the black-owned business of blerd: words from the creators of your favorite conferences

July 18, 2017
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By Ian Freeman, AFROPUNK contributor

Geek events like conventions and gaming tournaments initially were a way to help various fandoms network and fellowship with each other over a shared interest. As geekdom grew, these events became larger, more business minded and more mainstream. As they number put on and the sizes of the existing ones increased to encourage larger audiences the panels, the creators, remained very white washed. And even with the increasing presence of people of color as both fans and participants the spotlight still seems to avoid them for the most part as panels, guest cosplayers, etc still rarely include them in the mix. Now creatives and entrepreneurs have begun creating their own spaces to share their geekdoms and this year highlights a few high profile events that are started by people of color to even the field and show the rich diversity and the contributions to geekdom they have made.

We spoke to Hilton George con chair of Blerdcon, Jamie Broadnax co-founder of Universal Fan Con and Curtis Smith founder of Gamer Gauntlet Cruise, who are creating spaces where diversity in geekdom is not only celebrated it’s encouraged to find out what inspired them.

Curtis Smith – Founder of Gamer Tech Events

After putting on a number of events, Norwegian Cruise Lines wanted to tap into Curtis Smith’s talents to help create gaming programming on board their ship, thus creating the VGU Gamer Gauntlet, a floating gaming immersive experience that blurs the worlds between convention, festival and vacation. Taking place in October 2017 the cruise sets sail from Florida to the Bahamas and attendees will enjoy cosplayers, parties, esports tournaments, gaming and a host of other surprises in a uniquely exciting cruise.

AfroPunk: What was the idea behind the VGU Gamer Gauntlet

Curtis Smith: Wanting to do a con but so tired of having the same old format. We wanted something with more of a vacation feel to it but still had the essence of gaming.

AP: Where did you come up with the name Gamer Gauntlet?

CS: My special effects guy actually came up with it. We were talking and he said it needs to be like a gamer gauntlet and we all loved the name

AP: What do you hope to accomplish with the VGU Gamer Gauntlet?

CS: To create a true gamer vacation were pros and everyone else can celebrate gaming while traveling to fun places.

AP: Was it difficult to get it started?

CS: That is an understatement. We have been working on this for 18 months.

AP: What are your plans for the future with the VGU Gamer Gauntlet?

CS: This being our first year we started out with a smaller boat, so of course we want it to grow to the point we have the 5000 passenger boat. The real goal is to have Gamer Gauntlet looked at as the official gamer vacation each year.

AP: Gaming / Esports is big business in the world and is growing quickly in the US do you see it growing in the black community?

CS: We are heavily involved on the consumer side. We need to get involved in all the other aspects of gaming from design, to creation to cosplay to PC gaming, graphic, marketing and even music.

AP: While gaming is in a lot of homes of People of color, the representation in esports isn’t the same. What are some of the reasons for that in your opinion?

CS: We are into console games and that’s because that’s what’s primary in African American homes. We as a community aren’t PC gamers. So if and when that changes then you will see it fill out more.

Jamie Broadnax – Founder of Black Girl Nerds, Co founder/Community Outreach Director of Universal FanCon

After searching Google and not finding one reference to Black Girl Nerds Jamie decided to create a space for women like her who enjoyed being geeks and all the things that came with it. Her proficiency for community building has grown the Black Girl Nerd community and has given Jamie the platform to be an advocate for diversity and inclusion in the geek market. Universal Fan Con was created in this same vein with her community asking for a con that more closely represented what they appreciated about being geek. Taking place in April 2018 in Baltimore, Maryland, Universal FanCon is a new con dedicated to inclusion, highlighting women, LGBTQ, disabled people and persons of color.

Afropunk: What was the idea behind Universal Fan Con? The con space is pretty crowded what made you say, I want to do one of these?

Jamie Broadnax: Well a few years ago members of the Black Girl Nerds community mentioned that BGN should have their own con. So it’s always been sorta put out there in the zeitgeist of the BGN community. And I never really acted on it because I knew that would be a huge undertaking and I’m already doing a lot with just BGN alone. So, I just put it in the back of my mind that was something that I would love to revisit. And I had met with the team over at The Black Geeks and had been having conversations with them about it. One particular member of the team, we actually hashed out a plan to do a con. But we kinda put it on the back burner because, life happens and then we decided to go ahead and act on this. So we put our heads together, had some meetings created UFC and I’m glad that I decided to make this a team effort because BGN has been built on community and it only made sense to make this a community effort. So UFC not only consists of the work that I’m doing but the work of the guys behind the Black Geeks, and then we have affiliates that are working with us as well that help promote and get the word out about what UFC is all about. SO that’s how it all started.

AP: What was the thought process behind the name UFC?

