We Don’t Work for Free: Centering Marginalized Community Members in Decision Making

Having cisgender white males and venture capitalists creating projects about diversity not only doesn’t make sense, it’s insulting.

by CK Oliver on October 30th, 2014

Tech and gaming spaces are dominated by cisgender white men and venture capitalists that tout “diversity in the workplace” while continuing to talk over marginalized people. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked for my specific thoughts on making a workspace a positive place for underrepresented groups, then heard, “Let’s hear your thoughts, as well,” to the white man sitting next to me.

Not that he was the only one, of course. I’ve been the only woman in all too many tech and gaming ventures. Many times, white men get double my rate of pay for less work. Many gaming projects don’t offer pay, and if they do — they’re probably paying white men more to do the same thing. In tech, this is more insidious, hidden behind buzzwords like “payment structure,” “project value” or “projected return on investment.” Those in positions of power and privilege will say whatever they have to in order to avoid paying marginalized community members what they are worth.

Image of a stage microphone.

Photo CC-BY Carla de Souza Campos, filtered.

In order to reverse these alarming trends, we must realize that paying minority community members is just part of the puzzle. Speaking out against the continued oppression of marginalized community members forced to live in poverty or barely getting by while venture capitalists profit is a start, but it’s not the whole solution. Marginalized communities need to be at the center of decisions that directly affect them.

This Will Look Great In Your Portfolio! Try Again.

Many events have been created that bring together minorities to speak on issues which directly impact their lives, and shape their communities and the spaces they navigate. One example is Ashe Dryden’s AlterConf events, a nationwide series of micro-community sessions on diversity in tech and gaming. It highlights voices from within these communities on topics that matter to them. I will be speaking at the AlterConf Austin next year regarding erasure in the MOGII gaming community, and am grateful for the opportunity to add my voice; I reside in Texas, where the experiences of a neutrois polysexual are very rarely heard in tech spaces.

AlterConf also pays its speakers, which many larger, venture-capitalist funded projects do not do, or do so in ways that are skewed compared to their overall wealth. VCs often donate to ‘diverse causes’ to earn ally cookies. This is the equivalent of tossing a penny into a donation jar and expecting to be touted as a hero. To those trying to get out of poverty, escape abusive situations, or who are part of the working poor, the treatment of marginalized communities by privileged cisgender white males is abhorrent. We are worth paying for, and should be treated equally when compared to cisgender white male speakers, panelists, or coworkers. Instead, I have been asked to write pieces for free to “boost my portfolio,” and at one point wrote 500 word articles for pennies apiece… up to 30 a day. My current freelance writing job pays well, and I am able to tread water financially. Money is still tight, and I make so little as to still qualify for government assistance. My story is not uncommon, and is something often heard among other MOGII people, especially nonbinary, neutrois, and transgender individuals.

A single penny in a jar.

Photo CC-BY Rob, filtered.

While the disparity in wage gap between women and men is frequently highlighted, there are many other axes of oppression to consider, along with their financial ramifications. For example, there is a significant wage gap between bisexual women, lesbians, and their heterosexual counterparts:

“Among women 18-44 years old, more than a quarter of bisexual women are poor (29.4%) and more than 1 in 5 lesbians are in poverty (22.7%), a rate higher than the poverty rate among heterosexual women (21.1%), but the differences were not statistically significant.” (Badgett et al, 2013)

To get marginalized community members a living wage involves recognition of these and other factors. Many women living in marginalized communities choose sex work as a way to keep themselves afloat financially, and this can be seen by mainstream white VC tech and gaming jobs as a ‘culture clash’ that means an otherwise very qualified female applicant may be looked over at a job for a male applicant due to whorephobia. For white cisgender women in gaming and tech, this may not be the case, but it is by no means uncommon for minorities, in particular transgender women of color attempting to survive below the poverty line. If we truly want to enact change, we must abolish the notion that sex-work makes someone an unsuitable candidate for employment, and focus on what marginalized community members can offer a venture through their unique talents and skillsets.

We must also acknowledge that marginalized workers are more often asked to freelance rather than offered more permanent and stable positions. White men are hired on, whereas marginalized community members are asked to “think of the exposure,” which cannot sustain a living wage.

Asking marginalized community members to work for free or less than the standard rate a white cisgender male would make for the same work is deplorable. Offering marginalized community members an actual living wage [not the capitalist definition of what is considered a ‘living wage’ which in many minority communities is nowhere near enough to live off of] benefits not only the individual being paid for their time and benefit to the community, but boosts the productivity of that community as a whole. Especially if there are offers of continued employment, marginalized community members may be freed from jobs where they may not be able to be themselves, and gain the security to live without the draining effects of having to hide their personality, gender identity, mental health, or other employment they have had.

