Volunteers, Former Senior Staff Boycott Ohayocon Convention

Dating back to 2001, the cleverly named Ohayocon is Ohio’s oldest and longest-running anime convention. Attracting an estimated 13,000 attendees in 2023, it’s without question one of the larger anime conventions in Ohio as well (rivaled only by Colossalcon, whose latest reported attendance of 17,374 people comes from 2015). But longevity doesn’t necessarily mean that all’s well at Ohayocon, as over 91 individuals, including former senior leadership members and year-round volunteers, are boycotting the convention following the termination of Cody Marcum, the convention’s former con chair who’s been with the con since 2009, and Erin [last name withheld by request], the former director of marketing. Ohayocon is currently scheduled to take place January 19–21.

Ohayocon 2001 banner art
Banner art by Young Wang

Formed in late 2022, the Conventions of Ohio Volunteer Event Network (COVEN) is, in their own words, “a collective formed by former Ohayocon volunteers” who seeks to address “concerns related to volunteer representation and accountability within Ohayocon’s new governing body, Cultural Exchange Society Inc. (CESI). Recognizing a historical trend of volunteer voices going unheard, COVEN aims to serve as a platform for collective bargaining with the CESI Board of Directors.” Furthermore, an October 3, 2023 Reddit post by former Ohayocon gaming director Ben “Chuloon” Ng alleges that the “non-stop abuse [Ohayocon Executive Director] Melissa [Phelps] reigns down” was also a significant factor in the formation of COVEN.

When asked about her previous involvement with the con, Ohayocon Executive Director Melissa Phelps claimed to have held various positions within the con since 2000, though she wouldn’t become an owner until 2011—and even then, she wouldn’t become sole owner until 2022. She told Anime News Network about her involvement with the con between 2011 and 2021: “During this time, the partnership was split in half where I focused on the show and [Ohayocon’s former other owner] Alan [Shaw] handled all business compliance issues.” Phelps stated her roles have included convention chairman, programming director, co-senior director of relations, among others.

Phelps told ANN that CESI was formed in December 2021 (though it was not recognized as a legal existence until March 2022). Per Phelps, CESI was founded “with the goal of achieving non-profit status. Our mission is to increase Asian culture awareness while serving the communities and industry that our signature event, Ohayocon, is part of. Our current structure includes a Board of Directors and three event-oriented directors.” The board applied to the State of Ohio for CESI to be recognized as a charitable event in March 2022. The application was accepted in June 2022. Furthermore, according to Phelps, CESI, “began application with the Treasury for 501C3 in May 2022, and we are still in the process of applying.”

As of the time of writing, CESI’s board of directors consists of Emily DeJesus (Chairman of the Board), Justin Nordell (Treasurer), and Phelps’ daughter and Board Member, Katie Phelps. Melissa Phelps and Abby Berding are non-voting members. While she’s no longer a voting member of CESI’s board of directors, Phelps has confirmed with ANN that Berding is currently Ohayocon’s “Convention Director.”

Marcum told ANN about CESI’s structure and relation to Ohayocon, “It is important to also note that Melissa still owns the Ohayocon brand and trademark, and CESI is still not a federally recognized nonprofit, with no formal ties to Ohayocon. Meaning Melissa effectively is still owner and sole proprietor of the event, with CESI only having what authority she grants them.”

Phelps didn’t dispute Marcum’s claim—“On paper, this is true,” she told ANN, “but the goal is to be a non-profit, and so, I decided in ’22 that we would act as if the ink is dried, and we were the real thing. This would help prepare us for [non-profit status].”

Talks between COVEN and CESI began as early as March 2023. COVEN’s demands—which are detailed here—included, but aren’t limited to: fair compensation, the prohibiting of CESI board members “from receiving compensation over the average compensation value of staff leaders who do not sit on the board,” the immediate adoption of a code of conduct that everyone would be beholden unto, more transparency in budgetary matters, updated labor policies, and for CESI’s “outright purchase and ownership of Ohayoconʼs brand materials, including logo and mascot.”

There’s a Google Drive with more detailed background information and documentation about why these demands were so important to COVEN. Of particular note, however, is the matter of finances. According to documents in the Drive, Phelps intended to financially compensate her position: “$10 an hour from the beginning of the company at $15,300, and Proposed Salary at $22 an hour.” This was a significant point of contention for reasons including but not limited to potentially causing a conflict of interest and questions of whether or not such an amount was fair and affordable. Marcum alleged the convention’s financial issues were due to “historical misuse and misappropriation of funds” under Phelps’ leadership.

Marcum claimed in the Discord server on October 3 that “the last two years I have been Convention Director started on a budget of $0.” Marcum alleged this was due to “ineptitude and theft” by Phelps and Shaw.

A segment from an early argument about the prospect of Phelps’ payment.

In the con’s former official Discord server, Marcum said, “She cited other cons as paying owners during her arguments for why she deserved a $60k/year salary. This is false, especially from a non-profit side (which is what we supposedly are trying to be).” Marcum cited Anime Central (run by the Midwest Animation Promotion Society) and Otakon (run by Otakorp) as examples where owners are not paid, as per non-profit conventions’ public tax filings. Tax filings on the IRS’ site for the non-profits that run these conventions, which are from 2015–20 and 2016–2017 respectively, show that none of their leaders were paid during this period. Similarly, this is also the case as per additional tax filings for these non-profits available on ProPublica: 2021 and 2022 for Otakorp, and 2002–14 for the Midwest Animation Promotion Society.

Marcum discusses Phelps’ salary request in the Discord channel

The former official Ohayocon Discord server has become something of a home base for the former senior leadership team and their supporters. While the Discord server used to be officially associated with the con, Ng clarified in the server that the former staff members banned Phelps.

