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.
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.
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.
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.
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