During the summer of 2021, MEDLab joined the Open Source Hardward Association and, at CU Boulder, the Media Archaeology Lab and the ATLAS Institute, to sponsor work on anti-racism in lab settings. These resources, both by LeeLee James and Alicia Gibb, are initial outcomes of that work. They are published with a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.
The Evolving Aspects of a Welcoming Community
Whether it’s a hackerspace or University lab, welcoming people plays a major role. This document is a series of observations written with considerations of diversity, inclusion, equity, and justice. Since one size doesn’t fit all, many observations are posed as questions.
‘Welcoming’ includes a series of behaviors portrayed in a physical or virtual space. ‘Space’ refers to many types of spaces, for example: hackerspace or University lab, conference, or an online community. We have pulled out eight areas of Welcoming: Agreements, Intentionality, Vocabulary, Environmental, Similarities, Signifiers, Pathways and Voice. An overarching question to ask is: Are any of these elements keeping people from your space?
Agreements are ways everyone agrees to behave in the space. These agreements are shared and often co-authored and revised with participants of the space. Agreements may be contractual or verbal and may take the form of a formal Code of Conduct. Agreements are important because they set behavioral expectations and make all parties aware of and agree to be held responsible for their actions. This link contains a guide for writing a Code of Conduct.
Intentionality speaks to two threads within welcoming: leadership and planning. Who are the leaders in your space, both formal and informal? Who is allowed to lead in your space? When underrepresented folks lead, we are amplifying their voices, proving there is no question that this space is for them and that their voices will be heard, considered, and – most importantly – acted upon. For example, in a University setting, representations of the staff, faculty, TAs, need to have an equitable amount of representation to the population.
The second piece to intentionality speaks to planning for the intention of diversity, inclusion, equity and justice in the space. How has the space been set up and who does that welcome? For example, what does physical accessibility – table orientations, cords on the floor, tool room heights – say about who can use the space? For example, are tools accessible to people with physical disabilities? Do some underrepresented populations want their own space altogether?
Is there emotional space in your physical or virtual space and has it been designed with intentionality? Is there emotional space for difficult conversations and how is that illustrated? For example, is it acceptable to have conversations around racial injustice or slavery? Is there room for the traditional populations in your space to be uncomfortable and for that uncomfort to be part of the process to work through creating a more inclusive and equitable space? Facilitators can often help listen and help plan your community’s needs.
Words matter a great deal for welcoming. As Ani Difranco says “words are hotter than flames, words are wetter water”. There are big offenders such as blatant racist, sexist, dead or rejected terminology or comments, but small offenders and microaggressions can be just as damaging, especially if they are on continuous repeat. As an example, in many tech spaces, people are often referred to as “guys” no matter what the gender makeup of the space is. Is that a problem for your community, and are people being honest about whether it is a problem? Is it welcoming to a newcomer who isn’t a guy?
The language used in code matters too. Is your space still using MISO/MOSI terminology that refers to master and slave, or has your space moved on to terms that don’t have racial connotations?
Welcoming has to do with what is said, but also what is not said. Are people pronoun positive in your space, offering up their pronouns?
It is important to reflect on the documentation in your space and what language it is written in. Has it been translated by a native speaker (for pay) to languages surrounding your space?
It takes time to think about what you say in a space and it should. It is worth noting, vocabulary that may be damaging in one community, may not be in another. It matters who is part of your community and what their backgrounds are.
The environmental characteristics of a space speak for you when you’re not around the space. The environment should reflect who is in your space and who you want to be in your space.
Whose work is on display in your space or highlighted in your online presence? What books are around? Who are they authored by? Showcasing a library of work by the diverse make-up of your space shows prominence and importance both inward and outward.
What music is played and what does it say about the culture of your space? Be sure that there is some rotation of music genres and one does not dominate.
What kinds of food are available for events or workshops? Food can be a wonderful attractor. It’s been called the great equalizer. It’s communal by nature and great for conversation. However, it is also an alienator if certain groups feel left out or are being pressured to “dig in” when there’s nothing they can have. Being mindful of allergies such as nuts, dairy and gluten or other food restrictions such as diabetic, pregnancy restrictions, or veganism, to name a few. Catering to various types of people lets them know you are mindful of situations that can make networking awkward and have included them in your thought process. Veggies and hummus hit nearly every dietary restriction.
Is your space clean enough for others to work in it? A community mindset is necessary around cleaning. The mantra should be: Clean up for the people who come after me. Everyday is clean up day.