Ng confirms that Phelps is banned from the channel

Griffin Parker, the Discord server’s owner, and Ohayocon’s former gaming industry liaison, indie gaming showcase curator, and charity liaison clarified that all of the current CESI members are also currently banned and said about the server, “The Discord server is more active than it’s ever been before! In total, we have nearly 4,000 passionate members of the community. Since Ohayocon has locked down the comments and group posting ability from their entire social media portfolio, the Discord server formerly affiliated with Ohayocon has seemingly become the only place prospective attendees can communicate about the Ohayocon situation. In addition, attendees and staff from years prior have gathered to commiserate the fall from grace of an event so many of us held dear. I and the former leadership team do our best to battle misinformation regarding the situation surrounding Ohayocon, even directing attendees to official Ohayocon/CESI channels as needed.”

Parker told ANN that the bans of Phelps and CESI members do not appear in the audit log, and he, therefore, can’t tell precisely who banned them, when they were banned, and why they were banned. Discord servers store an audit log of bans for 45 days, after which the log is purged.

When asked about whether or not the Discord server would ever potentially and voluntarily allow Phelps or CESI back into the server, he replied, “Rule #1 in the server is ‘Be nice. If you bully people, use slurs, hate speech, invite harm, or gang up on people, you will be warned, then banned.’ At this time, I believe myself and the moderator team are in agreement that the members of CESI who are banned have broken that rule repeatedly in their conduct with us to date.”

“We will be addressing this and the Instagram account after Ohayocon,” Phelps told ANN when asked about the Discord server. “There is stuff we can do, but unfortunately, we just do not have time.”

Of all the possible things, it was a logo dispute that put tensions at a boiling point. While it’s unclear if or how many people within the con were aware of this before 2023, the convention’s official logo at the time—a red cross in a circle with a white background—violated the Geneva Conventions. …Yes, really. Per the International Committee of the Red Cross, “The red cross and red crescent emblems are protected symbols under international humanitarian law and national laws. Any use that is not expressly authorized by the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols constitutes a misuse of the emblem. Use of these emblems by unauthorized persons is strictly forbidden.” In the U.S., the only “authorized persons” are the American Red Cross and the Armed Forces Medical Corps. Per the American Red Cross, “Congress understood the importance of protecting the Red Cross emblem and made its unauthorized use a crime in federal criminal statute 18 U.S.C. §706. This statute prohibits not just fraudulent use of the Red Cross emblem, but any use.”

The American Red Cross has been known to take the protection of their emblem very seriously. It’s why, for example, video games no longer use this symbol to indicate health.

On February 17, 2023, the American Red Cross reached out to Ohayocon to alert them about the con’s “Use of Infringing and Diluting Red Cross Marks.”

The American Red Cross’ initial email to Ohayocon

Ultimately, the American Red Cross allowed for a settlement agreement that would give Ohayocon until April 30 to phase out the use of the emblem “from all social media accounts, websites, electronic and internet communications, and email signatures.” In compliance with this agreement, the con announced its “new temporary logo” on April 22. While it would indeed prove to be temporary, the word “new” is doing a lot of work, as it was the same logo that the con had been using, but now blue rather than its typical red.

A segment from the settlement agreement between the American Red Cross and Ohayocon

Per COVEN conveying committee member and former Ohayocon volunteer services director and Erin’s sister Kirsten (last name withheld by request), it was during this same month that the search for a totally new (and not Geneva Conventions-breaking) logo was starting to make substantial progress. Beyond her previous work as Ohayocon’s director of marketing, Erin is a professional artist and “created four pages of multiple logs and revised them multiple times for CESI and senior leadership.” Ultimately (or, after a process that was exactly that—a process), this resulted in the creation of what’s referred to as the sakura logo: another red, circular logo, but with a white sakura flower in the center.

“I was originally told that the sakura logo wasn’t what they wanted, I told them I wouldn’t be doing more rounds of mock-ups until they could tell me what they did want,” Erin alleged in the Discord, “I never got a response after that.” On another occasion, Erin further alleged: “I’ve had Melissa tell me multiple times that my work looks like clipart, and that it’s not hand-drawn, and I’m not a “real” artist because I didn’t hand-draw the logo, etc., etc.”

Former volunteer services director Kirsten details the alleged logo timeline
Former volunteer services director Kirsten details the alleged logo timeline
Erin explains the request for a new logo in the Discord channel
Erin explains the request for a new logo in the Discord channel
Erin explains the request for a new logo in the Discord channel

An email exchange between Phelps and Marcum from early September shows Phelps said that the sakura logo was rejected because “It looks exactly like a vector image you can find on Google (cherry blossom vector art). I, however, wanted it to be hand drawn and completely differentiated from other logos, so I did not approve of Erin’s logo draft,” and because “the stamen of the flower looks like a butthole.”

In response to these statements, Marcum replied, “The logo that was recently launched was not a stock image; it was thoughtfully handcrafted by Erin, our Director of Marketing. This unique design was selected after careful consideration, and it was intended to replace the previous logo that had raised copyright concerns. I understand and appreciate your commitment to ensuring that our logo is distinctive and not based on readily available stock images. I believe Erin’s artistic work in creating this new logo reflects this goal, and I support her efforts in this regard.”

Kirsten further alleged that three months of CESI’s board members being invited to, but not attending, meetings regarding the logo would pass before “the Ohayocon [then-senior leadership] voted unanimously to put the new logo in place, as we were nearing the deadline for signage purchasing, and needed to redo all signs due to all of the signage having the Red Cross logo on them.” Marcum alleged the same when ANN asked about what happened, though added that the departure of Abby Berding, whom he described as, “the only source of any activity within CESI,” from CESI’s Board of Directors in June 2023 made the matter more difficult as well.

