North Star Journey

Nerds of color assemble for ConFluence this weekend

Three people strike poses in cosplay costumes
Leslie Barlow (center) is joined by fellow pop culture enthusiasts Connor Rice (left) and Bobby Rogers (right). Barlow loves cosplay so much, she even themed her wedding to it.
Courtesy of Leslie Barlow

Leslie Barlow is a lover of science fiction, as well as an artist and community educator. While she grew up in a self-professed family of “Black nerds,” she knew that being into science fiction wasn’t always looked at as being “cool.” 

“I went to my first sci-fi convention, and once I found that space, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, there’s so many of us.’ And then I was like, ‘Oh, wait, not quite’... there wasn't a huge, you know, Black and brown representation at that convention.” 

Although she enjoyed sharing her passion for comics, she felt like an outsider as a Black person in a mostly white community. 

This feeling would eventually lead to the creation of ConFluence

“This has been a crazy project. Definitely a labor of love,” said Barlow, who produced the event.

“Everybody that’s involved is like, really passionate about seeing this space happen.” 

ConFluence is a pop culture convention. Like other comic conventions, ConFluence will feature guests, vendors, panels and a dance party. The event is special because it’s meant for people of color and Indigenous people.

“It’s BIPOC-centered and BIPOC-led,” Barlow said. (BIPOC is an acronym for Black, Indigenous and People of Color.)

“We really wanted to make sure that Black, Indigenous and people of color were prioritized and centered in this space, which isn’t typically the case in sci-fi conventions.” 

The idea to create the convention began at Barlow’s wedding, which had a cosplay theme. As Barlow saw the sea of brown and Black faces dressed as characters from popular media, she knew a space for nerds of color, by nerds of color could work.  

“Wearing a costume allowed them to be a little bit more social and a little bit more free with connecting with people they didn’t know,” Barlow said. 

Festival posters hang on a wall
ConFluence: A Cultured Multiverse takes place Nov. 18 and 19 in Minneapolis.
Jacob Aloi | MPR News

After assembling her own team of X-Men, Barlow and her collaborators started the work of creating the space she had been dreaming of. 

“We started meeting in March 2023 ... that’s been nine months. A baby, we have birthed a baby.” 

Ashley Koudou helps artists of color expand their brands and audience with her agency, Mango Day. Through serving as the project manager on the convention, Koudou saw the space as an opportunity for people to express themselves in ways they might not have been able to in the past. 

“I can’t wait to do more of like, this kind of stuff. This is exactly why I like got into this business.” 

Koudou sees the convention as part of a larger movement among Minneapolis’s artists of color to create spaces for themselves, rather than waiting for opportunities from others. 

“We’re seeing this activation, where they’re stepping back and essentially, building something for their own.” 

ConFluence prioritizes working with local, community-based partners for organizing their event, focusing on a grassroots funding method.

“Building this foundation, brick by brick by brick allows us to stay in control of the narrative. And that’s something that I think is slightly different than a lot of other places,” said Esther Callahan, one of the event’s organizers. 

As a mixed-race woman, Callahan knows how powerful representation can be. She recalls seeing Uhura on Star Trek pursue an interracial relationship.  

“It really is world-changing, life-changing soul changing generationally,” Callahan said, reflecting how media and art can shift perspectives. 

“One of the best things about art is that if you pay attention to it, it’s already telling us what’s happening in the world.” 

She hopes ConFluence will foster conversations between science fiction, pop culture and their audiences, exploring their mutual influence.

“Artists are creating futures that will just become a thing. We see this happening in movies, in TV shows, in magazines and comic books.”

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.