On Building an Inclusive Tech Conference

Reading Time: 14 minutes

Have you ever attended PromptConf? Neither had anyone else, until this past weekend.

The brand new conference sprang from the imagination of my colleague Sunah Suh, inspired by her experience at Bang Bang Con. Sunah is writing a piece on PromptConf’s origin story, and I can’t wait to share it with you.

The origin story sort of involves me. Though I had never organized a conference before, Sunah thought I’d manage to add value to this one. On God, I still don’t know why, but I’m endlessly grateful for her confidence.

So I thought I’d start a series to share with you how I attempted to live up to it. This is the first post in a series:

  1. Building an Inclusive Tech Conference (this post)
  2. Planning an Engaging Conference Program (upcoming)
  3. The Hostess Role at PromptConf (upcoming)

But first, some acknowledgments.

By no means was this a lone effort; Sunah, first and foremost, did a massive amount of work from the creative to the administrative to pull this thing together. Arelia Jones singlehandedly created our website and our online presence on social media, and she also handled much of our communication with speakers and guests. As the conference approached, one thing became clear: if it made sense to do, Arelia had already seen to it.

Mica Alaniz drove much of our work with sponsors. Lorena Mesa and Byron Woodfork secured phenomenal keynote speakers. Lorena also coordinated our speaker selection, and Lorena and Byron both stepped in to help with speaker mentoring when I blithely stuck the option on our intake form without thinking about how we would provide it. Whoops.

Thanks y’all 😊.

Why PromptConf?

A dozen reasons, but I’ll talk about one thing we all wanted: to eliminate The Disheartening Choice. 

What is The Disheartening Choice?

It’s the choice that I, and maybe you, have found yourself forced to face at tech events.

Here are the options:

  1. Be alone in the room.
  2. Be present to entertain the guests with what makes you different.

Alone in the room: I don’t mean that I’d be the only person at the event. Rather, I might be the only woman at the event—certainly the only queer woman at the event, and very likely the only woman at the event without a traditional CS background. If I wanted to go to a functional programming meetup, I would feel very alone, surrounded by others who did not understand my experience.

Entertainment for the guests: So I don’t want to be the only woman in the room? Fine. I’ll get invited to events because I am a woman, to be seated on a panel of other women, to be asked questions about being a woman, usually before a crowd of not-women. Or, same story for being queer. In my whiteness, I have not been asked to do this as a latino person or a black person, but that happens, too. We get saddled with the extra work of educating others and convincing them that we belong here. Do men, white people, straight people have to do this work? No.

What if I want to go to an event, not stick out like a sore thumb, and talk about compilers? Do I get to do that? No. And that’s disheartening.

Just go! Be brave, Chelsea! Okay, that advice works for me. I live in a relatively diverse city, I have a loving family and community, and I look like I could rip the doors off a car (competitive crossfit has its side effects). I can be brave—and at the event I’ll still be assumed to have no idea what I’m talking about.

But when we apply that expectation to everyone, we start to see how the necessity of bravery, or the extra work of entertaining others, knocks people out of tech over time. If it’s categorically harder for one group to be involved in the community, of course there will be fewer of them. And that increases the difficulty for those that remain.

You’ll notice something about the organizers of PromptConf:

headshots of a queer white woman, a queer asian woman, a queer latina woman, another latina woman, a black man, and a black woman

All of us have faced The Disheartening Choice. We committed to creating an event where people don’t have to do that.

How do you build an inclusive community?

Here’s the part you don’t want to hear.

Creating an inclusive gathering would be a massive inconvenience for a homogeneous group of organizers who largely have not faced The Disheartening Choice. They lack the networks and the experience to make it happen, and they would have to work hard over a long period of time to get these things. And that work must occur before any event organizing.

I’ll give you an example. The PromptConf guests noticed and mentioned the diversity of the speaker list. Most conferences with above average speaker representation achieve it by considering demographic information during speaker selection.

Our speaker selection for PromptConf included no demographic information, no names, no emails. Talk title and abstract only. Speakers got in because their talks exemplified the joy of computing. Period.

How did we pull this off?

Our organizing group possesses the network to circulate our call for proposals in communities that face The Disheartening Choice. We also have built up trust in those communities, so applicants know that we are not creating a conference that’s choice #2 in disguise. So we started with a diverse applicant pool from whom the group of selected speakers was statistically likely to also represent the diversity of technologists.