“It was upsetting and awkward. We [Phelps and the CESI board] were all accused of really rotten things we had little to no part in, and then when we objected, we were treated like those 4 months of meeting just didn’t happen and we were still guilty,” Phelps told ANN about the working environment following Berding’s resignation from the Board, “Even though the talks concluded and it was found we did not do what they said in [the October 2 message], we were still treated like the bad guys. It was traumatizing and very sad.”

On September 1, Marcum changed the con’s logo on the con’s website and social media to the sakura logo. Phelps claims this was done without CESI approval and that, “CESI sent correspondence to the 2023 convention chair [Cody Marcum] requesting that the Ohayocon logo be reverted to the previously approved blue logo.”

Former volunteer services director Kirsten explains issues with logo approval
The temporary blue logo, and the sakura logo

Per Phelps, the sakura logo, “had been explicitly turned down by CESI for reasons that include copyright concerns.” Those copyright concerns revolve around Sakura of America—a company that makes and sells stationery and art supplies. “Reimplementation of the [sakura] logo would result in a second potential logo lawsuit in a calendar year,” said CESI in a later document—a company that makes and sells stationery and art supplies.

Kirsten, while not completely disputing this, alleged that, “Following the September 1st release of the new logo, both Emily and Melissa attended the Senior Leadership meeting that following week. Neither made any mention of the logo in that meeting. Any trademark concerns regarding that logo were first brought to our attention in the CESI public official response on October 6th, [2023].”

Similarly, Marcum claimed early on that, “It [the resemblance between the logos] was additionally never brought up between March when the logo was first designed and presented, and October when they “fired” me and Erin for its use.”

Marcum explains his and Erin’s firing related to the logo
The Sakura of America logo, and Ohayocon’s sakura logo

“So I can see where they’re coming from. My initial design was red on white, and I was asked to swap it. In addition, before now, I had only ever seen Sakura [of America]’s logo in black on their pens,” said Erin in the Discord server about the resemblance between the two logos, “That being said, it still doesn’t excuse the treatment of staff in general and the lack of communication surrounding it. They also did not bring up this concern until yesterday [October 5, 2023] (in DMs to my sister because they’re allergic to talking to me).”

Erin explains the alleged lack of communication regarding the logo on Discord

“Following Sept 1 and the posting of the logo and switching of branding, Melissa reached out to our marketing director [Erin] and me demanding the logo be switched back, which I denied due to the business need at the time, as well as the previously stated reasons of this having been a planned move,” Marcum said. “Following a few email exchanges in which it was explained that the new branding would be kept, the matter was dropped, and at least two senior and all leadership meetings were held in September that Melissa did then join, where the logo was not discussed.”

Marcum’s response to a September 1 email from Emily DeJesus, telling him to take the sakura logo down

“The Board met on September 6th and voted to remove Cody Marcum from the position of Convention Director and the Convention and to remove Erin [last name redacted] from Social Media and Website Management. (really anything that involved access to our IP). We didn’t immediately remove him because I did not want to fire him,” Phelps told ANN, “I asked the board for a month to attempt to sort this out through discussion and reasoning. After I asked him to change the logo, he stopped replying to me. Mid-September: I attended the Leadership Meeting and directly asked for access to the assets Ohayocon pays for and uses for the show. We had no choice but to fire Cody and remove Erin from Marketing.”

Phelps told ANN that she no longer had meeting notes from September 6 and that she would ask Nordell if he had them. ANN reached out to Nordell for comment and the meeting notes, but did not receive a response by press time.

And so on October 2, Marcum and Erin were informed they lost their positions within the con. That same day, a number of the con’s then-senior leaders alleged losing access to tools they use to run the convention. In the case of Ng, for example, he told ANN that he “was locked out of both emails, the FB [Facebook] account of which I was the main moderator, and website access. I was also removed from all FB messenger chats.” COVEN conveying committee member and former Ohayocon director of operations, Liam “Cable” Rigsby, further alleged, “We used a GSuite setup for managing the entire show. I lost access to it and everything associated with it, including our Amazon Business account.”

This led a number of the con’s then-senior leaders to believe at the time that they, in addition to Marcum and Erin, had also been fired—that Phelps had fired the con’s senior leadership.

“To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was fired. However, being that Erin and Cody were fired, I felt the locking out was indicative of an impending termination,” Ng told ANN.

COVEN Communications Committee Chairperson and former Ohayocon PC gaming volunteer and lead shoutcaster Andy ‘j0kerr’ Sturm, shares that they believe, ‘almost all of the department heads have lost access to the things they need to run their departments.’
J0kerr and Ng allege that much of the con’s senior leadership, including Marcum, has been fired. This was later shown to be incorrect, as only Marcum and Erin would be fired.

“We became aware that we had lost access around 7:08 PM EST on October 2nd. This was only a few minutes after we had been informed by Cody that he received an email severing his Volunteer Relationship with Ohayocon,” Kirsten told ANN. “When we first became aware of the issue, Marketing, Operations, and Volunteer Services were all trying to work on inventory, as well as outreach and volunteer confirmation for the next round of applications. There was 0 prior communication that there would be maintenance on the email.”

Kirsten provided ANN with screenshots from a private Discord server meant for the con’s then-senior leadership, which ANN has verified the authenticity of. Phelps was not a member of this server. According to Kirsten, this was because “Melissa and Emily had both openly discussed their dislike for Discord and stated it was a struggle to use. It was rare for us to see them in any of the Discord servers more than once a year.” Parker agreed that Phelps and DeJesus were “open about their dislike of the Discord platform – despite Melissa’s frequent statements about how much she missed the Ohayocon forums, which have not been active in many, many years.”