JB: How we came up with Universal fan con I really don’t remember it was just sort of ideas being thrown out of names and universal made a lot of sense because for us this is about not just a specific community. And I’m glad that we decided to go down a different path thinking of a new message being UFC instead of just focusing on the blerd community because it does sort of at times people feel like they are left out like with BGN and our community a lot of folks and followers aren’t black or aren’t women and always feel included but you’re not always going to get that segment of folks that get that feel like because of the name they don’t feel like they’re part of it. So Universal really does in fact encompass everything that is about being diverse and being inclusive and being for all nerds. So that’s what we stand behind with our con and that’s how the UFC name happened.

AP: What do you think has been fueling the growth of the geek market and the POC geek market?

JB: I just know that a lot of folks are wanting to create spaces that reflect people that share their same interests. And BGN and folks like Nerds of Color and Fanbros. They create these spaces because people want to speak about geek culture but they also want to talk about things like race that is important to us as black nerds and nerds of color. Because those conversations get erased a lot on the main stream nerd sites plus we are in a time now in the digital age where its easier to create your own website, launch a podcast have a Youtube channel and create your own media space. I mean you can build a media empire just using simple tools on the internet. And create a following and a lot of people have been able to do that over the years and I think now and again because everything is about social media it’s easier to do that because everyone is plugged in to the internet somehow. So that’s what’s making it more popular that’s what’s making it easier to create their own communities and their own networks and I guess it does make it easier for folks to be marketers in nerd and geek culture.

AP: What do you look to accomplish with UFC?

JB: While I hope that we continue to do what we have been doing which is community building. The work that I have been doing since 2012 and the work the black geeks have been doing for just about the same amount of time if not longer is building communities, fostering relationships. Representing people of color in media and representing all kinds of folks in media not just people/ of color. Like I can speak for myself and my perspective as a black woman but I know that a lot of folks out here now are a part of the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities that want to see themselves reflected., so yeah, the goal of UFC is to build community, to represent marginalized groups and to have a safe space where people can seem themselves and not feel judged feel erased not go to a panel and it’s about diversity in comics and see a whole bunch of white guys on the panel or even see a panel on women in comics and see a bunch of white women on the panel. Actually see diversity reflected in the panels that we hold.

AP: Was it difficult to get UFC started?

JB: No. the work that we have been doing has built us a following. For us as opposed to other people out there who have never had a social media following who are doing this for whatever reasons whether it’s financial reasons whatever, for BGN and for The Black Geeks we’re doing this because this is what we’ve been doing. This is just an additional social media network in some respect. This is just something in addition to what we do as far as running podcasts, a website, a social media network, a Youtube channel, going to cons around the country, being on these panels, talking to fans, doing meet ups, this sis stuff we have been doing for several years now so creating a con just made sense. And it’s not as difficult for us to do this kind of work because our audience is already there, our audience has always been there. It makes sense for us to do this kind of work and not just be in the four corners of the internet and be on twitter all day and doing hashtags and live tweeting, stuff likes that’s been fun and that’s how I’ve been able to galvanize my audience over the years nut kind of taking it to another level by doing a convention. Where I can do all of the things I talk about doing on my website and on social media I can go ahead and present those things in a convention center and people can actually talk and interact with each other and go to panels and go to cosplay events and gaming events and all of these fun things and be able to fellowship with each other in a way they haven’t really been able to do just being connected online. So for us it isn’t that difficult to launch a con especially when you have so many people surrounding you that’s willing to help. I mean as soon as we launched that UFC was happening we got tons of tweets and tons of inquiries through the Kickstarter page with people wanting to help out and volunteer. That means a lot. That’s what community is about. And when you’re a community builder and when you built that repoire and fostered those relationships over the years people will want to help . they see the mission of what BGN has been doing they see the mission that the black geeks have been doing and they want that mission to be carried out and amplified and to get even bigger and better. So far it’s been a pretty smooth process for us.

AP: Who are some of the people associated with UFC?

JB: The affiliates are fans and followers of BGN and the Black Greeks and they are people we have worked with professionally doing meet ups with over the years so we’ve got The Nerds of Color, Fanbros., Graveyardshift Sisters, The Latin Geeks, the Disability Project We made sure to have our affiliate team be diverse as possible so that’s very important for us. So it’s all folks that have been a part of our online community pretty much since I started using twitter. And we’re really happy to have some of those folks on. And I want to get more affiliates to come on board eventually but yeah it’s a team of folks that have been a part of this community for a long time.

AP: Do you think companies are successfully reaching Geek Persons of colors? And if so, why?

