Getting Started In Tech’s Social Justice Movement
Social justice activism is one of the most empowering ways to create change in our industry.
Before 2013, I thought Twitter was a tool to orchestrate movements everywhere except America, let alone the US tech industry. In the 2009 Iranian presidential elections, Iranians used Twitter to circulate news and organize protests when their government was clamping down on communications. Similarly, social media helped news of 2011’s Arab Spring movements in North Africa and the Middle East spread, bringing the world’s attention to the nascent, pro-democratic struggles taking place in the region.
I started using social media for activism in August 2013, when I first contributed tweets to the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen hashtag created by activist Mikki Kendall. I’d never participated in a forum where people were so candid about their experiences, and I felt like I had found a way to articulate my feelings around being a woman of color from a low-income community. From that point, I began following a number of primarily Black writers and feminists that lead conversations online around feminism, racism, transphobia, ableism, homophobia, and their manifestations in society.
It was through them that I discovered Model View Culture and, in March 2014, wrote my first piece about diversity in the tech industry. My involvement as a woman of color has helped me focus most of my efforts around bringing more people of color, specifically Blacks and Latin@s, into tech.
The movement for social justice, diversity and equality in the tech industry is growing, but how can you get started in it?
Tuning In Online
Photo CC-BY wonderferret, filtered.
A great starting point is to follow people who speak to the issues you care about on Twitter and other social media. I pay attention to who the people I follow are following by checking out who they retweet, what articles they share, and what events they go to. If someone writes an article that I particularly enjoyed reading, I share it and tweet them to thank them. And I don’t just follow or engage with people talking about social justice issues exclusively – people who tweet opportunities like available freelance work, ways to get involved in open source, scholarships to conferences, conference CFPs, or other happenings in the industry are great to follow too.
I spent – and still spend – a lot of time listening to others. Everyone’s story is unique, and people are intersectional across a number of axes. Following many diverse people talking about social justice reminds me that I’m always learning and that I have to dismantle my own damaging beliefs. It also gives me the space and permission to share my thoughts about things that may be considered controversial.
Connecting offline is a matter of what’s comfortable, and appeals most to you. I don’t participate in many local groups, but I enjoy traveling out-to-state to attend tech conferences. This would be a prohibitive expense were it not for opportunity scholarships the conferences I’ve attended offer to marginalized people. As a result, I’ve managed to network with software engineers from around the country, and the first conference I attended featured the most diverse line-up of speakers I’d ever seen. Many of these talented engineers have become friends, encouraged me to speak at conferences and even promoted my work. If you want to attend conferences and are a member of a marginalized group, here’s a list of upcoming tech conferences that are offering opportunity/diversity scholarships for underrepresented people.
I tend to prefer one-on-one interactions, and if I frequently see someone is tweeting me, or if there’s someone in the tech community who I admire and want to meet, I’ll ask them to tea or coffee. When I’m going to a conference, I’ll compose a tweet with the conference’s hashtag or Twitter handle and simply ask who’s attending. A few folks always reply, and it’s a nice way to break the ice.
Photo CC-BY Magic Madzik, filtered.
Before I focused on writing about tech advocacy issues, my writing was almost exclusively on Twitter, but I kept a blog to document my experiences learning Ruby. Since then, I consider it good practice to write about whatever I’m working on, even if I don’t intend on sharing it with a wider audience.
Want to get serious about your writing? Through my work in MVC I’ve had the opportunity to have my work edited, but you can enlist the help of a friend – or another member of the tech community – with a writing or editing background to help proofread and tighten up your work.
Writing is one medium, but certainly not the only one. If you’re more visual, consider creating comic books, zines, illustrations, or even video games to help spread your message. Lately, I’ve begun exploring speculative fiction to give my social activism work a more creative spin.
Getting Involved in Projects and Organizations
There’s no shortage of organizations looking for marginalized people to volunteer or speak to others learning to code. There are organizations that focus on women, LGBTQ individuals, people of color, and young children from low-income communities, for example, and most have a social media presence. I’ve been invited to speak on panels by programs like Girls Who Code and Coalition For Queens due to my interest in increasing the visibility of people of color from low-income, New York City communities in the tech industry.
Identify what types of groups you’d like to be involved with and determine what you’d like to do. Pro-bono web development work? Teach a workshop or volunteer? Help with fundraising activities? Once you’ve identified what you’d like to work on and what types of organizations you’d like to work with, connect with people in your area and start searching for groups that align with your interests. Simply tweeting something like, “Can anyone connect me to organizations that teach young people of color to code?” could yield results faster than other forms of research.
What To Avoid
Photo CC-BY Bradley Gordon, filtered.