Cable reached out to Phelps in response to their email issues. At 7:12 P.M., they shared the response they got with the rest of the private server: Phelps said that she was “in the process of making HUGE changes, and I have disabled some emails as we make this change; things should be online shortly.”

“Keep in mind this was after the ‘volunteer relationship’ with the former Con Chair had been ‘severed,” Kirsten said. She further added that by 7:46pm, “we [the then-senior leaders] started to draft the response that was posted on the website. Of the [three] Senior Leadership accounts left enabled, one […] had the ability to manage the website.”

The message was soon posted to the con’s Discord server and website. A Reddit post and a screenshot by a member of the Discord server show the post was on the con’s Facebook page as well, though the post has since been removed. While the message was posted to the Discord server on October 2 at 8 P.M. EST, approximately an hour after staff lost access to their email accounts, the timing of the message being put on other platforms, such as the website, is unclear. The message read:

A statement posted on the Ohayocon website via the Wayback Machine

“In a shocking turn of events, Melissa Phelps, the President of the Board of Directors of Cultural Exchange Society, Inc., has initiated a hostile takeover by firing and removing access from a majority of the Senior Leadership Team. This sudden and unexpected move has sent shockwaves through the community of Ohayocon Volunteers.

The Senior Leadership Team at Ohayocon has been an integral part of the convention’s success, providing guidance, experience, and dedication to the event’s growth and improvement over the years. Their contributions have helped Ohayocon become one of the most beloved and well-attended conventions in the region.

The abrupt removal of the Senior Leadership Team has raised concerns among the Ohayocon volunteer community about the future direction of the convention and the well-being of the volunteers who pour their hearts into making the event a success year after year. Many volunteers and attendees have voiced their support for the ousted leaders and are calling for transparency and accountability in the wake of this takeover.

We stand with the volunteers of Ohayocon and urge everyone to support the dedicated individuals who have worked tirelessly to make this convention a cherished experience for all attendees. We believe in the values of community, collaboration, and inclusivity that have defined Ohayocon for years, and we call on Melissa Phelps to address the concerns and questions of the community openly and honestly.

As this unexpected change unfolds, supporters of Ohayocon are encouraged to voice their concerns, ask questions, and seek clarity on the future of the convention. Melissa Phelps and the other members of the Cultural Exchange Society Inc. Board of Directors have a responsibility to address the concerns of the community and provide reassurance that the convention will continue to prioritize the values and traditions that have made it a beloved annual gathering.”

Many members of Ohayocon’s community, including a number of volunteers, initially believed this supposed “mass firing” was intended to be something along the lines of a punishment for the existence and efforts of COVEN, a way for Phelps and CESI to achieve more power, and a means to prevent the then-senior leadership from collectively bargaining with CESI in a manner similar to COVEN. A number of people across social media channels used the phrase “union-busting” to describe it.

Another, much shorter message stated, “We’re dealing with toxic management trying to prevent us from unionizing by firing our con chair! We’ll be back eventually,” that also temporarily appeared on the Ohayocon website (the longer message soon replaced it) on the evening of October 2 reflects this.

Cable, Kirsten, and Ng told ANN that this shorter message wasn’t pre-approved by everyone within the now-former senior leadership group. This stands in contrast to the longer message.

Kirsten said, “Members of Former Senior Leadership were invited to contribute or edit the statement [the longer message] as prepared; out of urgency to inform the public as soon as possible, not all members had time to participate in that process. It was approved for release after all members of Former Senior Leadership present at the time voted on it.” In any case, COVEN and the now former senior leadership—which have some crossover but are not the same group—are comprised of volunteers. Thus, they cannot be classified as a federally protected union per the NLRA.

ANN has been unable to verify precisely when, on October 2, the con’s then-senior leadership posted their message on the Ohayocon website.

An October 6 statement by CESI read, “While CESI would love its Ohayocon volunteers to have the ability to unionize, National and Ohio State Labor Laws prevent unpaid volunteers of any kind from forming a union. As such, no Ohayocon union has ever or could ever exist, and no “union busting” has or even could take place. CESI encourages its volunteers to communicate to them all of their needs, wants, hopes, dreams, fears, and aspirations through individual correspondence or collective bargaining.”

Cable told ANN that it’s his opinion that even if it’s not legally “union-busting,” the function is still the same as though it were.

“I don’t believe a word that comes out of Melissa’s mouth,” he said about the matter. “I consider their attempts a form of union-busting, regardless of the status of our recognition by the NLRB.”

Ng told ANN that while he has conflicting opinions about certain aspects of this, he currently doesn’t believe that this was intended to be a “union-busting” effort “because Cody and Erin didn’t really have a ton to do with the COVEN stuff. From my perspective, because everything came out all at once, the public connected the two and came to the ‘union-busting’ conclusion.”

Kirsten told ANN, “We [former senior leadership] aren’t a union. So no, I never thought it was a union-busting effort.” She added that it’s her opinion that “CESI was threatened by the quality of work that the former Senior Leadership was able to create. We were starting to bring skills and talents cultivated through schooling and professional careers to the convention.”

But regardless of whether or not they used the phrase “union-busting,” a significant number of people across social media channels believed this was indicative of an internal power struggle.

