Creating More Inclusive Events

It's not possible to design a single event that will be of interest to everyone – that's not the goal of culturally inclusive programming. Thankfully we are a community of varied interests, and social preferences. The goal, and in fact, the responsibility of members of the Mount Holyoke College community, is to plan events that are free from the barriers that would make any interested individual feel excluded, uninvited or unwelcome at our programs.

The work of building an event that feels inclusive of, and welcoming to, the many individuals that make up our diverse campus community begins in the very first steps of the planning process. A planning team that is itself already representative of as much social and cultural diversity as possible, will by nature yield events that offer a more culturally inclusive environment. A planning team that is more homogenous when it comes to cultural diversity will likely have to work more deliberately to accomplish meaningful outreach and inclusivity. Additionally, students and guests come to campus with a variety of different physical and processing disabilities and challenges, and smart programming can help to mitigate the challenges they might face when attending or participating in an event. 

All event planners will benefit from energy invested in doing what is practically possible to extend a welcome to everyone in the community – reaching across physical, social and cultural differences to enhance the experience for everyone.

It begins behind the scenes.

The feeling of being “considered,” invited to, and welcome at an event begins long before the start of the event. History, legacy narratives, rumors, and successes of past events will have impact on future events – positively and negatively. Event planners who can thoughtfully evaluate the influence of past events on cultural and social inclusivity will be at an advantage to maximize on the learning.

Outreach that is done when first bringing a planning committee together can convey the first message of intention to be inclusive. Collaborations among organizations, departments, and social circles representing different identity demographics will broaden the scope of the design and the fan-base. A representative planning team will naturally incorporate different points of view, and knowledge bases, as well as broaden the connection to widening circles of potential attendees. A planning team with culturally competent participants will think to ask the kinds of questions, and tap the pertinent resources that will lead to an inclusive event. Some of these thinking points include:

  • Is the date being considered coinciding with any religious holidays important to members of our community? (You can consult an interfaith calendar.)
  • Is the event time being considered, one that makes our event feasible for everyone we hope will attend?
  • Is the venue being considered (and its related facilities) accessible to guests in wheelchairs? Is it comfortable for others with special mobility sight or hearing concerns?
  • Is the venue one that has messages of welcome or exclusion? A bar, hotel, church or temple might carry different messages of who is and who is not welcome. A venue that requires private transportation to get to it might exclude some. Knowing the history of a place, and sharing it with guests might deepen a message of cultural consciousness (even if the cultural history of venue includes negative chapters).
  • Does the core content of the program consider different populations on campus or is it focused narrowly on specific cultural identities? If the latter, is that a deliberate and celebrated program design to meet a chosen interest or need (e.g. “China Night”, “Sophomore Semi-formal”, “Transgender Awareness Week”) versus a poorly considered plan (e.g. a poetry night promoted as the “Best of the Valley Poets” with all 8 presenters being 25 yr.old, able-bodied, white, English speaking only, Episcopalian lesbians born in Amherst). Consider inclusiveness as often as possible.
  • If planning to serve alcohol, has the event been designed so that drinking alcohol neither feels like the only option, a cultural imperative, or disrespectful of those who choose not to drink? Many students will choose not to attend events where alcohol is served because they have had too many negative experiences of having their personal or religious choices being disregarded or belittled. Offer choice, non-alcohol alternatives and present them with at least as much style as the alcohol bar.
  • If serving food, has the committee considered possible dietary requirements of guests vis-à-vis menu items, and serving practices (Halal or Kosher foods, vegetarian or vegan fare, common food allergies, etc.)?

Don’t feel that your event planning committee needs to be expert at all cultural competencies, at every stage of the planning process. No one is! Our globally connected community is wonderfully diverse. Ask for guidance. Do research. Include knowledgeable individuals in your process.

There is no such thing as “neutral marketing”.

After an event is thoughtfully designed behind the scenes, you have to address similar attention to conveying the messages to your audience (and the public at large that is also experiencing your publicity even if they are not attendees). The name, subtitles, images and descriptions used to promote your event will need to be extra conscious of the elements of cultural inclusivity that you hope to promote because often they are out there in the world without the opportunity to explain or clarify them.

