I recently listened to an episode of one of my favorite podcasts called Hidden Brain. It discussed the idea that we as people tend to put more weight in our own beliefs than those of others. Why? Because we stew in our own thoughts, feelings, and intentions all day. Those things create our beliefs, and so those beliefs feel grounded and well-formed. However, all we see of others is their behavior; we don’t get to ruminate on their thoughts, feelings, and intentions behind those beliefs, which cause those behaviors. So they can seem unfounded and even stupid.
Community building and diversity advocacy is where I’ve found myself pulled to as a member of the WordPress open source community. Recently, I published a tweet that was backed by a set of my own beliefs:
- That homogenous communities can be harmful
- That black people in tech are underrepresented
- That holding people accountable makes it easier to fix things
The people who understand my thoughts, feelings, and intentions around WordPress diversity who saw my tweet agreed with me. The people who didn’t… didn’t. And that led to a cascading series of events that had both positive and negative outcomes.
Yet I truly do believe that the positives outweigh the negatives. After ruminating on this issue for days, I’ve managed to turn it into a humbling learning opportunity for myself. And I hope that I can help you do the same.
So the question here is this: how can you be an effective advocate for diversity in WordPress, and do it better than I did?
First, we have to look at the pros and cons of “calling someone out.”
Feelings were hurt
I am 100% okay with making people uncomfortable in order to solve problems. I am not okay with hurting people or creating a breeding ground for hateful speech. One of the primary negative unintended consequences of my tweet: I hurt people’s feelings.
No, I’m not talking about the person who attacked my character or the person who made a passive-agressive slavery joke. I’m talking about the people who got caught in the cross-fire.
Shining a spotlight on individuals or organizations who make mistakes is a very popular and often effective tactic, especially in the internet age. But it’s not a great method for community building, because it places the focus on what was, instead of what could be.
Voices were limited
I’ve had tons of really fulfilling diversity-centric and community-building interactions and conversations on Twitter. It’s my main hub of communication and growth and learning within my WordPress journey. This instance was an exception.
Due to the structure of Twitter conversations, this thread turned into an angry echo chamber where no one was heard and no one listened. When we only have 280 characters, things will get left out and important tonal subtleties will be lost.
Community building was reversed
Rarely do I think of anything I do or say as intentionally “community building.” But I think that nourishing and enriching the WordPress community is one of the most vital things we can do to keep the project moving forward.
Good community building models good behavior, clearly defines values and intentions, curates quality conversations, and takes the nuances of perspective into account. This conversation I started did the exact opposite.
Things I’ve learned
The first positive result that came out of this situation, which I think has made me a stronger community builder, is that I learned a lot.
Contrary to what some may think, I listened to every single person who replied to my post. I tried to see the issue from their point of view. I did research about diversity, equity, and race relations in Europe. I know probably more than the average American about Black American History. I know very little about Black European History. (Did you know that in some places in Europe, even referring to someone as “Black” is massively offensive?) Moving forward, I believe I will be better at talking to my European peers more wisely.
I’ve also learned to be wiser about my platform and medium. As I mentioned, a site that literally limits how much you can say isn’t the best place for deep, introspective conversation. Since that tweet was published, I’ve resisted posting glib remarks out of frustration. I see that as personal growth.
I pointed a finger, when I meant to start a conversation. So the next time something like this comes up, I’ll be more intentional about making more room for conversation and accountability, rather than making room for people to interpret my intentions incorrectly.
So, things went a bit sideways, but I did learn a ton. But others did, too. And that’s where the positives come in.
Community building done right
The WordPress Community team published an incredibly powerful post that encouraged folks to share how they felt. It was a healthy space to collect thoughts and feelings in an organized and open way. I hope that more posts like these will become commonplace in the future.
Accountability related to systemic change
The WordCamp Europe team posted a thoughtful response after a few days. For such a large event to post something like this felt like a huge success to me. It validated my intentions and feelings, and it discredited the people who told me on Twitter that I was flat-out wrong.
The team expressed that there’s “still more we can do to ensure that” the WordCamp Europe event “is a safe and inviting place for our entire community.” They have vowed to do more outreach to volunteers and work closely with the WordCamp Central and Community Teams.
I am sincerely hoping that other events will follow their lead and adopt their example.
Spaces were created to allow for healthy discussion
I could not track down every single conversation on WordPress diversity that followed this thread. But I do know that in the BlackPress Slack channel, myself and a few others hosted a roundtable. The goal was to provide a safe and open space for Black WordPressers from all countries to share how they felt about diversity and inclusion in WordPress. We had folks from all over, including Mike Little, UK-based co-founder of WordPress. Personally, I felt a huge amount of validation from this meeting, but it also challenged a lot of my own beliefs.
The community took notice
The aforementioned posts and events were shared far and wide. It was included in newsletters and podcast discussions. They reached the eyes and ears of people who had no idea the original Twitter thread ever took place.
This is important because conversations around diversity – informative, efficient, and positive ones – need to be ubiquitous. Large organizing groups like WCEU need to be held accountable, but beyond that, WordPress needs to be held accountable. There are currently no rules or guidelines in place at the higher levels of event organization that ensure diversity efforts are taken. Hopefully, as more and more people bring attention to these faults, we will get closer and closer to a resolution.
So, back to the point.
I want you to do what I did, but better.
So if we are looking to avoid:
- Hurting people’s feelings
- Limiting how much people can say
- Counteracting community building efforts
…and if we know that:
- What diversity is and means doesn’t always translate
- Starting a discussion and pointing fingers need strong distinctions
… then we can build upon the work already being done by:
- Using people-first language and intention-first language. Remember that there are people behind these organizations who may be caught in the cross-fire.
- Making sure people can express how they feel and all of how they feel. Publish a blog post, host a Twitter Spaces, start a Zoom call. Give people space to express themselves thoroughly.
- Prioritizing community-building efforts. Starting a community conversation means setting guidelines, identifying the purpose/goal, and empowering others instead of bringing them down.
- Taking global perspectives and experiences into account. No one’s experiences are universal, no matter what. I definitely forgot that. Bring what you know to the table, but encourage others to fill in the gaps in your knowledge.
- Communicating our intentions first. Remember, people see our actions, not our intentions. Bring to the forefront what you hope to accomplish with your advocacy before bringing up tough questions.
Thank you for reading this and for and listening to me. If you’d like to further this conversation with me, you can find me on the Make WordPress Slack or email me at [email protected].