Monday, June 10, 2013

Allies of the Ada Initiative

Had the great fortune to take part in the allies track of the Ada Initiative's recent conference, Ada Camp SF.  The Ada Initiative, it their own words:

Open source software and data, like Firefox and Wikipedia, are the foundation of the Internet and modern technology. Companies like Google and Facebook depend on open source software, and popular web sites like Wikipedia rely on open data. Yet women make up only 2% of the open source software community and 10% of Wikipedia editors.

The Ada Initiative helps women get and stay involved in open source, open data, open education, and other areas of free and open technology and culture. These communities are changing the future of global society. If we want that society to be socially just and to serve the interests of all people, women must be involved in its creation and organization.
I can't sum up my conference experience easily, but it was powerful on various levels. This is the first time they've had an "ally track"--apparently in the previous two conferences, there were some issues with even well-intended men changing the tone significantly (one thing I learned at Ada Camp:  Even when men are trying to keep things equal regarding group conversations, they are often misjudging how "equal" things are), so the allies track was something of an experiment. For me, at least, it was a hugely successful experiment. Folks in the allies track had decided through email prior to the conference that women were explicitly invited to all sessions of the allies track, and that if we wanted a men-only session, it would be an exception. 

This played out well, I think. We had quite a few women come to our sessions, and as folks remarked then, it was more than helpful to have them there--it felt more like good teamwork when folks of all genders were talking about ally work.  That said, it was also nice to be surrounded by a bunch of smart men advocating for feminism in tech--I was outclassed a bit, because many of these folks were in some ways superstars of the open source tech world:  They're not only highly intelligent and logical, but they are also used to being advocates for open source, and the energy of that sort of advocacy carried into our interactions quite a bit.  

I hope to write a short series of posts about Ada Camp SF and the allies track, if I can get some of these very busy people to let me interview them, but until then, I'll share tidbits of my experience:

Random things I was pleasantly surprised by (in no particular order):
  • The number of women who came to participate in the allies track.
  • How smoothly an unconference can run, when everybody is earnest and open.  
  • How many folks there who were not only highly motivated and passionate about open source, but were equally as motivated to change open source tech environments so that they are more diverse -- not only along gender lines, but also around race, class, queerness, etc.
  • How many men with painted fingernails I saw. (I have my toenails painted at the moment, but nobody knew that, presumably.)
  • Awareness of the gender spectrum was pretty great, I think; where it wasn't, folks seemed comfortable pointing it out, and folks running things took constructive criticism as constructive.
  • The Julia Morgan Ballroom is feminist friendly. 
  • The levels at which folks want to take the theory (of women-friendly environments, and of feminism) into practice, and want specific guidelines about the best ways to do that (which is what the Ada initiative does! yay!)
  • How much community-building was going on.
  • I doubt I've been in a room with that many feminists who were not female-identified. It was pretty rad.
A few things that were surprising, but not quite as pleasant, exactly:
  • The complexities of implementing something that feels simple, on some level (make tech communities more friendly to women), but kind of isn't.  Even people who really, really want to make this happen have some strong differences of opinion on how to do so, and sometimes feel at a loss as to what, exactly, practically, to do first.
  • How hard a community embracing diversity in gender has to work to have diversity in other areas.  (There were a *lot* of white dudes in that room, just as an example.  The lack of racial diversity may have been only in the allies track, but I suspect that was not the case.)
  • I really don't know enough feminist men. Ok, this isn't that surprising, but hanging out with some really brought it to the forefront. 
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