the potential of these for a base for a national program. Finally, a plenary or full session on past national practice, which would include discussion of the magazine and AAAS activities. That evening: entertainment and partying.
Sunday. A morning plenary to derive organizational principles for SftP, and formulate a national program. In the afternoon, sessions to implement resolutions passed.
For various reasons, this agenda was transformed over the course of the weekend. At the request of all the women present, a full session was held on Saturday afternoon to discuss sexism and the problems of group process in the organization, which include elitism and racism as well. There was also a follow-up session that evening on the same topic. Other discussions, such as the workshops on specific issues, or the session on the magazine, either had their focus shifted, were postponed or were curtailed.
A potentially interminable discussion on how much national priority should be given to various issues was curtailed. Thus, no national program around specific topics was formulated. The task of defining or creating a national organizational structure different from the present loose federation of chapters was postponed. Instead, a two-part resolution was passed, which set an emphasis on building new chapters and improving communication among present chapters. The second part of that resolution detailed how these goals were to be implemented: writing of chapter histories, exchanging minutes, travel to new chapters, etc.
Rather than try to get a group of people to write a definitive, detailed and objective report on the conference in time for this issue, the Editorial Committee decided that it was more realistic to solicit personal accounts of the weekend from individual participants. We asked a number of people, and received the following accounts, one each from Tallahassee and Ann Arbor, and two from Boston.
Finally, I had a chance to meet these people whose names appeared so anonymously in the magazine. It was an exciting prospect that kept me entertained throughout (at least part of) the sixteen-hour drive from Ann Arbor to Voluntown, and the reality of the conference certainly exceeded my fantasies. Despite the lack of sleep, I managed to concentrate on the business at hand and mingle, socially and intellectually, with the motley group of people there to our mutual benefit. Members from Berkeley, Tallahassee, Urbana, NYC, etc. exchanged their local experiences, the result being a feeling of unity with them and of the national scope of the work we’ve been trying to do in Ann Arbor.
The Saturday session was devoted to discussing sexism in SftP. The necessity for such a discussion became painfully obvious while listening to some of the comments made. The fruits of that discussion were an increasing awareness of the pervasiveness and insidiousness of the problem. And a dedication to constructively apply our commitment to fighting sexism to our work within SftP. The openness of the discussion was really encouraging and I think it immensely improved the later sessions.
The endless talking was exhausting, but it was offset by the humorous skits Friday and Saturday nights, the idyllic surroundings of rural Connecticut, and the friendliness and warmth of all those attending. A particular high point for me was the chance to exchange views and information with members of the Boston Science Teaching Group and with the magazine staff. It added a personal flavor to my interactions with them that will make our work together in the future much more meaningful and fruitful.
As we drove back to Ann Arbor, I kept asking myself, “Why hadn’t I come to these before?” and “When is the next one going to be?”.
What did you think of the regional conference?, they asked. I had to pause and think. Even now, two months later, my feelings about it are very mixed.
On a personal level, I was very glad to have participated in the conference, being as it was my first SftP conference. It was good to meet people from other chapters, especially after talking on the phone or corresponding by letter with many of them for several months. I had a much stronger sense of SftP as a national organization and began to understand how it has functioned through the years as a loosely knit federation of chapters. I particularly enjoyed meeting with women from other chapters. In sharing some of our experiences and reflections on SftP I think we deepened our understanding of the problems of both sexism and elitism with which we have struggled separately and created a solidarity and strength among us.
In more general terms, I was rather disappointed in the conference. The chapter reports Saturday morning tended to be too long, with little self-evaluation and little time as allowed for criticism and response. The early afternoon discussion of sexism (which pre-empted the scheduled agenda) was beneficial in some ways. I felt it was important that SftP seriously look at the issues of sexism and elitism and how these affect our internal process, not to mention the political work we do. For some people, the discussion was elucidating as women pointed out specific examples (like feeling intimidated by heavy academic jargon) of the problems and their subtleties. However, although I felt that discussion was good, I later felt that rather than talk about problems of sexism, we, the women, should have acted, taken political leadership and used our unity and strength to assert our vision of SftP. Well, at least it was an important political lesson for the future.
