The purpose of this post is to publicly document what I understand regarding the problematic behavior of prominent tech feminist activist and diversity consultant Valerie Aurora. It is not meant to be an unimpeachable accounting but more of a connecting of the dots and a conversation starter. The content here, in its most recent iteration, started as a thread on Twitter.
The timing of this discussion is prompted by two things:
- The announcement of a book on code of conduct enforcement written by Valerie and Mary Gardiner and distributed under Val’s consultancy, Frameshift.
- The banning of Valerie from Double Union, a feminist hacker space she co-founded, and her subsequent blog post on the matter (CW: transphobia, TERF).
Folks including Sage Sharp, Jade Ahking, and Liz Fong-Jones have spoken eloquently about why Val’s position on Double Union’s membership policy change is trans-exclusionary, transphobic, and otherwise problematic.
Were this Val’s only misstep, or one among a few over a handful of years, I would not be writing this post. Unfortunately, Val has demonstrated a pattern of problematic behavior towards several people over many years.
At least six people, not including myself, have stated publicly they were subject to or directly witnessed misconduct by Val. Here are some of those accounts:
- Sage Sharp, on twitter here and here.
- Rachel Chalmers, on twitter here.
- Heidi Waterhouse, on twitter and in blog posts here and here.
- Donna Benjamin, on twitter.
- Denise Paolucci, via comment on Heidi’s post.
- Alex Bayley, via twitter.
(There’s one additional account I’m not referencing here until I am able to confirm the person is okay with me linking to their post.)
Other folks have long heard about issues others have encountered while working with Val, including:
- Sarah Mei: https://twitter.com/sarahmei/status/1075561429820821504
- Audrey Eschright: https://twitter.com/ameschright/status/1073678384591294465
- Cate Huston: https://twitter.com/catehstn/status/1073637073515622402
- Liz Henry: https://twitter.com/lizhenry/status/1074488544779882496
Word of Val’s troubling behavior has been making the rounds via the whisper networks for some time. But whisper networks are dangerously exclusive. No one wants to interfere with the work of activists by needlessly airing our dirty laundry. However, I believe we’ve long since passed the tipping point where not talking openly about these concerns is doing more harm than good.
Val’s most transgressive behavior has been directed not at me but at others I know, some well and some less so. It’s taken a while to put together a complete picture of Val’s conduct. When I first started to have misgivings about her behavior, I wasn’t sure who I could talk to about it. She seemed to have such a respected role in the community and I had prior experiences of being shunned for saying “negative” things about others, no matter the context. I thought, if my misgivings were just a matter of differences in personality or strategy, I didn’t want to poison the well, so to speak.
But in the lead up to the Ada Initiative (TAI) hiring a new Executive Director and the subsequent aftermath of Val having that new ED fired and shutting down the organization, more folks started talking with one another. By this point in time I had already stopped directly supporting the work of the Ada Initiative, due in part to financial constraints but also due to significant misgivings about anything Val stewarded. After Val shut TAI down, I stopped recommending anything she worked on. If people asked I’d tell them I didn’t personally feel comfortable working with her because I did not trust her judgement or her approach. Since then, I’ve had the occasional Twitter rant about the poor governance and abuse of power demonstrated by Val’s shutdown of TAI.
The most important details of Val’s misconduct are not mine to share because I did not experience them directly. I will leave it to others to share their stories if and when they feel it is appropriate to do so.
What I can share is what I see as the patterns of problematic behavior I’ve been told about and in some cases directly observed. These include:
Co-opting situations for her own benefit. Taking disproportionate credit for the work of others. An example here is the work many in the Geek Feminism Wiki community did on the Conference Anti-Harassment policy that, once the TAI was founded, Val rebranded as being of TAI origin. She even went so far as to go to folks who had adopted the Citizen Code of Conduct and told them that was actually the work of TAI and to change their attribution. (The Citizen CoC includes text from the original GF wiki text and is attributed as such.) The incident with Violet Blue could be considered an example of her co-opting a situation, among other things.