Phelps has disputed the allegations that the con’s then-senior leadership lost access to critical tools. She told to ANN, “These claims of losing access to tools and Facebook happened after they took over the rest of our online assets. They took over our website and Facebook, removed me from Discord, and kicked me off the webconnex/registration software and our 10-year-old Instagram. There was a blip in our email service while I merged and updated our Gsuite to Workspace. It was more extensive than I expected, but this wasn’t the first time we had an email issue. This was the first time someone plastered the front page with how we were union busters and how I did a hostile takeover. This situation has been both absurd and upsetting. On Oct. 2nd, even while they were posting online that they were fired and locked out of their emails, they were actually in their emails and, as of that moment, had not been fired. Once things started getting taken over we started to lock down our online assets and removed people who abused that right from all access to anything belonging to the convention.”

“[The Ohayocon] Instagram and Facebook are linked, and she owns the Facebook page. It’s not really possible she lost access to Instagram due to that,” Ng told ANN about Phelps’ allegation that she had been kicked off the social media site. Erin agreed with this statement. Ng further told ANN regarding the allegation that Phelps had been kicked out of Webconnex/registration software, “To be honest, I’m not overly clear on the timing of it all, but I know we didn’t do anything to lock her out. As far as I’m aware, the only thing we did to Ohayocon assets was post that statement on the website. No other locking out or disabling accounts happened.” Cable agreed with this statement.

Ng shared that he doesn’t believe Phelps’ explanation for the former staff’s loss of email access.

Additionally, Cable told ANN in response to Phelps’ statement, “[Her] timeline is backward. Melissa reset the account passwords because we refused to give them to her, as this would be a violation of IT best practices. The IT policies were set by me, the IT guy. Later, Cody received a termination notice from CESI, which is when the site got taken down along with everything else.”

When asked about Cable’s allegation that she “reset the account passwords because we refused to give them to her,” Phelps responded, “I did not reset the passwords for that reason. I was updating, deleting, and consolidating emails. We had over 12 old email boxes, and those emails did get their emails reset. I did have to check to see if the consolidation worked. Not all of them had that happen. Just a few, [it’s not] like everyone was kicked out of their box. I’m not 100% [sure] who was bumped out, but when I found out, I sent out the email passwords right away.”

“I did ask for access to all of our assets. As executive director, it is my job to oversee the protection of all of the Ohayocon assets. I initially asked Cody, and I went to a meeting in September and asked for them directly. I do not believe that I can play the sole owner card as well as be someone who should not have access to our web assets. Many of them are in my name. What they did was not warranted or legal.”

Cable agreed that Phelps did ask for access to the assets in question, but said that her request “was refused as a security risk.” He further alleged that Phelps didn’t send out the passwords right away.

While former leadership didn’t publicly post about the loss of their tools in the now-former Ohayocon Discord until after the website was changed, staff claim that the loss of con running tools was the reason why people other than Marcum and Erin believed they were fired. They allege it was this belief that there had been a mass firing that led to the message being posted on the website and Discord in the first place. Ng, for example, told ANN, “Yes, the message went up in response to them locking us out.”

The exception to this is the Facebook page, which Erin wouldn’t report losing access to until 8:13 P.M.—13 minutes after the statement went live on Discord.

A member of the Discord server allegedly posts a screenshot of the message on the Ohayocon Facebook page.

Despite an October 2 Twitter post by Ohayocon stating that CESI had “parted ways” with Marcum and Erin, CESI has denied that the con’s then-senior leadership, as well as Marcum and Erin, was fired, although Phelps would later allege the Board voted for Marcum and Erin’s removal in September. Later statements from CESI denied or obfuscated this fact. In an October 6 statement, for example, CESI stated, “Contrary to misinformation swirling online, NO volunteers or members of the Senior Leadership Team have been fired from Ohayocon, and only [two] positions have been dissolved in the organizational chart shift.”

It is unclear if Marcum’s former position of con chair was “dissolved” as described by CESI’s statement or rebranded as “convention director,” the position now held by Berding. ANN asked Phelps to clarify what distinguishes “convention director” from “con chair” but did not receive a response by press time.

Ohayocon announces on Twitter that they have ‘parted ways with’ Erin and Marcum

On November 9, CESI Treasurer Justin Nordell said, “No one’s been fired, and even Cody was told that he was going to be repurposed and that we would love to have Cody stay on.”

Initially, Phelps told ANN on December 14, 2023, “The events surrounding our rebranding and restructuring resulted in our convention chair and other individuals being displaced from their current position, but they are welcome to volunteer in another capacity or apply for one of the new event director positions.”

Later, on January 15, 2024, Phelps would tell ANN, “Initially, they [Marcum and Erin] were only removed from their positions, but their immediate behavior got them fired. Making things extremely confusing behind the scenes. Yes, we only removed two people from their positions, not the convention initially, but their actions on 10/2 [are] why they were subsequently fired. Is it a lie to say they were not fired initially? No, it isn’t, but it got super complicated VERY fast.”

Phelps would further clarify to ANN that same day, “No, not all of the volunteers were fired. Two of our leaders were removed from their positions. The fallout from their removal is what you see here. So, many have conflicting accounts on this matter, but only two leadership members were removed from their positions. The Convention Chairman and The Director of Marketing, for changing the company’s business logo without authorization and refusing to change it back. This serious matter was not taken lightly, nor should it be.”

Marcum told ANN that he believes that it’s appropriate to describe what happened to him as having been “fired” and that CESI’s non-usage of this word in an official capacity is “damage control.”

“On October [2nd], Melissa revoked access from myself, as well as every member of leadership across the organization from our business accounts, and I received an email to my personal account from Emily DeJesus stating that ‘We (the board) are discontinuing our volunteer relationship. Again, thank you for your commitment to Ohayocon and many years of service. The Board wishes you the best of luck in your future endeavors,’” Marcum told ANN. “This was taken as my being terminated, fired, or whatever other terminology wished to be used. The removal of access of the rest of the leadership’s accounts was additionally taken as a mass firing event of leadership as a whole. I, as well as the senior leadership team, declared an immediate strike, based on the unclear firings (which quickly just became myself and the director of marketing based on public statements by CESI).”

