Interview: Phoenix Comicon volunteer speaks out

4 JANUARY 2017

Another day, another update in the controversy around the new Phoenix Comicon volunteer policy. If you've missed it so far, here's the deal: to volunteer at PHXCC, you'll need to join social club Blue Ribbon Army and pay $20 for that membership. Outrageous? Logical? Absurd? You decide.

Every Comic Con involves multiple factions - vendors, attendees, guests, volunteers, laborers - and some of those factions matter more than others from a business perspective. While there's a general nod to volunteers as the unsung heroes of any convention, they really don't get enough credit for all of the help they provide in presenting attendees with a great experience - and with helping for-profit event organizers stay successful.

To find out what actual volunteers think about the changes, I interviewed James Palestini, a Phoenix criminal defense attorney and long-term Phoenix Comicon volunteer who has moderated top panels.

James' responses are his opinions and nothing more - so please take them in that spirit, rather than a factual accounting of this issue.

How did you become a volunteer? What inspired you - are you a typical nerd?

4 years ago I answered a "casting call audition" to volunteer.  And no, I'm not. I love everything pop culture. One of the main reason I got involved with Phoenix Comicon was seeing how much it was helping Phoenix and the downtown, by bringing events of that magnitude to the area. I wanted to be part of it.

What kind of shifts did you work?

I'm a moderator, which means I was there 24/7. I've moderated every kind of panel - comic authors, graphic novelists, big movie stars like Jason Momoa.

Ah yes, I was at that panel. A fan offered up a candle for St. Momoa, Patron Saint of the Lustful. What kind of training did you have? I've been to some panels moderated expertly and some that were amateur hour.

The year I auditioned, it was an intense process. We had to submit headshots and they had us read over 3 scenarios. Then we had to get on stage in front of 10+ judges, who picked a scenario and had a coordinator serve as a mock guest. We were judged on intros, handling questions from the audience - they do that to avoid moderators who can't relate to the crowd and then they bomb and make Phoenix Comicon look bad.

It becomes a full-time job with the training and everything else.

When did the change in volunteering get announced?

PHXCC Director Matt Solberg came out with an email last week that sent the nerd community into a frenzy. He talked about decreasing the number of volunteers going forward.

Did he say why?

I don't recall reading why, but there's a professed issue of no oversight on top of these volunteers and making sure they're doing what they're supposed to be doing.

So the official complaint is that some volunteers skipped out and left others holding the bag - which implies a shortage of labor, yet they're going to reduce the force. That doesn't make sense to me. Is there going to be a restructuring so the same amount of work can get done with fewer people?

Not that I know of. As attorney, my perspective is that this could be a smokescreen for avoiding certain volunteer caps and paying minimum wage, and was dressed up as a volunteer accountability thing.

Is your perspective shared by others?

I've spoken with quite a few volunteers - they know I'm an attorney and have asked me about the legal implications. I think it's legal, I think it would stand up to any lawsuit. I'm not saying ethically I support it, though.

Solberg is the director of PHXCC and sits on the board of the BRA. This may be legal, but from a PR perspective, it creates an image of a cabal running things behind the scenes, rather than being open to community input. Do volunteers feel they still have a voice, especially after giving blood, sweat and tears to the Con for years?

No - I don't think they don't feel that way at all. This came straight from Matt. It was an order, not a discussion, though apparently there are a few meetings set up to discuss it further. So maybe things will change. But I doubt it.

This doesn't go against 501(c)7 requirements, and the requirement from the IRS is to make information available to the public, so I don't think Matt would violate that or profit directly from it since he has to be up front.

There's the legality of the issue, but also the community fallout. Comic Cons are popular in part because they're a very accepting environment where outsiders feel at home. Do you think this issue has poisoned that perception locally?

You can see it on the BRA Facebook page. People are posting their dissatisfaction on how it's being handled, critics are trying to quash that and delete posts, people have called each other idiots - it's a terrible thing to see. You want to include everyone, create that feeling of "We're all in this together to have a good time and make friends." But the last week has eroded that pretty heavily.

Will there be difficulty in getting 1300 volunteers for PHXCC 2017?

Not at all. I think Matt knew there would be backlash, but he could take a risk like this because he'd still have enough volunteers.

You're an insider. You know what it's like to volunteer. Do you think there really is an issue with people abandoning their posts? Getting their badges, slipping off into the night never to be seen again yet still somehow enjoying the full Con?

I'm sure there's a small, very small, issue with this. But most people who volunteer do it because they love the Con, not for free tickets. I think this is a smokescreen. And why blame the volunteers? Go after the managers. Put the onus on them and make sure they're following up. Find these people and pull their badge. That might sound difficult but with how well everyone knows each other in the community, I guarantee that could be happening.

They do have oversight. And they do follow up, from what I've seen. So I don't think that's the issue. I think it's more about avoiding paying minimum wage - which is smart from a business perspective. But when you've got volunteers who poured their hearts into this, I think they feel betrayed.

I can see that. It's not just the volunteer shift, it's the meetings, the training. It can feel like a slap in the face to be told hey thanks for your years of free labor, but now you need to jump through more hoops and you still may not get picked.

It's insulting.

People keep telling me, "It's going to become about favorites." Nerds aren't always the most socially outgoing people and there are many shy people who volunteer to make new friends and feel more a part of things. If you now need to be a member of a club, some people may worry they need to go to certain events, schmooze, be part of the cool kids to get picked - whether that's actually the case or not.

That's already happening. Friends have told me BRA is full of cliques and some feel excluded. And with all the in-fighting now, I can see it getting worse.

What's your prediction for the future? I don't think people have soured on the event, but I do think this has become divisive enough to spark alternatives for the pop culture and nerd community in Phoenix.

There very well might be. I wouldn't be surprised if something like that came up. It might be necessary as a protest, a reminder that says, "You went about this the wrong way." Right now people think the protesters are going to drift off but I don't think that's the case.

On the other hand, PHXCC has instituted policies before where there was a backlash and Matt changed them. So that could happen. I don't know what's going to happen here.

And on that note of uncertainty, we'll conclude. There's an all-hands meeting this weekend to discuss this issue; I won't be there but some friends are going to report back to me. Stay tuned!


  1. Wow. This is just sad. As for Palestini's point about PHXCC not wanting to pay volunteers minimum wage, how do the much larger SDCC and NYCC deal with this? Isn't it by offering volunteers free badges for the day(s) that s/he volunteers for? I agree that the folks who want to volunteer and aren't in the BRA's "cool" cliques when it comes time for volunteer selection, they will suffer the most.

    1. A lot of it depends on whether the organization is a nonprofit. CCI is a nonprofit (though there's considerable debate about that, which could be its own blog post.) For-profit organizations, like ReedPOP, are allowed to use volunteers but they have to meet a higher standard of proof in terms of not classifying the person as a contractor or employee. Things like schedules, other paid employees performing the same duties, or other forms of compensation, can all make the issue quite murky. Comic Con volunteers may happily take a comped badge as payment, but the courts are more persnickety.

  2. My spidey senses say shenanigans are behind this. A shame because this is a nice Con.

    1. Hopefully the open dialogues will help dispel any shenanigans that exist.