The small group discussions on specific topics later that afternoon seemed quite successful. It was easier to talk to exchange ideas and feelings. Another good lesson for future practice.
One major problem with the conference was that we seemed to have learned little from previous conferences and in fact many people did not even know what had taken place in the preceding years. There was a clear need for some sort of historical review. It seemed like we didn’t really discuss anything new; the organization didn’t grow.
The one resolution that was passed on chapter building and improving internal lateral organization and communication did seem to hold some promise for possible results because specific steps for implementation were included. Another lesson.
Although I have been fairly critical of the conference I feel good about it as I think I learned a lot from it. I hope the organization has learned from it too. I do feel that the chapters are committed to maintaining closer, better ties with each other, to working on improving group process, and to directing more energy towards taking science to the people, as opposed to just other academics and professionals.
Glenn Wargo has been active in SftP since 1972 and is now a member of the Computer Group and the Fuming Hoods guerilla theater group. He works as a computer person and has the energy of a dynamo and the brain of a vacuum tube. His first autobiography was about his car.
Caution: These are my recollections of the Regional Conference. If you’re interested in what actually happened, please turn to another account.
Voluntown! My God, it’s way beyond 128! Who knows what might be out there? Worked for weeks getting the car ready for a voyage beyond the known universe (see map). Should we take food? Do they use gasoline out there? At last it was time to tempt Fate and depart.
Friday night: Should have brought food. Great famine! CNV A staff gives friendly welcome and discourse on difficulties presented by vegetarianism. Assured them some of our best friends were vegetables. Seem to be mollified. Prospects for food tomorrow. Saw skit on Mark Twain’s thoughts on political economy. Kathy was great. Glenn needs improvement.
Saturday: Breakfast! Big meeting. Heard reports from many distant chapters, along with everything ever written in Boston. Good to know there are full-fledged chapters busily operating in so many places. Even a paragraph in British Columbia. Break for lunch. Women call a separate meeting during lunch. Uh oh. Are we headed for Marx Brothers vs. Lenin Sisters?
Later: Storm hits. Women speak of alienation of themselves and new members; a lack of personal support in meetings, our failure to respond to what one another says, of rhetoric, of men talking in speeches. Substantial agreement. Several men tell why the ability to speak clearly in plain English is the sine qua non of political dialectic. Impossible to understand. Others seem to be doing better, as they are nodding. Or are they falling asleep?
Workshops. Women in Science. Much was shared, much to think about, there and in later plenary. Perhaps we are really starting to come to grips with sexism. Later discussion of AAAS. Confusing. Agreement that AAAS is of primary importance, although secondary.
Saw two plays: Agribusiness crankie and “Laboratory!” Inspiring. Must go home and organize.
Sunday: Much talk of magazine and the need to spread effort and control beyond Boston. After lunch, National Support Group presents proposal to try to define politics and national program of the organization – a goal which seems to be defended by some kind of cosmic Dryden.* Observations fragmentary, as it was my turn to work on dish crew. Apparently Aphrodite sided with NSG. Hera was opposed. Achilles undecided. Discord and her sister Stravinsky seen entering hall.
Frantic effort to finish up. Get volunteers for everything. Many decisions left to last minute. Should chapter contacts be in magazine or on separate sheet? What kind of paper? Two holes or three? Tension. Exhaustion. Finished.
Clean up and point homeward, nervously scanning horizon. Can you re-enter the universe at the point you left? Does leaving create a space warp? At last the safety of 128 and the skyline of Boston. Another conference relegated to the pages of history. By the way, was anybody taking minutes?
* Ken Dryden is goalie for the Montreal Canadiens hockey team. Almost impossible to score against. I was told that every article had to have at least one footnote.