Only two days later, on October 4, the Ohayocon senior leadership team sent CESI’s board of directors a list of parley demands: Marcum’s reinstatement as con chair, for Marcum to have power over Ohayocon’s contracts and finances, for CESI to not directly involve themselves with Ohayocon’s “year-to-year planning,” the reinstatement of other senior leaders that the con parted ways with either due to COVEN’s existence or matters relating to the sakura logo, the reinstatement of the sakura logo, for public relations to be handled by Ohayocon’s senior leaders, and for CESI board members to stop posting to Ohayocon’s Facebook page and group.

“We believe that implementing these demands will contribute to the long-term success and sustainability of Ohayocon. These actions will foster a positive environment for both attendees and organizers,” the letter concludes, “We kindly request that you consider these demands seriously and engage in constructive dialogue to address the concerns raised by the Ohayocon community.”

CESI had until 9 pm on October 6 to respond to these demands. Nordell sent a response in which CESI rejected all but one of the parley demands: “Restriction on Cultural Exchange Society Inc. Board Members’ Social Media Activity as it Relates to Ohayocon: Board members should discontinue posting to the Ohayocon Facebook page and Official Ohayocon Facebook group until otherwise notified by Ohayocon’s Senior Leadership. This step is necessary to maintain clear communication channels and present a unified message to our community.” instead, however, they posted the following statement to their website:

Ohayocon was founded in 2001 and has gone on to become the largest and most beloved Japanese culture and anime convention in the state of Ohio. What is unique and wholly special about Ohayocon is its makeup of passionate fans who come together to create not only a magical weekend with memories that are cherished for a lifetime but a community that is a welcoming safe space for all. Even just saying the name ‘Ohayocon’ to anyone who has ever attended, elicits immediate mental images of stunning costumes, engaging panels, competitive gaming tournaments, vibrant screenings, hallways overflowing with smiles and laughter, and chosen family.

Ohayocon returned in person to Columbus, Ohio in 2022 and while it was a successful event in many regards, it was not without a myriad of challenges. As fandom saw conventions throughout North America cease operations, Ohayocon president Melissa Phelps sought a way to ensure that the beloved annual gathering could grow and thrive for decades to come even after she passed the baton. To do so, Ohayocon has made the transition from being a for-profit single weekend convention to a year-round non-profit entity known as the Cultural Exchange Society, Inc. (CESI). Very little will change for the attendees of Ohayocon, but for the organization and convention as a whole, the changes will be overwhelmingly positive! It will allow the organization to receive grants to strengthen offerings, have sponsors and donors to support the mission, and engage our community to keep that Ohayocon feeling going all year long.

Since the beginning, the backbone of Ohayocon has always been our volunteers, an ever-evolving group of experts and enthusiasts who come together to provide an exceptional experience for all of Ohayocon. We simply could not and would not be Ohayocon without them. Yet for too long, Ohayocon has overworked and underappreciated some of our most loyal volunteers simply due to the sheer volume of tasks and responsibilities. With the shift to nonprofit status, CESI is elated that we will be able to bring on full-time and seasonal staff that are paid and valued, independent contractors, provide stipends to key Senior Leadership Team volunteers, in addition to offering all of our phenomenal volunteers the perks and accommodations that they know and love to ensure that all of their time, talent, and treasure is valued.

In this exciting transition, CESI has planned to retire three unpaid positions and bring on an Executive Director, Convention Director, Attendee Experience Manager, and Volunteer Coordinator to ensure the convention’s continued success and CESI’s growth to a year-round institution. Any Ohayocon volunteers are encouraged to apply for these positions when they are posted to our website later this month. To aid in the transition and allow better board oversight, Melissa Phelps will be stepping down from the board and stepping into CESI’s first-ever Executive Director role, allowing her to better pass the baton to the next generation of Ohayocon staff. While this position will provide direct support to CESI’s premiere program Ohayocon, the Executive Director will be primarily tasked with the year-round success of CESI beyond the annual convention.

Contrary to misinformation swirling online, NO volunteers or members of the Senior Leadership Team have been fired from Ohayocon and only[two] positions have been dissolved in the organizational chart shift. All past volunteers are invited to return for 2024, as Ohayocon would simply cease to exist without them. While CESI would love its Ohayocon volunteers to have the ability to unionize, National and Ohio State Labor Laws prevent unpaid volunteers of any kind from forming a union. As such, no Ohayocon union has ever or could ever exist, and no “union busting” has or even could take place. CESI encourages its volunteers to communicate to them all of their needs, wants, hopes, dreams, fears, and aspirations through individual correspondence or collective bargaining. Additional rumors of a “hostile takeover” from Phelps are not only untrue but impossible as Phelps was and has been in charge of the event and cannot take it over from herself. As planned, Phelps has stepped down from the CESI Board of Directors to allow for greater oversight and organizational stewardship. To fill the board seat vacated by Phelps, CESI will be holding an election wherein volunteers will be able to elect representation to join the professionals on the Board of Directors to allow greater integration and transparency. CESI encourages all interested volunteers to stay tuned to our website for more details this month.