Being unable to listen to and incorporate valid criticism and change her behavior accordingly. Deflecting and avoiding accountability. The situation with Double Union is a good example of this. So is everything having to do with the end of TAI (see Heidi‘s post, also linked to earlier, for a good summary; the Wikipedia page for TAI also has info and links). I have heard a number of stories of Val responding to criticisms of her behavior by blaming the other person. Want a recent example? Take a look at this not so vague tweet posted right after she started receiving flak for her post about Double Union.
Abuse of power and position. Self-serving governance decisions. Again, see everything having to do with the shut down of TAI. Val orchestrated the release of the qualified executive director selected via a rigorous committee-led process. I know this was not a decision supported by the majority of those in governance positions at TAI by the exodus of folks from the board of directors and advisory board at the time. I don’t know the details of how she dispensed with those who did not support this power grab, but I know from the little others have shared that’s what it was. I believe we need leaders who can tolerate not being in control all of the time, who are team-players and consensus builders. Val has demonstrated the opposite of this time and time again.
Disingenuous communication. Attempting to manipulate others. See the end of the Ada Initiative. The reasons given for the shutdown were not truthful. And still Val managed to orchestrate a good amount of positive press. See her blog posts about being banned from Double Union. There’s loads of other examples in Val’s personal communication with others, some of which has been shared with me.
Non-intersectional and trans-exclusionary approach to feminist activism. See Sage’s and others Twitter thread for examples, linked to earlier.
Threatening and using her social status to isolate folks who raise concerns about her behavior. I have heard about this pattern from a number of folks and it is perhaps the most troubling aspect of all her problematic behavior. I believe it is the primary reason people have gone so long without talking about these issues and also that it has done the most damage to the targeted individuals.
It’s my understanding that Val’s problematic behavior goes back many years, prior even to TAI and to my coming to know her around 2010/2011. I have heard from folks who worked with Val at Sun and have heard rumors about her role in LinuxChix troubles, for example.
My goals in publishing this post are:
- Informed Decision-making. I want folks to have sufficient background such that they can make an informed decision about working with Val and/or consuming her work product.
- Harm Reduction and victim support. I want folks who have been subject to Val’s misconduct to know that they aren’t alone, it’s not them, and to have access to a support network.
- Setting context. I want folks who go to Val for subject-matter expertise regarding diversity & inclusion and governance (code of conduct enforcement) to understand her history with the communities she purportedly serves and the kind of feminist activism she engages in.
Ideally this post would also prompt Val to engage in a genuine accountability process regarding her behavior, but I think that is unlikely and it is not one of my motivations or goals.
What I do not want to have happen as a result of this post:
- For Val, or anyone associated with these issues for that matter, to be harassed in any way, shape, or form. No dog-piling should occur as a result of this post. I do not wish Val to experience any harm, physical, emotional, or otherwise, for any reason. Note: Discomfort is not the same as harm.
- For the larger work of the Ada Initiative, Double Union, or any other projects Val has been involved with to be discredited. Many folks have contributed to the work Val has been a part of and I have great respect and appreciation for their contributions.
- For tech feminists who make genuine attempts at intersectional and trans-inclusionary approaches to be maligned. We should not discount an entire movement due to the misconduct of one person.
Feminist leaders that engage in abuses of power and distortions of the truth raise concerns beyond matters of disagreement over tactics. These “ends justify the means” approaches do active harm. I don’t know the best way to stop abusive behavior by feminist leaders such as Val. I may be doing it the “wrong” way and I’m open to feedback about that. But doing nothing or being super circumspect just isn’t an option for me any longer.
I personally wish Val no ill-will. I just want her to stop hurting folks and to prevent the further institutionalization of her anti-community, trans-exclusive, non-intersectional feminism within technology communities. (See this thread for a good explanation about how this happens and the harm it creates.)
If there’s anything you’d like to share about your experience working with Val, please get in touch. You can email me ck at christi3k dot net, DM me on Twitter @christi3k, or Signal message me (contact me another way to get this number). I’m happy to update this post to share your experience, or just to be a sounding board if you need someone to listen.