Signifiers refer to what is in the space, and is related to environmental elements. Think of signifiers as an invitation to use tools or items in your space. What is set out for use in your space? What is signified as important by being featured prominently and what does that mean to different populations? Do prominent tools tell what people do or what they ‘should’ be doing or do the tools showcase how the space is currently being used? Look for inclusivity in your signifiers. For example, various band-aid colors signify inclusivity and belonging to all types of skin.
Is there a disparity between the roles present in your community? As an example, at a conference, are booth babes allowed and what does that signify to your audience?
We all have differences and we all have similarities. Finding the similarities in your community should not be a burden for underrepresented populations. Does someone from an underrepresented population need to bring a friend with them to feel comfortable in this space? Just the first time, or continually? How would someone from an underrepresented population answer this question in your space: Is there someone here that looks like me?
Since people aren’t always present in a space, how does your space represent its community? For example, are there photos of the leadership or the members?
Pathways are where people walk through the space. Where people are asked to walk in your space needs intentionality. Do people need to walk in the front of the room spotlighting them to get popular items? Might that highlight some people in a way they do not wish to be? Are things labeled properly for the population of your community? Labels that are too technical can be unwelcoming. Pairing labels with graphics or other languages spoken in your space gives people the choice of how they would like to interact with wayfinding.
Having a voice and knowing you’ll be heard is an inflection point for welcoming. Voice has a second and imperative component in your space, which is listening. Voice must be validated to be heard. What are the mechanisms for people to contribute to your space? What is your answer to: ‘Do I have a voice in this space?’ Voice comes in many different forms. Voice might be written, expressed, or stated. Are different forms of voice accepted as valid in your space?
These are eight areas of observations that help create a welcoming space: Agreements, Intentionality, Vocabulary, Environmental, Similarities, Signifiers, Pathways and Voice. We hope you are able to utilize, test and improve upon or add to this selection of considerations.
How to Write a Code of Conduct
A Code of Conduct (CoC) should be treated as a policy for your lab / community / virtual or physical space. It is an agreement about how to act in your space. You can ask people to sign it directly, click an “I agree” box, or treat it as a shrink wrap agreement by being present in the space (by walking through the door and being in this space, I agree to this CoC).
One of the first CoCs is on the Geek Feminism wiki and is in the public domain, making it easy to copy and alter (you don’t need to rebuild the wheel!) This CoC is one of the oldest and has been used, altered and tested many times. Another useful resource in software communities is the Contributor Covenant, largely used for software projects, and has also been used and tested many times. The BTU Lab on the CU campus has had a Code of Conduct since its inception in 2014.
In writing a CoC, think through the interactions the participants have in your lab or community. Have there been issues that a CoC would help? Think through attributes you’d like in your space (virtual or physical) that the University does not cover. What gaps are there? Are there definitions needed to be clarified by examples? Are there issues you could envision that you want to make sure is in this policy? Involve the participants of your lab and ask what is needed in a CoC, both anonymously and as a group discussion.
There should be foundational language in every CoC. This language is often already in the University rules but it is worth repeating in your CoC. An example of this base language is “We are dedicated to providing a respectful and harassment-free experience for everyone, regardless of gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion. We do not tolerate harassment of people at our events or space in any form”. In addition, strong CoCs have granular examples. A CoC that just says ‘be a good person’ leaves a lot up to interpretation. But a CoC that specifies no ‘splaining, no disparaging jokes or remarks of any type or class of person / major, and no microaggressions, puts everyone on equal footing to understand the expectations of behavior.
To make your CoC work, there must be a reporting mechanism that you are comfortable enforcing. This can involve tricky conversations, but here are some ways and reminders to start those conversations.
Use I statements rather than you statements. “I noticed some aggressive behavior yesterday and wanted to check in and see what that’s all about” rather than “you were really aggressive yesterday”.
Make the conversation about the behavior not the person. “I hear there was some potential ‘splaining and I want to talk about it. Do you know what I’m talking about?” Avoid labeling the person as an -ist, (you’re sexist, you’re racist, you’re ageist) and label the behavior instead (that comment was sexist / racist / ageist).
Tap into empathy and ask an offender to see the world through another person’s perspective. But be clear about the number of offenses in your CoCs and outline what happens next.
If a third party is reporting, try to keep them anonymous. This is not always easy, but you shouldn’t disclose who reported the offending behavior.
Conflict is never fun, but when behavioral expectations are outlined up front, all parties are aware and agree to be held responsible for their actions. Codes of Conduct can help with that and make your lab / community / virtual or physical space a nicer place to be.