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SCALE 13x – no talking, all walking, and a great ally skills workshop

For the first time in-I-can’t-remember I didn’t submit a talk to SCALE, so it was with a different personal energy that I attended SCALE 13x on 19 to 22 February this year. Not having a do-or-die public-speaking-scheduled-thing in front of me allowed for a more relaxed state of mind. Yet it was strange to not be one of the speakers this time. Still, all my old SCALE friends made me feel very welcome and accommodated. As usual, it was nice to have my family there, where so many know them as former speakers and regular attendees.

Rather than focus on talking to an audience, this time I spent my energy walking around the expo hall-and-wherever to talk with as many projects and companies as possible. My goal was to get an idea of who uses CentOS Linux, for what purposes, and get ideas of what people need and want from the project. I also provided information on what the Project has been up to especially around SIGs. That activity was fun, informative, and interesting.

Also I spent my share of time at the booth that housed the CentOS Project, RDO/OpenStack, oVirt, and OpenShift Origin. (I can’t wait to see the next iterations of Ryan’s Raspberry Pi 2 mini-cluster demo for OpenShift Origin.) I watched other people, including my wife, play with instruments and music software at the ever-popular Fedora Project booth (winners once again of a favorite booth award.) With a small rock concert and 3D printer, it was hard not to notice.

There were two sessions I was drawn to the most. The first was Ruth Suehle‘s keynote on Sunday morning, Makers:  The Next Frontier for Open Source. I’ve worked with Ruth a long time, seen her speak multiple times, seen lots of cool stuff that she’s made over the years, and I knew it would be an excellent talk. She used her great bully pulpit to teach and entreat the audience about the needs of the makers communities to get some serious clue and help from open source communities.

The other session was a workshop on Friday to learn skills as a man to be an ally for women when sexist things happen. This is something I’m interested in, being a better ally for people, including in the face of sexism and sexist behavior. For myself, I’ve begun calling myself a born again feminist. To me that means I’ve had a later-in-life realization that while I’ve always supported the ideas and topics around feminism, I wasn’t really aware how deeply pervasive sexism is, how blandly I’d looked past it, and that I could be part of the solution. Part of being part of the solution is not being afraid of being a feminist in name and action.

The workshop (described in detail here) was lead by Valerie Aurora, who’s gone from kernel hacker to executive director of the Ada Initiative. The Ada Initiative “supports women in open technology and culture …” Thus the workshop was primarily for people working in open technology and open culture. It started with a brief introduction that was useful in many ways, such as reminding us about how to best engage with difficult online exchanges (more advanced than ‘don’t feed the trolls’), the reason for needing male allies (hint:  it’s about doing something good with the privileged position and power that one has in society), and keeping it all in a useful context by not having the workshop be a place to debate “is there sexism?” Instead we acknowledge there is something broken, it needs fixing, and we here can do something about it. You can watch an introduction and highlights of the workshop in this video that Valerie gave to the staff at the Wikimedia Foundation, with closed captioned subtitles available for English.

For the majority of the workshop, we were in small groups (4 to 6 people) to discuss approaches we would take to certain scenarios. One scenario (as I recall them) was, “A woman is standing outside of your group at an event and looks as if she might be interested in joining the discussion. How would you handle this?” Another was, “At a work party someone comments that a co-worker with a large number of children must get a lot of sex.” Then the small groups discussed our approaches, and presented some ideas or questions back to the overall group. And then on to the next scenario.

The discussion/collaboration session was really useful in a number of ways. First, it helped give specific and general ideas of how to handle — and not handle — specific scenarios. Second, it also served to give a crosscut of different types of situations that do occur, so you can take skills from one scenario more easily in to another. Not only was it useful for dealing with sexist situations, it was easy to see the same thinking and skills could be applied to any situation where someone is objectified, made to be an Other, treated as a stereotype, and so forth — thus useful for handling racism, ageism, and so forth. Third, it was useful to get a chance to practice what to say in response when we witness sexism, partially because it’s helps us to have something to immediately say rather than being shocked and mute.

The format of the workshop was great. Elements included working in small groups, a person in each group being a gatekeeper who makes sure everyone in the group is heard from, presenting ideas back to the overall group in a discussion format, all the way down to how we introduced ourselves to our small groups. I also appreciated moving across groups at least once, that helped us get fresher perspectives with each scenario.

This is definitely a workshop I’d like to bring to any tech company. All of us can use help and perspective on how to react when someone does something sexist, or we have a chance to do something about systemic sexism. We can agree that it’s unkind to make people feel uncomfortable, and it’s kind to help people by pushing against the discomfort making.

There is something I’ve noticed for most of my life. When talking with my peers — people who are born mainly after the 1960s in a post-feminist-creation era — we are often in agreement about how people should treat each other along the axes of sex, race, gender, and so forth. And while I see in younger generations a huge amount of support for ideas such as “people should be able to legally marry whomever they want”, I still hear a lot of people afraid of the f-word — feminism. It’s as if people are in full agreement with the concepts behind the word, but afraid to use the word itself. This is the other part of my ‘born again’ experience, that I need to embrace the word as well as the concept in order to really align myself correctly, live correctly, and be a good ally of all people.