Checking your messages against small but diverse “test audiences” is a smart strategy. Have you unknowingly used wording or images that will be experienced by a segment of the community as offensive or alienating? Perhaps in your home-place a message means one thing, but it may carry different meanings to many in our community. Rely on trusted advisors to help.

Often event planners will think they have created a welcoming piece of advertising that would surely be seen as an invitation to “everyone,” only to learn the week after the event that many peers felt they were not invited. Perhaps it was a dance for which all the images on the posters were of heterosexual couples - members of the LGBT community might have felt excluded. Past misperceptions sometimes have to be corrected with assertive advertising content, e.g., an event at Eliot House may carry a stigma of being only for those active in a particular faith, when if publicity stated “everyone welcome” the message would be different. Pictures portraying a single racial grouping, or only very richly dressed people, or only American flag waivers, might be read as exclusive invitations.

A Bulgarian Spring Celebration with posters that are only written in Bulgarian, would limit those who felt invited. Advertising, whether in print or on the web, that takes into account the principles of Universal Design will be more accessible to members of our community with hearing or visual impairments. Use strong visual contrast in color and font choices, type that is 16pt. or larger, alternative text information on web pages, and consider way to promote your event that include both visual and audio announcements. Event promotion that fails to promote wheelchair accessibility or the ability to make special needs arrangements for a sign language interpreter, may exclude individuals - consider carefully your venue choices.  Most frequently on our campus staff members will assume events are for students only unless the event is directly marketed otherwise. Examples abound, but taking the time, as a group – with a “many minds” approach to evaluate your publicity plan for cultural inclusiveness will bring positive results.

The placement of publicity materials can also carry a culturally inclusive or exclusive message. Is your only banner ad on a website that only one social group might visit? Have you flyered only certain areas of the community? Are you being thoughtful about reaching the audience you said you really want?

Considering accessibility of the event and space.

When creating your event it is important to acknowledge what sorts of limitations peers might have with your projected plan. Students, and guests come to campus with a variety of different limitations including physical, mental, and emotional disabilities. As an integral part of campus culture it is important to make your organization and its events accessible to anyone who would like to join.

Please put the following statement on your web and email announcements, paper invitations and flyers: If you plan to attend this event and would like to request disability accommodations, please contact (name of a responsible event organizer)  at (phone and email) by (specific date).

Accessibility Logo for Promotional Materials

This contact person should already have knowledge of options, and a 'best practices' plan for reasonably meeting accommodations requests. See the Event page of the  AccessAbility Services (formerly Disability Services) for greater detail and assistance. 

REMEMBER that venue and program/service accommodations in some venues and circumstances might take time to arrange. Please plan ahead! 

If you have any questions about creating events that are accessible to a variety of different/dis-abilities, please feel free to contact the Student Programs Office, Professional Event Staff and/or the staff of AccessAbility Services (formerly Disability Services).

You really do belong here.

Culturally aware event planning, and smartly designed inclusive publicity campaigns let your potential audience know they have been invited. The last step is to make sure they feel the same sense of belonging once they are at your event.

The design of the space, decorations, arrangement of food, drink, people, greeters, background music selections, emcees and the content of the program all need to be thoughtfully aligned with your mission to do your best to not exclude folks. This does not mean that all messages have to be “safe” from political and social differences, or “represent” every cultural demographic in one evening. Educating across cultural boundaries necessitates that sometimes, some people will feel foreign to an experience or set of information – but the foreignness must not feel like oppression, exclusion, or condemnation. It means that because you have invited a broad community into your event you have a responsibility to attend to their relative safety and sense of being welcome in the space. It means that in an atmosphere of respect for differences, all will feel that they belong in the experience of learning and enjoying new things in the company of community – even while some may feel they are stretching their comfort zones.

The increased quality and richness of your programming will reward your planning team several fold. Stretch yourselves to be as inclusive as possible.

"If you want a strong society, it has to be inclusive. If you have to push a boulder up a hill, do you want 10 people or 100?”
Cyndi Lauper, American singer-songwriter