Category: Conference Report

Notes on World Domination Summit 2013

Gary Hirsch leads a group improv.
Gary Hirsch leads a group improv.

This weekend I attended the third iteration of World Domination Summit (WDS), right here in Portland. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the conference. I bought the tickets several months ago, remembering that I had been interested in attending the previous year when the event was already sold out.

Aside from phrases like “remarkable life, conventional world” and “amazing people with big plans,”  the website reveals very little concrete details about the content of conference. A click-through to the schedule reveals that the plan is to “have fun and create meaningful adventure.”

WDS 2013 began with non-talk activities on Friday, which included the Big Float (an attempt to break the world’s record for number of people floating at one time) and an opening party at the Portland Zoo. Saturday and Sunday comprised the main part of the conference and roughly followed the same schedule. First, there was a morning of talks by the headlining speakers that wrapped up in time for lunch. In the afternoon, alumni speakers and attendees held a small number of workshops at venues throughout downtown. Both days concluded with two final talks at the main venue and then a social activity. Saturday’s social activity was a cruise on the Willamette and Sunday’s was a party at Pioneer square.

For me, WDS isn’t an ideal conference format. Because unscheduled time at home on weekends is so rare for me, weekend conferences are difficult to begin with. I have to fight a tremendous amount of inertia just to set aside the things I want to get done at home and leave the house. The lack of a central “hallway” track was also an issue for me. I find large crowds overwhelming and having a place where I can park myself and observe the action while still being available for chance encounters is important. WDS did have a “self care” area, but it was decentralized like everything else but the main talks.

I also didn’t take advantage of the social activities. In part this is because I live in Portland and can go to the Zoo or take a river cruise at any time. It’s also because there was no way to include Sherri in the activities and so choosing to go would have cut into the very small amount of non-working time we have to spend with each other each week.

All of that said, I attended the morning talks each day and found those to be enjoyable and inspiring. The highlight for me was hearing Tess Vigeland, formerly of Markplace.

There’s no doubt that WDS is full of inspiration and feel-good moments. Even this curmudgeon got out of her chair on the last day and joined the group dancing (really, I did!). What I thought it lacked, was more content about how to live remarkably or execute big plans. Perhaps if I had attended the afternoon workshops I would not have been craving specific details as much.

One thing WDS really needs to pay attention to and improve upon in future iterations: accessibility. The main venue was crowded and hard to navigate, with no effort made to encourage attendees to keep travel lanes clear. Seating for those with limited mobility seemed limited to underneath the balcony, which had the effect of drastically limiting the view of the stage. I know because I sat near this area on the first morning and could see scarcely 50% of the screen.

Will I go again? Probably. I think Sherri would enjoy attending and I think going with her would make me participate at a greater level. I would also like to present my own workshop next year, either on non-profit management or community organizing, or both.

My summer conference season kicks-off this week with Open Source Bridge

Just a quick post to note that my summer conference season begins this week with Open Source Bridge. If you’re local, or happen to be in Portland this week, please consider joining us. There are still tickets available and we also offer a number of ways to participate for free or at a reduced rate.

Also, there will be a number of Mozillians in attendance and some Firefox-related activities in the Hacker Lounge. If you’re interested in joining Mozilla on any of these great projects, be sure to stop by! Evenings in the Hacker Lounge are free with a community pass.

After Open Source Bridge, you’ll find me at the following conferences:

Let me know if you’re attending to so we can connect. See also: Lanyrd.

Open Source Day at Grace Hopper: Core Team Members Wanted

The Open Source Day event (2012 overview) is part of the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference (GHC). This year I am co-chairing the Open Source Day (OSD) with Alice Bonhomme-Biais, who has been involved with OSD at GHC championing the Google Crisis Response project

The purpose of the Open Source Day is twofold:

  1. To give Grace Hopper attendees the opportunity to learn what open source is, how to contribute to open source projects and to make their first contribution!
  2. To help open source projects become more friendly to new and novice contributors.

We accomplish this by inviting a dozen or so open source projects (usually with a humanitarian focus) to join the Open Source Day and connect with contributors (GHC attendees, mostly college students). In the months prior to OSD, we work with participating organizations to prepare their projects for new contributors and during the event we facilitate this on-boarding process.

Soon, we’ll be asking organizations to apply to be a part of the Open Source Day.

Right now we need to assemble our core team. If you’re interested helping to make OSD a success this year, please do the following no later than Friday, 29 March:

  1. Read through the list of core team roles.
  2. Take note of the time commitment and general responsibilities and make sure you’re comfortable with them.
  3. Contact me to let me know that you’d like to be on the committee. If a particular role interests you, let me know that too. DEADLINE: Friday, 29 March (but the sooner the better).

Once we’ve heard from everyone, we’ll meet as a group to solidify the roles and select a weekly meeting time.