While those fabrications are simply not based in any reality, there is a rumor online that contains some truths, and that is regarding the Ohayocon logo. A well-meaning volunteer, concerned with the similarities between Ohayocon’s longtime cross artwork and its similarities to that of the Red Cross, submitted our logo to them for review. The Red Cross determined that the logo was too close to their trademarked Red Cross Emblem. As such, an agreement was made with the Red Cross in April of 2023 to shift Ohayocon’s logo’s color to the shade of blue to avoid any further issues. Since then, a cyberpunk theme was proposed for Ohayocon 2024, and our longtime artists and designers at Studio Capsule set out to craft new annual art and a refreshed logo. A different well-meaning volunteer crafted their logo in the meantime and despite being instructed not to be the CESI Board of Directors, asked for approval from their peers and began posting it online. Unfortunately, their wonderful design bears too close a resemblance to the logo of Sakura Color Products, and its use would open CESI up to a potential second logo lawsuit in less than a year. Out of respect for Sakura of America and its 100+ year history, we must kindly ask that the interim Sakura blossom logo be not used moving forward.

Ohayocon 2024 will take place January 19-21, 2024 at the Hyatt Regency Columbus & Greater Columbus Convention Center. This will be the second Ohayocon presented by parent organization CESI and our first with paid and valued staff in addition to our phenomenal volunteers who will continue to receive the perks and accommodations that they know and love and then some to ensure that all of their time, talent, and treasure is valued. We reinvite tens of thousands of attendees and hundreds of volunteers to continue forming this remarkable convention and join us in not only spreading the joy of Japanese culture and anime to Columbus, Ohio, and beyond, but also being a part of a decades-old community of artists and enthusiasts, gamers and geeks, fans and fun-seekers, masqueraders and music lovers, and above all else passionate persons. Ohayocon is for everyone and CESI will continue to work with all of our dedicated volunteers to ensure that it is around for decades to come.

That same evening—one minute after the deadline put forth for CESI—the con’s former senior leadership team called for a “strike” in the Discord server and in a public post on COVEN’s social media accounts. The full statement is as follows:

Dear Ohayocon Community,

We hope this message finds you well. It is with a heavy heart that we must address the recent developments regarding the future of Ohayocon.

We, the Ohayocon Senior Leadership Team, had issued a set of parley demands to the Cultural Exchange Society Inc. (CESI) Board of Directors, outlining our concerns and requests for the future direction and leadership of Ohayocon. These demands were presented in the spirit of preserving the convention’s legacy and ensuring its continued growth. Regrettably, the CESI board has failed to respond constructively by the given deadline, which was set for 9:00 PM on 10/06/2023.

As a result, we the Senior Leadership Team of Ohayocon have been left with no choice but to take action in order to protect the interests of Ohayocon, its future, and its dedicated community. Effective immediately, we are calling for a labor strike among all current staff members of Ohayocon. This strike will impact various aspects of convention planning and operations.

Furthermore, we call upon the entire Ohayocon community, including attendees, exhibitors, sponsors, and stakeholders, to join us in a boycott of Ohayocon. We understand the significance of this decision, and we do not take it lightly. Our aim is to bring attention to the critical issues at hand and to work toward a resolution that ensures the convention’s long-term success and sustainability.

We firmly believe that implementing the demands we presented would further create a positive and transparent environment for all involved with Ohayocon. These actions are not affiliated with the Conventions of Ohio Volunteer Event Network (COVEN) and represent our unique position within the organization.

We remain open to constructive dialogue with CESI and sincerely hope that a resolution can be reached for the benefit of Ohayocon and its vibrant community.

In the coming days, we will continue to provide further information about the strike’s details and the boycott’s impact. We ask for your understanding, support, and solidarity during this challenging time.

Thank you for being a part of the Ohayocon family, and we look forward to a brighter future for our beloved convention.


The Ohayocon Senior Leadership Team”


Dovetailing with this update, COVEN announced on its Facebook page that they, “unanimously voted to go on strike. COVEN, as a united association of Ohayocon volunteers, has officially ceased any work or actions that support Ohayocon as of 9 PM EDT today, October 6, 2023.”

Ultimately, conversations between the con’s then-senior leadership and CESI wouldn’t resume until November 9. The meeting—which is unlisted on YouTube, but available for anyone to watch—was dominantly spent discussing the parley demands. Following this meeting, several members of the convention’s senior leadership resigned from Ohayocon. Similarly, Erin and Marcum wrote formal resignations expressing that they won’t seek further involvement with the convention.

“Yesterday’s meeting between former Ohayocon Senior Leadership and the Board of Directors of Cultural Exchange Society Inc. (CESI) did not go as well as our team had hoped. Due to the lack of respect and transparency by the CESI Board of Directors, a number of us have been removed and/or resigned from our positions,” announced Erin in the Discord server, “While we were assured that there was still room for us as volunteers within Ohayocon, we as a team felt that our roles being stripped from us or warped beyond recognition did not allow for a constructive path forward with this organization.”

The next conversation, which would be between CESI and COVEN, happened on November 30, where they, “met with and discussed terms with CESI regarding the strike and the needs of its volunteers. These points are pending ratification from the greater COVEN body, so stay tuned for more information.” The results would be made public on December 6:

On Sunday, COVEN gathered to vote to ratify an agreement with CESI to end the ongoing work stoppage. To allow all members of COVEN to vote, a provision was placed to hold the meeting at recess and collect the ballot via digital methods. Tonight, the recess came to an end, and the ballot was tallied. At this time, COVEN has voted not to ratify an agreement with CESI. As COVEN works on our next steps, please keep an eye out on our official channels for any updates,

Both CESI and COVEN made statements about where this left them and what their plans were moving forward on December 12. Starting with CESI, they announced:

“It is with a heavy heart that we address the most recent outcome of negotiations with COVEN and CESI. Despite CESI’s earnest efforts and sincere commitment to finding a mutually agreeable resolution, these negotiations have not yielded the anticipated outcome to end the ongoing volunteer strike.