Social media activism can be extremely empowering and rewarding. It gives you the opportunity to learn and push hard for the causes you believe in, while amplifying the voices of others. But there are pitfalls people new to the space should avoid:
- Demanding a free education: Conversations on Twitter, like any other platform, can get passionate, but “demanding” that people show you “proof” to back up their points, or demanding they propose a solution to a problem that affects them, is an easy way to get viewed as a troll. This is a tactic that people who care more about being right than learning use to silence marginalized people or catch them off guard. Nuanced conversations are notoriously difficult on any platform, especially one that allows you 140 characters at a time, but if you want to learn more about a topic, take it upon yourself to research. It’s appropriate to ask people if they can point you to reliable sources about certain issues, but asking that someone serve up information on the spot only shows that you haven’t bothered to take it upon yourself and get educated on those issues.
- Speaking over more marginalized people: When I wrote a post about the problem with white women being the face of diversity in tech, a woman accused me of “horizontal oppression” and assumed I didn’t understand intersectionality (I’m a woman of color, but I digress). I’m sure this person is active in tech and cares about diversity, but instead of trying to understand my point of view, she decided my argument was invalid simply because it made her uncomfortable. The truth is, anyone with any kind of privilege could stand to recognize their privilege and use it to amplify the voices of others. I am a woman of color, yet I am cis, het and able-bodied, therefore privileged over many LGBTQ individuals regardless of race, as well as people with disabilities. Listening, doing your research, finding ways to accommodate those you have privilege over, and not getting defensive are all important ways to show other marginalized people you genuinely care about this kind of work.
- Fighting with trolls: This is often a sum-zero game. There are people who engage with you solely to see what your reaction will be, who want nothing more than to ruin your day and see your blood pressure skyrocket. No amount of arguing will change their perspectives; these are people who don’t want to have a conversation, they want you to be wrong. It’s easier to block and move on. Your mental health and your emotional well-being are far too valuable to be dragged through the mud by people who don’t actually care to learn.
The Fear Of Visibility
A fear I had when first starting out was being judged negatively by peers, family, and friends, or being seen as a “radical” or troublemaker. Making friends and connections online has helped me assuage some of my anxieties, and I’ve also recognized what my limits are.
That said, increased visibility in the space brings its own risks, which I gauge on a case-by-case basis. When I wrote a series of tweets and an accompanying blog post about diversity efforts in tech being centered around white women, I was extremely worried that I would alienate friends in the tech community and my coworkers. I decided not to volunteer my salary information in the May 1st #talkpay conversation so I wouldn’t compromise future negotiations; instead, I created a safe space for people of color who were also too scared to publicly share by posting people’s salaries on their behalf. The take-away? Assess situations as they arise, and make the right decisions and compromises for you.
Self-Care and Self-Awareness
Photo CC-BY Berit Watkin, filtered.
When I first got involved in social justice work, I found myself reacting or inserting myself in all kinds of conversations, always wanting to be in the loop, or just going back and forth with people who I was not going to find any middle ground with – only to find myself irritated and exhausted.
Positive reactions can be just as overwhelming. When I posted my diversity in tech blog post, and when I opened up my direct messages to #talkpay posts, I received lots of positive feedback. But I decided to stop accepting DMs much earlier than I’d anticipated because I was getting exhausted and overwhelmed.
Self-care is something I no longer take lightly. I stop engaging on social media any time I spot signs that I’m getting burned out, which include an inability to concentrate, a headache, fatigue, or anxiety. If I start feeling like I’m reaching the point where I can’t possibly take on anything else, I stop. Over the winter I became depressed and decided to take time away from social media to focus on my well-being. It was a healing experience and helped me step back into social media with renewed purpose, fully aware of what my limits were.
With increased involvement in the community, something I’m currently trying to navigate is demands on my time. Now, I space out speaking engagements and one-on-one meetings. Instead of meeting people after work when I’m most tired, I ask to meet over lunch or coffee during the day.
Social justice activism is one of the most empowering ways to create change in tech. In addition to making the voices and needs of marginalized people visible, it has created a culture of accountability and inspired many to bring these conversations into the workplace to create real, lasting change. On a personal level, this work has allowed me to be a part of a much larger, supportive community of people who have amplified my work, connected me to like-minded organizations, and inspired me to find more creative ways to support others. I’ve made new and amazing friendships with people that I wouldn’t have been able to connect with otherwise.
That said, recognizing what your limits are and identifying what you want to accomplish before getting involved will help you protect your mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Assess the risks and don’t cave into pressure; only do what you are able and willing to do. Activism is hard work and everyone’s needs are unique. Taking care of yourself is part of the job, and honoring yourself will help you honor the work you do.