For those of you who participated last year, you might  recall that organization leaders were a part of the core planning team.  We have decided to change that this year to let org leaders focus on  getting their project ready for the event. Instead, each org leader will be assigned an org coordinator (part of the core team) as a point of  contact with the core team. We’ve made this change in order to make our  weekly planning meetings run more efficiently and to create a meeting  space where org leaders can discuss the issues most relevant to them.

Bold Ideas Uttered Publicly: PyCon, Richards and Responding to Conduct Violations

One thing quite noticeable at this year’s PyCon US is that the Python community’s efforts towards increasing diversity are starting to work. More women are attending and children are being included in an integrated way (coding!). To be clear, we still have a long way to go. Twenty percent attendance by women is an improvement, but it by no means demonstrates parity, and other minorities and those with intersectional identities remain greatly underrepresented. What’s important, though, is that actions of the Python community, including adoption of a code of conduct, are showing real results. Hats off to the PSF and to various PyCon organizers around the world. You are doing good work, thank you.

In the days that have followed the main part of the conference, and while the code sprints were still going on, word reached the internet of a certain code of conduct violation, how it was handled by all parties involved and what the consequences were (or continue to be).

And now we start heading to the heart of my post.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple of years thinking about the tactic of public shaming as a tool for combating institutional oppression. Is it ever appropriate? Under which circumstances? When is it most effective? Does it have some other empowering use? What’s the best way to respond to backlash? I think about this every time I am witness or subject to an aggression. Or when I am the organizer for an event where an incident is called out publicly before I have a chance to respond privately. Or when others make the decision to document publicly another’s transgressive behavior. I think about it especially when that person is then subject to a torrent of negative backlash including threats of violence and death.

Tech is dominated by white, straight, able-bodied, middle- and upper-class men because our industry reflects the social structure of the society in which we live. Our demographics are the result of the racism, sexism, heterosexism and homophobia, sizism, ableism, etc. that persists in society that we allow to propagate within our own, smaller community. That’s why increasing diversity, whether you want to recognize it or not, means combating its enemy: institutional oppression.

How does one fight oppression to increase diversity?

It’s not easy because the tactics available to those who oppose institutional oppression are limited and judged by the very institution that is oppressive. Those from and to a certain extent those who ally themselves with oppressed groups, by definition, have less social capital and the associated benefits than their counterparts. When a queer person, or a person of color, or, god forbid, a disabled queer person of color reports that they have been subject to or a witness of transgressive behavior, they are taken as less authoritative about their own experience than their straight, white, abled counterpart would be. They get less attention and support from the social structures that are supposed to aide them. And quite often they are subject to violence in its many forms.

These responses are not accidental. Those who benefit from the status quo, whether they realize it or not, have a vested interested in maintaining that status quo. That means working to ensure that any threat to it is rendered ineffectual. The best way to do that is to discredit the person who generated the threat. If the threat is the reporting of a transgressive act that the dominant social class enjoys with impunity, then the reaction is to attack the person who reported it.

And that’s exactly what happened this week to Adria Richards.

PyCon made efforts to transform the status quo of a male-dominated environment where sexualized speech is acceptable to one where it is not so that women and others felt more comfortable participating. At least two attendees continued to acted in ways that were no longer acceptable. They probably weren’t the only ones. And I’m sure more than one person was made uncomfortable. But one person chose to speak up about it.

That she chose to do so publicly isn’t really for me, or any of us to judge. As I mentioned before, as someone not part of the dominant social order you have limited options for calling attention to transgressive behavior. You can do so to the individual or individuals demonstrating the behavior, you can report it to the social structures available to you (parents, school, organizations, government, etc.) or you can report it publicly.

The first option is obviously risky. If you don’t have as much power as someone, it is scary to interrupt them and tell them what they are doing is wrong. If you have past experience with violence (as most people with minority identities do), then your experience tells you this is not a good idea because the confrontation may become violent. Additionally, when you are a in a room surrounded by people who look exactly like the person or persons committing the transgressive act it’s sensible to assume that you will not be the person who will have support in a confrontation.

The second option also carries risk. If you do not have a significant history of an organization helping in these matters, there’s a good chance they won’t. Asking them to do so takes emotional work, and handling rejection thereafter takes even more emotional work. Plus, organizations, like the people that run them, also have a vested interest in maintaining the status quos from which they benefit.

Furthermore, it’s not anyone’s job (except perhaps your caretakers’, when you’re young) to remind you how to behave. Ignorance of appropriate social norms is not an excuse for transgressing them. Richards had zero obligation to be polite to the developers or to educate them. We are well into the post-colonial era. Feminism is not a new idea. Get a book and educate yourself.

And that’s how we arrive at the public option. Sometimes publicly outing someone’s bad behavior is the safest, most effective way you can respond. This is particularly true when you don’t have a lot of time to figure out what to do, when you are in the minority position and when you are in an environment that feels unsafe.