CESI was made aware of a volunteer association called COVEN in March [2023] and was provided with their COVEN Manifesto document, which included suggested changes to CESI and Ohayocon.

As recently as November 30, CESI has been regularly engaged in meetings and digital negotiations regarding the priorities brought forward and voted upon by COVEN’s members. During the November 30 meeting, CESI Treasurer, Justin Nordell, verbally confirmed that, pending the inclusion of mutually agreed upon amendments that were discussed via email, the board has agreed to all requests submitted by COVEN and is willing to meet those updated requirements.
On the evening of December 2, COVEN presented the CESI board and other representatives with a written copy of these requests that had been updated to include those amendments. By the end of COVEN’s meeting on December 3, all CESI representatives provided their digital signatures and affirmed their commitment to carrying out the agreed-upon resolutions. A copy of these written requests (pre-signatures) has been attached to this post.

These resolutions include commitments to expand the organization’s code of conduct and improve its fair enforcement. CESI has also agreed to allow anyone who chooses to return to a volunteer position at Ohayocon 2024.
CESI entered this negotiation process with optimism, listening to our volunteers and eventually developing solutions that will improve the circumstances that have impacted our collective operations and communities.
On December 6, despite CESI’s best endeavors and a signed statement between CESI and COVEN agreeing on how to resolve these challenges, COVEN’s membership voted not to end their strike.

At this time, we find ourselves in a regrettable impasse and want to assure all affected parties that CESI has exhausted all reasonable efforts and explored every avenue to reach a positive conclusion to these negotiations. We stand firm in our commitment to seek a peaceful resolution and remain open to future constructive dialogue that may help us overcome these obstacles.

Our volunteers are the backbone of Ohayocon and have helped to shape the event and community. We are sad to see any number of them not return to join us in 2024.
We sincerely appreciate the community’s patience, understanding, and unwavering dedication to our event and its volunteers throughout this challenging period. Thank you for your continued support and cooperation.
So what does that mean for Ohayocon ’24? Check back soon for the amazing events and partnerships happening at Ohayocon this year.”

Meanwhile, COVEN posted the following:

On the evening of December 3rd, COVEN met to discuss the negotiation meeting between CESI (Cultural Exchange Society, Inc., the governing body of Ohayocon) and the Communications Committee, representing COVEN. The meeting was put into recess to count the vote concerning the ratification of the documents presented by the Communications Committee to the body of COVEN, and on December 6th, the votes were counted. Of the votes cast, 55.56% voted Nay, and 44.44% voted Yea. Due to the vote, the ratification of the documents failed, and COVEN remains on strike as a result.

Those who spoke against ratification cited concern that any agreement made between COVEN and CESI was unable to be made legally binding. This concern stemmed from a history of distrust in CESI due to previous actions taken by them regarding the treatment of past volunteers and general hesitation to return to the show due to that distrust. The major concern with the agreement being legally binding is related to previous statements by CESI members stating that they would not necessarily follow anything in their bylaws that was not legally binding. A further concern is that such negotiations would not be upheld on all levels, up to and including CESI and the convention director Berding. It was determined by COVEN members that anything discussed was simply to end the strike to save face, rather than work towards improvement of working conditions.

With no promise that any changes agreed to would not be undone after the 2024 show, COVEN members felt that they could not move forward with the current agreement.

COVEN has not determined at this time what changes to the agreement can be made to assuage these concerns and will be working towards determining the next steps in this process. As of posting, the previous strike and boycott is still ongoing. Please continue to stay tuned to COVEN socials as we move forward to determine our next steps. #Ohayocon #ISupportOhayoconVolunteers #NOhayocon”

At the time of writing, CESI and COVEN, and CESI and the former senior leadership, are in a deadlock. There haven’t been any announcements of when, or if, any future discussions between CESI and either of the other groups will be taking place.

“We are planning and finalizing Ohayocon 2024 with help from convention leaders, volunteers, and vendors who are excited to return. Be sure to check out our social media for announcements about some of the amazing things our team is doing this year,” said Phelps. “Throughout Ohayocon 2024 and beyond, uniting the community, improving our organization, and building trust will be a theme and top priority.”

Ohayocon 2024 is still scheduled to take place January 19–21, sans COVEN, the former senior leadership, and those supporting them by participating in the boycott. As this encompasses a large number of people, it threatens to have a significant impact on the event.

Said Phelps regarding the boycott, “First and foremost, we respect any individual’s right to choose how they use their voice, time and talents. Those who attend and carry out Ohayocon should be confident that our convention is worth those precious, limited resources. CESI is working in conjunction with volunteers, vendors, guests, and community members to ensure that Ohayocon 2024 will meet those standards. We’ve recently committed to future changes that reflect the input we’ve received from COVEN and our community. When we take these actions, we hope to demonstrate that CESI is on a path that ensures people’s needs and concerns will be heard. For those who still seek to boycott Ohayocon 2024, we hope this will not be the end of the conversation and our relationship.”

COVEN is encouraging people to use the hashtag #NOhayocon. They added, “COVEN also recommends reaching out to Justin Nordell for a refund.” The group also suggested congoers attempt a chargeback process if they do not receive a response.

Said Marcum about his plans for the future, “Moving forward, I, as well as almost every former member of senior leadership, have resigned from our positions with the understanding that none of us wish to work with any current member of the CESI board, including Melissa Phelps, Emily DeJesus, and Justin Nordell. I personally wish to see all of these individuals no longer work in the anime convention industry as a whole moving forward, due to the rampant corruption, incompetence, and mistreatment of volunteers I have witnessed in my tenure with Ohayocon since 2009.”

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