Centralized Voices: Involving Marginalized Community Members in Events

“A study conducted by CB Insights in 2010 examined the disparity in the amount of venture capital funding for Silicon Valley companies founded by minorities and women as compared to companies founded by Caucasians. The study found that while less than 1 percent of venture-capital-backed company founders were African American and 12 percent were Asian, 83 percent had a racial composition that was entirely Caucasian.*” (Kaufman, 2014)

White cisgender males in tech miss out on hearing about an accurate view of what it is like to live and work as a minority in their community because their employment and social sphere largely exists in an echo chamber. They often erase and talk over those with lived experiences that do not match up with what their version of history has told them is ‘correct:’

“African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans possess strong cultural values of group and community membership that may be at odds with the perceived levels of individualism and competition associated with the sciences. For women, perceptions of competition and difficulty with majoring in the sciences are paired with low self-ratings of ability in analytical fields that have traditionally been male-dominated.” (Chang, 2002)

People that are impacted by a decision that white cisgender male venture capitalists, men in tech, or men in gaming make are often not consulted about these decision beforehand. Without consulting members of a community before you create a project, fund a venture, or start a business, you silence and devalue the experiences of those that were there before you. An example of this would be the recent Anita Borg Institute ‘male allies in tech’ panel which spawned the hashtag #ghcmanwatch and a round of bingo for every time a man erased a minority community member’s lived experiences with an ill-suited choice of words. When one does not involve marginalized community members in creating their events, panels, and inviting speakers, it can lead to further exclusion of those that the event was supposed to benefit.

Sign that reads "Hire Us".

Photo CC-BY Dita Margarita, filtered.

An even better approach is to have a member of a marginalized community on staff to ensure that your event is inclusive and welcoming to all that may wish to attend or speak at it. When you create a community and you are an outsider serving those with marginalized voices, your first priority should be to employ those from within that community at a real, living wage as project managers, community managers, public relations specialists, or whatever else your project needs. Having cisgender white males and venture capitalists creating projects about diversity not only doesn’t make sense, it’s insulting on a number of levels. To ensure that an event is diverse and welcoming to those in marginalized communities, one must *hire* those voices. Whether it be for a long term position, to speak at a keynote event or a fundraising gala, or even to host a panel, marginalized voices belong, and should be welcomed and respected.

Stronger Together: CollectQT: A Queer/Trans Collective

In my work with community building and public relations for CollectQT, I strive to bring together marginalized voices from every corner of the world to share their unique lived experiences with others like them. CollectQT is a project founded by Lynn Cyrin, a black transgender woman who has also written for Model View Culture, and is a queer/trans operated web infrastructure collective. CollectQT has a number of projects currently ongoing, and will be working on them throughout the remainder of 2014 and well into 2015 and beyond.

Our current undertaking is massive, and will be a social network (tentatively titled Quirell) for queer/trans individuals to connect with others without fear of retaliation for naming policies, extensive privacy controls, support for those with MPD/DID, and is sex-worker and sex-work positive. We especially strive to be a positive space for transgender women of color that are sex workers, as they are often under-represented and erased within in many communities, including the larger MOGII community as a whole:

“…social networks and cultural norms, immigration issues, and experiences of racism, sexism, and transphobia influenced their decisions to enter and the risks encountered in sex work. Findings revealed that transgender women of color who engage in sex work have unique needs and experiences that must be addressed through structural and social network-based interventions to minimize their vulnerability to social and public health harms.” (Sausa et al, 2007)

CollectQT offers me a space where I can be myself without fear of getting fired, or dealing with insensitive comments regarding my sexual orientation from cisgender white male coworkers. As someone that is a member of many communities, namely the transgender, queer, disabled, and autistic communities — being able to be open about who I am, my limitations, and the skills that I bring to the table are crucial to my health and well-being.

Building a better community is in all of our hands, but it is not up to us entirely. We are not here to educate white cisgender males, and should not be expected to. We do not have to give out cookies, nor offer gold stars for white men simply listening to our opinions. We should not have to offer our community building, gaming, tech, or project credentials to speak on issues that white men get an automatic pass to talk about just by the sheer nature of their privilege.

Do not ever think that our job as members of a marginalized community is to educate others. It’s not.

Our job is to create, inspire, and welcome our own community members to speak out without fear of erasure, share their ideas, collaborate, and bring new projects to life.


New Patterns of Poverty in the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Community. The Williams Institute. M.V. Lee Badgett et al, 2013.

The Startling Statistics That Prove Venture Capitalists Are More Likely To Fund White Males Over Minorities And Women. Elite Daily. Aaron Kaufman, 2014.*

Women and Minorities in the Science, Mathematics and Engineering Pipeline. ERIC Digest. June Chang, 2002.

Perceived Risks and Benefits of Sex Work among Transgender Women of Color in San Francisco. Archives of Sexual Behavior. Sausa et al, 2007.

* Note: I disagree with the term ‘Caucasian’ to mean ‘white’ in this quote, as unless one’s direct family hails from the Caucasus region, they are not Caucasian.