It is entirely acceptable for someone to take whichever option they feel to be the best course of action based on the situation at hand and the person’s lived experience up until then. It is not anyone else’s right to determine that for another. This is true regardless of how unskillfully you believe the person handled the situation.

No conference organizer likes dealing publicly with issues, but…

As a conference organizer who has been in the position of responding to public reports of conduct violations, I can tell you it doesn’t feel good to be denied the opportunity to deal with them privately. Not only do you have to process why the person reporting the incident didn’t come to you first, but you have to deal with a much larger response and you have to do so immediately. You no longer have the luxury of time, nor the ability to be distracted by the other million things you’re supposed to be keeping track of while running an event. While it may not feel so at the time, that you are forced to deal with things promptly and publicly is not necessarily a bad thing. There is value in doing so for your community.

Let’s talk about shame for a moment.

Shame isn’t always a bad thing. When you’ve done something you know to be wrong and you feel shameful, that is an appropriate response. If someone calls out your behavior publicly and you feel shame as a result, that’s probably a sign you should pay attention and evaluate your behavior. Shame is contextual. It doesn’t work the same way going up the power hierarchy as it does going down. Power magnifies shame and magnifies the damage it does when applied incorrectly. A young child can’t shame a parent and have the same effect as when a parent shames a child. A white male using shame against a women or a person of color to uphold his social status is not the same thing as a women or a person of color using public shame to bring visibility to inappropriate behavior.

Being the trigger of shame in others while documenting a broken system is not the same thing as enacting revenge.

At one point in Never Sorry, Ai Wei Wei says something like “the broken system must be documented.” I found this statement to be very powerful. Often we feel powerless to change the monolithic systems around us, no matter how broken we know them to be. One power we can exercise is to document what we see and experience.

So, if you find yourself in a situation where you feel your only option is to say nothing or say it publicly? Absolutely say it publicly. Howard Zinn explains the power in this act very eloquently:

“The power of a bold idea uttered publicly in defiance of dominant opinion cannot be easily measured. Those special people who speak out in such a way as to shake up not only the self-assurance of their enemies, but the complacency of their friends, are precious catalysts for change.”

That quote above encapsulates why the reaction to Richards’ act has been so strong, far stronger than the reaction to the code of conduct violation that prompted it. The checking of male privilege and the imposition of consequences for unabashed exercise of that privilege is threatening to all those who enjoy it, as well as those who are ambivalent to its exercise.

Most disappointing of all? SendGrid’s response.

What I find most disturbing about this incident is the response of SendGrid, Richard’s employer up until this week. Rather than having the insight and moral courage to stand behind their employee they gave into the fervor of the mob. That news of Richard’s firing is at the top of the MensRights and WhiteRights subreddits is telling. SendGrid chose to go in the wrong direction on this moving train. They claim to want to build their developer community “across the globe,” but the qualifier they add with their actions is “as long as you are a white male or don’t make white males angry.” I suppose this is none too surprising when you look at SendGrid’s leadership team: Only one out of the twelve company leaders is a women. SendGrid has put into words the unspoken rule we already know: Speak out and you risk your livelihood.

How to we move forward from this incident?

We keep doing what we’re doing. Speaking up when we feel we are able to. Asking the communities of which we are a part to continue adopting and enforcing codes of conduct. Making allies and supporting each other and groups like the Ada Initiative. Avoiding employment, when possible, at companies who, like SendGrid, decide not to advocate for their minority employees the moment is become inconvenient. Pressuring our peers and managers to embrace the change required to make a diverse workforce possible.

I’ll close with a final quote from Mr. Zinn:

“We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”

Update 22 March 11:31 PDT with some further reading, now that this is getting some sensible coverage:

At OSCON All Next Week

I’ll be at OSCON all next week. I’m very much looking forward to giving our workshop, Event Planning for Geeks. And, it’s on the first day of the conference, which means once we’re done, I get to relax and just enjoy the rest of the conference. Oh, what a nice break it will be to simply attend an event, rather than be one of the organizers.

If you’re planning to attend, and would like to connect, please do get in touch. You can find my info in the attendee directory.

Also, be sure to stop by the non-profit pavilion of the Expo Hall, where the Stumptown Syndicate will have a booth.

The Expo hall is open during the following times:

  • Tuesday, 7/17: 5:00pm – 6:00pm (Opening Reception)
  • Wednesday, 7/18: 10:00am 4:30pm, 5:40pm – 7:00pm (Booth Crawl)
  • Thursday, 7/19: 10:00am – 5:00pm

If you don’t already have a ticket for OSCON, use the code OS12FOS for a 20% discount, or register for a free Expo hall pass.

And, we’re still looking for a few volunteers to help staff our booth. If you’re interested in helping for an hour or two, let me know.

Oh, and will also attend at least part of this weekend’s Community Leadership Summit.