JB: I think some folks are hesitant to reach out to us because they feel like this is an exclusive community that this demographic is only specific groups of folks and they don’t feel like we can be marketable to groups outside of black nerds so that’s one hesitation. But then there’s those that reach out. UFC has been working with the team behind American Gods and 3 mantle media has tweeted with us, and we’ve done giveaways with them so there are companies that do see the work that we’ve been doing and want to support it so it just really depends on the company or who the marketer is and where they see the service is to their consumers and if they find it is valuable to reach out to marginalized group that promote pop culture within that space and if that is of value then they’ll reach out. But if they are just kinda old school and don’t understand that target marketing is important then they’re just going to focus on what they know.

Hilton George – Creator and Con-chair, Blerdcon

Being an avid con-goer and observing all of the diversity in the con attendance but not seeing the same reflected on most con’s guest lists and programming Hilton George decided to create a con that celebrated the contributions people of color made to geekdom. Blerdcon’s inaugural event took place July 2017 and welcomed over 1000 geeks to an event celebrating Blerds.

Afropunk: What was the idea behind Blerdcon? The con space is pretty crowded what made you say, I want to do one of these?

Hilton George: I wanted to create a convention that had all of the aspects of full out anime and gaming cons, hotel conference space, 24 hour content, parties, music, panels, workshops all in one. Currently, there are no other conventions focused on diversity and inclusion that have happened in such a space. So this was a pretty hefty concept to bring about. I think the fact that there ARE so many conventions has helped introduce more people to the nerd con experience. There has also been a broadening of the con goer base. That definitely helped make Blerdcon’s inaugural year so successful!

AP: What is Blerdcon?

HG: Blerdcon is derived from the term “Blerd” which is short for “black nerd.” Blerd culture encompasses creatives, fans and producers who are and have been contributing to every fandom, but don’t get the recognition or notoriety. Blerdcon is also an event that highlights and celebrates Blerd culture and creates a marketplace of ideas where sharing that culture can take place with proper context, attribution and positivity. Blerdcon also celebrates our intersectionality with LGBTQ, the disabled, POCs and the international community! All are welcome to partake in the experience as we are an open community who love all the same geekery as all nerddom. It was an interesting needle to thread, creating a Blerd-based con that would be inclusive and open to all. But the response from the entire geek community was overwhelming, drawing over 1,500 attendees, 200+ panel and workshop submissions and dozens of sponsors in our first year!

AP: What do you think has fueling the growth of the geek market and the POC geek market?

HG: Geek culture has seen an explosion in the past 20 years as pop culture has evolved to embrace our fashion, music, movies and stories. Most of us have known that geek was always cool. Now more people are being drawn in as the Marvel movie and television franchises dominate the large and small screens. Gaming and social networking has also solidified our communities in new ways as a new generation of geeks and nerds reach adulthood knowing only sci-fi, comic book, gaming and fantasy stories as mainstream. Blerdcon saw hundreds of whole families attending, cosplaying, gaming and geeking. Grandparents with their adult children, grandkids and spouses all in cosplay. For so many, we are the right con at the right time.

AP: what do you want to accomplish with Blerdcon?

HG: Representation and recognition of the value of our community to all the geek fandoms. The embrace of Blerd culture as nerd culture that everyone can connect with and enjoy. We are in tough societal times with our politics emphasizing the artificial lines that divide us. The geek community represents the last and only group that can connect above those lines, with our nerddom as the connective tissue. Can we create a situational space where minds and hearts can be opened long enough to bind us before fear and ignorance separate us? Can we fall in love as a geek family in a space that mutes division? Blerdcon 2017 indicates that we absolutely can!

AP: Was Blerdcon difficult to get started?

HG: No one can know all the personal sacrifice that went into bringing Blerdcon to bear, so I won’t talk about all that the team and I went through. What matters is that this was/is a mission and a movement that was worthy of any and all expense. That being said, there was an embrace of Blerdcon by the convention community that I could not have predicted. We received so much support from major anime and gaming cons that helped make our success possible. The concept was something they felt was necessary and we were seen as having the legitimacy to bring it to the marketplace in a way that other conventions might not have. At times we had difficulty in communicating the vision to the con goer community. Walking the fine line of a convention centered around Blerd culture that would also include other underrepresented communities while also being open to all, was tricky. But I knew that once people experienced it, they would understand that we as Blerds aren’t just one thing. We are more than just black nerds. To appreciate ourselves, we have to include our whole selves, our stories and our bonds. Seeing it all come together was the most rewarding part of Blerdcon for me.

AP: Do you think companies are successfully reaching Geek Persons of colors? And if so, why?

HG: I do. But it’s because they are the gatekeepers through which all the fans must pass. Are they maximizing their targeting of POCs? No, but they are doing a better job than 10 years ago. What needs to happen is that they reach into the grassroots to bring creatives, writers, directors, artists from the POC community to lead all efforts. It’s not enough to just have reflective product if we aren’t part of the telling of our stories. There is so much untapped talent out there for which there as a huge market. The first companies to take this on are going to own a huge chunk of the geek market!