Inclusion Is More Critical Than Uptime: Warming up the Occupy Philly Tech Tent

I support the Occupy Wall Street/Occupy Together movement.  The wealth gap is a whole ‘nother macro thing, but this post is focused on my (admittedly limited) efforts to help the Occupy Philly tech crew boost their inclusiveness.  Last night I did a little canvassing then talked to the tech crew on-site at City Hall.  Before I left, I formed and discussed the recommendations below with the people I caught up with, and they liked the ideas.  The folks I talked to at the tent were very busy but took time out of fighting fires and the General Assembly to talk about the issues.  They were interested and receptive and I thank them for taking the time to reflect on their work process with me.  The first suggestion came directly from the media working group, so I can’t take credit.  Here’s an email I sent to the tech organizing list this morning.

Hi all, a quick then not-quick summary of some tech inclusiveness work I did last night. Just a first pass, but could be helpful right away. Also, a medic gave tech a thumbs up and no complaints, so congrats!! You all are rock stars, thanks
for all the work you’re doing!

tldr: The tech tent team is overworked and underappreciated, and the occupation is alienated from tech infrastructure. I talked to people last night and came up with 6 initial recommendations to reduce workload by increasing inclusiveness. They are:

1) Ask the Art working group for help making a FAQ poster to put on the front of the tent. This could cut down on spurious requests.
2) Recruit a tech tent greeter to field questions and triage tech support requests. Preferably a woman or person of color. Minimal tech background needed. This person could also update the irc channel and tech mailing list as to current tech needs that people can bring from outside.
3) Ask for a bigger tent (heh, pun unintended but appropriate). The tent is cramped and there’s no room for:
4) Recruit shadow techs. Ask new people to shadow existing volunteers. These people can make notes about the workload (techs are overwhelmed and aren’t clear on what the biggest time sucks are) and start to train to take on tasks so the existing crew doesn’t burn out.
5) Recruit a runner to talk to all the working groups about their tech needs about twice a day. This will open up communication and put a friendly face on tech. Preferably a woman or person of color. Minimal tech background needed.
6) Accept help offered from solar experts, empower that/those person/ppl to organize a solar training workshop. O. has volunteered and said again last night that he’d be willing to help. The need for this is minimal, what’s needed most is someone to swap out batteries about every 7 hours, but a lot of people would be interested. Great training opportunity, great good-will builder.

Future recommendations:
1) Hang out with the medics. The medics are the most organized working group I’ve seen so far. This might be because they haven’t been in super high demand, or maybe it’s the nature of their training, but they are very organized and welcoming. Talk to them and figure out their organizing special sauce.
2) Combine media and tech into “communications”. Be in the same space together. Have an open physical presence, preferably a canopy instead of a tent.
3) Recruit and train successors. The current crew can’t keep up at this rate. They have expressed that the volunteers who come to them are a stratified demographic, and this is symptomatic of all the many social barriers to “techie” stuff. Go out and recruit new people. Be welcoming to beginners. Emphasize that you can teach skills, but you can’t teach passion. Collaborate with the training work group as needed to get new volunteers up to speed.

Long form (last paragraph most important):

Last night I went to City Hall and had a very friendly and productive talk with folks from the Tech Tent about reducing workload by increasing inclusiveness. I heard about their workload and frustrations, talked to some other working groups, and came up with 6 initial recommendations.

First, some background. I’ve been a sysadmin and organizer for a long time and I’ve been part of lots of tech groups working on community radio, autonomous spaces and hackerspaces, in ad hoc and high urgency situations. I’ve worked with both segregated and integrated groups, and been in groups accused of being isolated and elitist when we clearly didn’t intend for that to happen. I’ve recently heard grumblings about “manarchists” and “brogressives” steamrolling OWS and didn’t want that to happen in Philly.

My first step last night was to go around to other working groups and find out their general needs and tech needs. I talked to 2 medics, one person from donations, one person from media, and a few friends/acquaintances. The medics said they could use some light but besides that their tech needs were very well met and they had no complaints. Donations and media can use some laptops (I have a couple to donate). What I heard from people was that laregly their tech needs are being met, power is solid, wireless is flaky, there are no people of color on the media crew, and the tech tent seems brusque and inaccessible.

When I talked to people at the tent, they said they were overworked and overwhelmed, got requests constantly that split their attention, were concerned about physical security and giving out logins, and were aware that they might come across as curt. They also said they were open to anyone but weren’t seeing a diverse volunteer pool. They sounded most busy with fielding requests from random people and putting out fires, though there wasn’t a clear sense of what the biggest problems were. So I made the recommendations above to help the occupation feel more connected to their tech infrastructure, and help the people staffing the tent to avoid burnout.

One thing I want to emphasize is the root problem. I heard a few people talk about a perception problem, that despite their efforts they were perceived as curt or isolated. But the root cause is not perception, it’s that the occupation in reality (emphasis added for this post) feels alienated from a critical piece of its infrastructure. Remember  that the point of the occupation is not to keep servers running, but for people to reclaim control of systems from which they’ve been isolated. If a server goes down or a WordPress install is late, it’ll be ok. Inclusiveness is more critical to the occupation than uptime.

Steph

 

Three people responded with explicitly positive messages addressed to me (they all know me in real life), one other responded with an explicitly positive message about the recommendations, and one person responded saying that they thought recruiting non-youngwhitemales did not communicate equality.  Others responded that since the tech crew is mostly youngwhitemales it’s appropriate to seek out people to make the crew more representative of the occupation as a whole.  One person went on to say:

But the fact is that white men (especially young white men) make up basically the entire group. In that context, it’s completely appropriate to actively work to increase diversity in these groups.

I don’t think this implies any kind of bias or racism in the current group–it’s just a reflection of who has (or feels they have) the skills to work with these groups. Given that many (all?) of us are working for a fairer, more just society, I think trying to make the working group more representative of the larger group is laudable.

People who are not women or minorities (e.g. white men) are already doing greeting, as well as most other tech work and there is no presumption that they will have to stop, or won’t be allowed to do it. Rather this is about reaching out to others who feel or assume (wrongly) that their skills aren’t wanted or needed. Especially given how overworked many people seem/feel.

This exercise has me reflecting on how much I’ve learned about tech organizing over the past 7 years or so, some of the embarrassing, newb mistakes I made when I first got sucked into doing tech support for the revolution, and how gracious my peers and mentors were in helping me grow past those missteps.  I’m sure I’m still making mistakes, but at least now they’re more nuanced!  Too much to summarize here, but something I’ll be thinking about.

2 thoughts on “Inclusion Is More Critical Than Uptime: Warming up the Occupy Philly Tech Tent

  1. It’s interesting to see these sorts of inclusiveness issues come up in Occupy Philly, and it’s a relief to know that you’re right: Inclusiveness matters more than uptime.

    High five for having the conversations and sharing!

  2. I really want to chat with you about what you are seeing there, and what we are dealing with here. If you have an hour or so to chat sometime soon, I would really love to do so, because I love your brain and I miss your voice. <3

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