Trust, it turns out, plays a critical role in building community. Where does trust come from? It comes from giving. It’s easy, as a conference organizer, to slip into the mindset of extracting inclusiveness from an event: extracting diverse speakers from the applicants, extracting a diverse attendance from communities typically held at arm’s length, extracting dietary restrictions to provide just enough for “weird people” to have something to eat. Inclusion isn’t extracted: it is infused. What are we putting into this community that would make them feel welcome, comfortable, normal, in a space that we are creating?

Behavior Guidelines

This is another thing that event organizers sometimes avoid. We’ll see “codes of conduct” that say “we’re all adults, be nice to each other.” If you’ve never faced The Disheartening Choice, maybe that seems sufficient, even obvious. So you show up—wait, where are all the people who face The Disheartening Choice? They didn’t come because they know that this event has not thought about how to respond if somebody hurts them.

I’ll share below our Code of Conduct for PromptConf, and annotate some pieces of critical importance.

Code of Conduct

A huge thanks to Pear Conf, whose code of conduct inspired ours. Our byline, harassment examples, and examples of what we won’t act on all come from their code of conduct.

PromptConf prioritizes marginalized people’s safety over privileged people’s comfort.

This part is critical

Here’s a counterargument I hear a lot to self-segregation in marginalized communities: “But nothing gets better if we stay isolated! We have to have cultural exchange to learn about each other!”

It is not the responsibility of the marginalized to educate, entertain, inform, or enrich the people who marginalized them. Privileged groups earn a chance at integration by educating themselves and addressing the harm they have done to the groups they have marginalized. Until and unless they do that, they’ll continue to cause more harm. Once again, we see the need for those in power to shift their focus from “What am I getting out of this community?” to “What do I need to put into this community?

So in our space, the comfort that those privileged groups are accustomed to enjoying is not our priority. We’re focused on the safety of those who will be in their presence, despite the fact that they may not have done the work to earn that presence.

Therefore, we do not tolerate harassment of our attendees or participants, at the conference venue or outside of it, online or offline.

Harassment includes:

  • Offensive comments related to gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, mental illness, neuro(a)typicality, physical appearance, body size, age, race, or religion

  • Unwelcome comments regarding a person’s lifestyle choices and practices, including those related to food, health, parenting, drugs, and employment

  • Deliberate misgendering or use of ‘dead’ or rejected names

  • Gratuitous or off-topic sexual images or behavior in spaces where they’re not appropriate

  • Physical contact and simulated physical contact (e.g. textual descriptions like “hug” or “back rub”) without consent or after a request to stop

  • Threats of violence

  • Incitement of violence towards any individual, including encouraging a person to commit suicide or to engage in self-harm

  • Deliberate intimidation

  • Stalking or following

  • Harassing photography or recording, including logging online activity for harassment purposes

  • Sustained disruption of discussion

  • Unwelcome sexual attention

  • Pattern of inappropriate social contact, such as requesting/assuming inappropriate levels of intimacy with others

  • Continued one-on-one communication after requests to cease

  • Deliberate “outing” of any aspect of a person’s identity without their consent except as necessary to protect vulnerable people from intentional abuse

  • Publication of non-harassing private communication

And here come the specific examples of what we spoke about above:

We will not act on complaints regarding:

  • ‘Reverse’ -isms, including ‘reverse racism,’ ‘reverse sexism,’ and ‘cisphobia’

  • Reasonable communication of boundaries, such as “leave me alone,” “go away,” or “I’m not discussing this with you”

  • Communicating in a ‘tone’ you don’t find congenial

  • Criticizing racist, sexist, cissexist, or otherwise oppressive behavior or assumptions

Now, plenty of events these days have a code of conduct. In that case, folks who usually face The Disheartening Choice want to know: how will this be enforced? That’s the part we attempt to answer as specifically as possible below.

Reporting Violations

Please bring any concerns to the immediate attention of the event staff. You can send information about code of conduct violations to the organizers by emailing organizers@promptconf.com.

