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Open Letter to the ASA Community Concerning the 2021 Annual Meeting

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertainty surrounding vaccine distribution and international travel, the African Studies Association Executive Committee has voted to convene the 2021 ASA Annual Meeting virtually. Although we miss seeing our members, presenters, friends, and colleagues in person we cannot guarantee the safety of our attendees at this time, nor can we guarantee access for our many international members.

While this may be disappointing for some, the ASA strongly believes that making this decision now for a November conference offers distinct advantages, including an event format that you can anticipate with certainty and plan for accordingly. We have already begun to review and expand our digital programming outside the Annual Meeting so that we might continue to build online spaces to facilitate interaction for our constituents online. The 2020 Virtual Annual Meeting taught us important lessons about virtual community building. After careful consideration of your Annual Meeting Participation Survey feedback we are excitedly reimaging some of our events for 2021.

We are committed to increasing access to our Annual Meeting programming and as such, we have simplified our registration rate structure and reduced our registration rates by approximately 40% for 2021. We hope that this decreased fee will assist the participation of our many global constituents including intellectuals that have been previously unable to join us. Increased access will be particularly exciting in light of the new Africa’s Diasporas subtheme, which we anticipate will be a vibrant submission category this year.

We have received many inquiries as to why a virtual meeting is not free to attend for all. We want to be transparent in sharing that webinar and video-conferencing platforms are not free – especially when used on a large scale. A sizeable virtual conference also carries increased security concerns and technological support is necessary to prevent internet harassment and Zoom bombing. We are pleased to report that as a result of our software support there were no incidents of harassment or Zoom bombing in 2020 and we intend to uphold that standard in 2021. In addition to software, a monumental number of ASA and vendor staff hours go into planning and executing the ASA Annual Meeting, without which we would be unable to operate.

In 2020, approximately 80 proposals were deferred in the hopes that we would reconvene in person while others were entirely withdrawn. For those who did not participate last year, we hope that you will reconsider and enrich our meeting by sharing your work in new ways. If you deferred a proposal last year or entirely withdrew, you must resubmit your proposal to the 2021 CFP to indicate your intention to present on this year’s program. Deferred proposals will be automatically accepted by our Program Committee and placed on the program. In addition to including our deferred and withdrawn panelists, this year we also aim to increase our Coordinate and Affiliate Organization sponsored panels by 20% over last year. These organizations are vital to the strength of our community and we look forward to featuring them prominently on our 2021 program.

In order to realize a dynamic and inspiring 2021 Annual Meeting, we ask our long-standing participants to help us spread the word so that we may welcome new scholars and practitioners into the ASA community. We know that the past year has been financially difficult for many, as it has been for the association itself. By holding a virtual conference, we hope that the reduced registration fees, along with the absence of hotel and travel costs, will alleviate some of the economic burdens on our participants. Furthermore, we are proud that a virtual event allows the ASA to do our part to combat climate change, given the incredible reduction of carbon emissions that a flight-and-hotel-free event ensures.

We encourage all of our members, past attendees, and new participants to take the next few months to explore how your research and knowledge can be communicated in digital formats. Do you have ideas about ways to present a paper outside of a standard Zoom presentation? Let us know! We look forward to exploring this digital era together and excitedly await our next gathering.