Leslie Barlow has felt at home with other nerds as long as she can remember. However, as someone who frequents conventions geared toward sci-fi and comic book fandom, she struggled to feel fully welcome as a Black woman.
In recognizing the need for an inclusive space, Barlow sought to bring about a new convention that catered to Black and Brown nerds like herself. That idea became “ConFluence: A Cultured Multiverse,” a two-day convention organized by artists with a focus on centering content made by Black, Indigenous, and people of color.
The convention took place over the weekend at the Northrop King Building in Northeast Minneapolis. Attendees were able to take part in a series of panel discussions, workshops, and a cosplay contest. There was also a marketplace spotlighting diverse artists from the Twin Cities.
Barlow has been attending conventions for over a decade and has enjoyed the sense of community that they brought. “I loved that I didn’t feel quite alone in my interests,” she said.
Despite being able to express her fandom at these conventions, Barlow was disappointed to see the lack of representation across the board. There was a lack of diversity in the invited guests, vendors, and convention staff. She knew she had to address this issue and make a change, but she knew she couldn’t do it alone.
“I figured the first way to do that would be to essentially assemble The Avengers with all the dope nerds of color that I knew,” she said laughing. Barlow reached out to her wide network of artists and organizers in the Twin Cities and was able to coordinate with them on the convention.
Crice, a South Minneapolis-based artist and designer, was among the members of the planning team. He was excited to take part in organizing the event, and because of Barlow’s standing in the artistic community, many people were ready to contribute.
As an avid comic book and anime fan, Crice agreed that there was a need for more spaces for Black and Brown nerds to gather. “When you see yourself not represented in a space you want to create, I think it’s better to create your own rather than try to conform or make space in another realm that doesn’t want you,” he said.
Culturally inclusive community
When planning the event, Crice and other organizers considered what aspects of a traditional convention they would include and how they could best uplift the local community through “ConFluence.” He pointed out the need for more shared spaces in general since the pandemic and civil uprising in the Twin Cities, especially for the artist community.
With panels and workshops covering topics such as Afrofuturism, writing inclusive worlds, BIPOC character design, and Asian and Asian American geeks, diversity was at the core of the convention schedule.
Boisey Corvah attended the convention with his mother and sister and was intrigued at the idea of having a space for other fans of Marvel and Star Wars. “It’s great for tag,” Corvah said about the building. “I think what they’re doing here is really awesome. It’s diverse and it’s for the community.”
On Saturday, Corvah’s younger sister Marwein, dressed as Ahsoka from Star Wars, got fully immersed into the convention experience. “It doesn’t happen a lot where you could just go somewhere and then everybody’s dressed up as a Marvel character,” Marwein said. “I’m thankful for Leslie Barlow for starting this because it’s so cool.”
Dressed in a Ms. Marvel costume, Shalini Gupta spoke to why she brought her sons Anand and Neeraj to ConFluence. “I wanted the kids to see it and be in space where it was envisioning Black and Brown folks,” she said.
“I work in environmental justice, and I feel like reimagining the future is what we have to do. I feel like this is the critical work we have to do. Sci-fi is where it’s at,” said Gupta.
Breasha Turner accidentally ended up bringing her children to the convention, but was excited at what she stumbled upon.
“Our whole family is very big on Marvel and DC and all of it,” she said. Turner came to the Northrup King Building for a COVID vaccination but stayed for the workshops and activities.
“Upstairs we actually saw a lot of Black and Brown artists, and my son was so interested in one of the books from Ron Brown. He ended up giving my son a small card of one of the Spider-Mans. He drew and signed the back of the card for my son because he was so enamored with him.”
Partnering with local companies
ConFluence partnered with Family Tree Clinic and other health groups to provide convention-goers with services and resources while enjoying their time there. Dr. Zeke McKinney from Advocates for Better Health and Mekka Clark from the Stair Step Foundation participated to provide resources to community members.
The ConFluence convention also had a number of sponsors that helped bring the convention together. Among them were Blick art materials, Eastside Food Co-op, Du Nord Social Spirits, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Eric Childs, the owner of Mind’s Eye Comics, was also a sponsor of the event. He attended the Confluence convention donning a Jedi outfit resembling Mace Windu. Standing next to a cardboard cutout of Chewbacca, Childs shared his excitement at having a space where people of color are welcomed and can share their love of all things fandom.
“We’re geeks and we love science fiction, futurism, and pop culture as a whole. But not all spaces promote and let you know that everybody’s welcome. This one had a great emphasis and focus on that,” he said.
Childs said that he works to have a similarly inclusive approach to how he runs his comic bookstore where he advocates for literacy and curates products that ensure everyone sees themselves on the page. He stated that representation is crucial because visualizing ourselves is a fundamental part of how we learn about the world.
“I am so glad I didn’t miss out on it, and I’m looking forward to the next one,” Childs said.