This is a report, a testimonial and a criticism from a non-northeastern perspective. Our trip North was a multipurpose event in that we had three main objectives:
First we traveled to New York City to meet with progressive students and a full time organizer from Dominica (a country in the West Indies). Our chapter has had a “Books for Dominica” program going for some time but all information exchange had been by mail. A ,people-to-people interview was very important (not to mention exciting) to insure that the books being sent would relate to the problems of their country. They met us at the airport and gave us a political tour of Harlem and Columbia University. Later they gave a two-hour interview about the various aspects of developmental science and technology in Dominica. This meeting alone would have made the trip North worthwhile, but there is much more.
Next, we caught a ride with the Stony Brook SftP folk to Voluntown. Since they also were in a China Study Group we did a lot of talking about China on the way there. The conference was a very inspiring scene … seeing that many science activists in one place is pretty heady stuff. But more about the conference later.
Lastly, after the conference we caught a ride with the Salzmans to Cambridge where we hung out at the SftP office for a couple of days going through their resource files, back issues of their exchange magazines, talking with SftP folk, etc. We learned a lot about the mechanics of SftP (i.e., what makes the movement move). It was here that a Tallahassee person got recruited to the editorial collective. We also got to visit Rita Arditti… one of Tallahassee SftP’s favorite people. The hospitality of the Cambridge-Boston folk was astounding. We had a great time.
But now back to the conference and our impressions of it. The chapter reports, activity group reports and workshops were very interesting and useful to us, we were reinforced positively. The conference was a people-to-people thing and we learned a lot about SftP that we could never have learned by reading the magazine, by letter writing, etc. The China Study Group meetings (seven hours of them) were very valuable to us. The meeting of the non-northeastern chapters was also an important event. We discussed ways of spurring local initiative so everything does not fall into the laps of the Boston-Cambridge folk. It was especially invigorating to talk with people from the newer chapters about the problems they have had starting and maintaining chapters in “isolated” territories. The entertainment at the conference was superb … the skits were both humorous and political. Good revolutionary culture to take back to the home folk. We observed (and took part in) an interesting technique of fighting sexism and elitism via the pre;post workshop sessions. The food, the housing, the meeting facility, etc. were terrific … the CNVA folk did a really great job. Voluntown is a great place to have a conference.
Now for a few constructive criticisms:
(1) The lack of emphasis on national minorities can only be interpreted as a criminal act. SftP should not be guilty of this sort of thing. Perhaps we should use some of the same tactics we are using to fight sexism and elitism to fight racism (i.e., an article in each issue of the magazine, direct confrontation within SftP, etc.).
(2) Name tags. They are essential if one wants to cater to the new people who will be coming from new chapters. There are just too many new names and faces to keep straight at first. Dammit, this is important, it’s not a bourgeois request.
(3) Ordering of events. Priorities were reflected in the ordering of events in that the last items on the list were not covered well due to a lack of time. Even on the first day, chapter reports from the “outlying areas” were given last and had to be rushed through if we were to be finished on time. Mostly these were the new chapters … the ones we can learn the most from as regards learning how new chapters get started. But the biggest bummer was the fact that the issue of chapter Initiation growth was brought up on the afternoon of the last day of the conference. People were wiped out by then. Many of the people who could have contributed the most had to leave by this time because they had to travel the farthest to get back home. Next year chapter initiation and building should be very early on the agenda.
(4) A hand-out should be prepared with a glossary of terms used in implementing the rules of procedure for those not well versed in parliamentary procedure (i.e, what is a “friendly amendment”, etc.).
(5) Not enough time was spent talking about the magazine and the direction it is taking. This also was scheduled for the last day. Our claim is that the magazine is the most important tool for locating and sparking local initiative to start new chapters, more important even than sending an organizer.
(6) Not enough time was spent talking about our relationship with other groups, issues of national scope, etc. This sort of thing should be talked about more … if not at the conference then more should be done in the magazine (or in the lOB). This sort of thing is important as an outreach procedure. Without more outreach we will stagnate. We need two, three, … many new chapters.