All code of conduct violations are handled immediately upon receipt by a dedicated team. First, the team will ask you whether you would feel safe if they were to address the person you’re reporting with the information you have provided. Why: although the team always makes their best effort to anonymize report information, sometimes it’s impossible to anonymize a report due to the specificity of what the violator did. If you do not want the team to address the violator directly with the information you have provided, they can still use that information to adjudicate whether to ensure that the violator cannot attend the conference again, or cannot speak at the conference.

I haven’t seen another code of conduct that delineates this response when someone expresses a concern.

Victims of trauma benefit from three key things to facilitate their healing:

  1. The opportunity to express what happened to them (in some cases this includes confronting the cause and witnessing their reaction)
  2. The opportunity to integrate the event, and their response to it, into their narrative.
  3. Control over their situation.

Most “justice” systems and cultural responses to trauma deny victims all three of these things. It’s also common for victims to face more consequences than their terrorizers when they report, so folks have a lot of apprehension around reporting.

We’re a fun conference, not a court of law. But we want to do better than this.

Our code of conduct attempts to allay the apprehension and give the reporter some control. Before we do anything to address the reported person directly, we ask the reporter what they would like us to do.

If you would like us to address the violator, the outcome for them might be a discussion, an ejection from the conference, or a lifetime ban. Ejections do not come with a refund for the conference.

We list here the things that we might do in response to a report. Do you notice what’s not on the list? We do not list calling the cops. Why? Because a police presence signals danger to several marginalized groups that regularly get targeted by cops. And even if the cops did show up, take away the offender, and leave everyone else alone…see the above point about the performance of the criminal justice system with respect to restitution for trauma victims. It’s not an effective approach in most cases.

Aren’t there extreme cases where you’d call the cops? What if somebody sets the building on fire, would you call the cops then? Look, I know you have a million exceptions running through your head. Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it, OK?

So I’m a conference organizer with no connection to marginalized communities. What do I do?

Your conference’s representation at the bottom is going to mimic the representation at the top. So—and you’re going to hate this—find folks who have those connections and experience, and relinquish power to them until representation in your conference decision-making looks like the attendance you would like.

Next, figure out what you can give to marginalized communities in order to demonstrate support, build relationships, and earn trust. You may need to ask these communities what they need in order to give the right things. There are two kinds of “support” you can provide: advice, and access. In my experience, most people who traditionally end up on top of power structures default to giving advice—”mentoring,” for example—even in cases where the thing the person they’re “mentoring” needs most is access: money, encouragement, connections, advocacy. Make sure you’re not falling into this trap.

Building trust will take a while. It took you a while to come around to the idea that you needed to engage in this inclusion work, right? At first it sounded extreme and social justice warriory. But we earned your trust somehow, and now you’re here. That’s fantastic. It will take a while for you to get to the next part, where others trust that you’re one of us and not one of the people who says things like “social justice warrior.”

Conclusion

We built PromptConf to celebrate the joy of computing, but in the process we wished to eliminate The Disheartening Choice that many technologists face: the choice to be alone in the room, or to be there with a few like colleagues for the sole purpose of enriching the rest.

Our organizing group had the networks and the experience to make it happen, as well as trust within those networks.

Building that trust requires giving. It’s easy, as a conference organizer, to slip into the mindset of extracting inclusiveness from an event: extracting diverse speakers from the applicants, extracting a diverse attendance from communities typically held at arm’s length, extracting dietary restrictions to provide just enough for “weird people” to have something to eat. Inclusion isn’t extracted: it is infused. What are we putting into this community that would make them feel welcome, comfortable, normal, in a space that we are creating?

We also put together specific behavior guidelines, along with a thorough explanation of what would happen in the event of a report—starting with seeking the consent of the reporter. This, hopefully, allays some apprehension and gives the reporter some control, which is important for healing.

The upshot: we wanted to do the hard thinking about inclusion at our event so our speakers and guests wouldn’t have to. We wanted them to be able to walk in, regardless of race, gender, disability, sexuality, or other axis of identification, and talk about compilers for once. What a relief that is.

If you liked this piece, you might also like:

The rest of the “Community” posts (it’s rare that I write posts on inclusion nowadays because I’d rather talk about compilers)

This live stream, where I compare “scope” as a software design construct and as a frame of access for…compilers

An upcoming post that’s about compilers, which I will link right here when it’s done.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.