Diversity, Awareness, and Welcoming Spaces

(Photo taken by Emily Alexandra)

Yesterday Melbourne was host to yet another Trampoline unconference. This time around, I was taking a break from organising (something else had demanded a lot of my time lately), but that gave me a bit more time to craft together a session I’ve been keen to run for some time: a discussion on diversity.

While nothing is as good as being there on the day and partaking in the dialogue, here’s what I covered (you’ll just have to imagine all the insightful conversation you missed from others who were in the room).

Firstly, it’s worth acknowledging that I am a straight, white guy - thus in some ways it feels like I’m not the best source to discuss things related to diversity, given how dominant my ‘type’ is. I do feel like I’ve learnt a lot over the past few years, and so this is me sharing what I’ve learnt, and how I’ve learnt, but also noting that I may get things wrong, and feedback and corrections are very much welcome.

The target audience for this talk was other straight, white guys - I hope they can connect with my own evolution of thinking. I’m sure plenty of what I have to say is obvious (and possibly condescending - but I hope not!) to those who don’t have as much inherent privilege in Australian society.

At the recent Link Festival, Angus Hervey noted that he was a young white guy, but didn’t want to become a old white guy - or at least, the kind of old white guy that seems to be causing so many problems in our world

  • and this strongly resonated with me. Our world is wonderfully diverse, and yet our leaders, our media, our world views (especially those of us who fit the dominant type) are not. How do we change that?

What?

And as for what I mean when talking about diversity: a plurality of everything: gender and gender identity, sexuality, race, religion, age, financial situations, physical ability, political views, and so on. I’m not going to even try to provide a definitive list, because there’s just too many things to take into account, and I’m sure I’ll forget some.

I’ve noted this before in other talks I’ve given, but bringing together a wide group of people together and getting them to think in the same way is not diversity. The goal is not just diversity of peoples, but diversity of thought and culture.

Why?

If you’re not sold on why diversity matters, well, here’s just a few reasons, from different viewpoints - pick one that works for you:

  • Diverse teams are more likely to be successful (there are studies that back this up).
  • Nature is a great example of diverse environments/systems being more resilient, and imitating this to have more resilient societies is a good thing.
  • Diverse groups are more interesting! You end up with a wider mix of ideas, which can lead to more innovation and wisdom (which is part of our goal with Trampoline).
  • I like a culture where no one gets left behind, and where everyone matters. Something that strives for fairness and equality - and I think this is only possible in a diverse society.

How?

If you only get one thing from this post, it should be this: practice empathy and compassion as much as possible, towards as many people as possible.

And *listen, because your path through life is different to others - be wary of your own assumptions, and be open to hearing others’ perspectives. Keep in mind that society usually serves the dominant ‘type’ - which, certainly in Australia, is straight, white men. You may initially struggle to understand others’ perspectives because of this - we can unconsciously surround ourselves with friends and media that reinforce our presumptions, which makes breaking out of that filter bubble all the more difficult.

This growth in awareness helped me become more aware of the privilege I have, and the power implicit in that privilege. From there, I can then aim to drive that power in ways that can help others. Of course, this is (always) a work in progress, as I’m always learning.

The listening and learning is grounded in a lack of ego - a recognition that it’s not about you. White guys: don’t get carried away with your own righteousness and announce that you’re fixing the system, that you’re an ally. Go and read André Arko’s wise words, and then promote the voices of those who would otherwise not be heard. You already have the privilege and influence - try to share that around.

Another thing to keep in mind is the intersectional nature of discrimination/diversity. Putting people in boxes - whether that’s white box, eg: white, or many, eg: white, straight, male - will not capture a fair representation of who they are, nor will it provide a clear picture of the discrimination they may face. The impact of discrimination and oppression is deep and complex, and proposed actions to deal with this need to understand that complexity as much as possible.

When it comes to people speaking about discrimination they suffer from, they may be angry, and their perspectives may not be calm, and you may not think they’re rational - but you should listen and seek to understand anyway. Their anger is justified, and they shouldn’t have to sugarcoat their perspective just to please you (especially if you’re in a comfortable position of privilege).

My journey has come from a position of blissful ignorance, and once upon a time I would have been in favour of meritocracy. That is most definitely not the case any more - sure, meritocracy could be considered, but only in a society where everyone is on equal footing, and we’ve all had the same opportunities, and no one has any conscious or unconscious biases. Impossible.

And because of this, I think there is value in things like affirmative action and diversity quotas. They’re just one small step, mind you.

I’m going to finish this section the same way I started: please, ground all of this in empathy and compassion.

Practical Examples

I have a habit of running events, and more and more I’m trying to have these events reflect my growing awareness. Through this, one of my goals

  • particularly in the Melbourne Ruby community, where Mario Visic and I just wrapped up our two year stint of running monthly events - has been to create welcoming, friendly, safe spaces.

Granted, you can’t please everyone, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Good satire (and good comedy) should be directed at those higher up on society’s ladder, but good communities should aim at the other end of the spectrum: assist those who don’t get the same opportunities and implicit support as the majority.

This perhaps isn’t so much about diversity in a direct sense, but I believe it can help: when you’re dealing with groups of people, particularly at semi-organised social events, be wary of cliques. Newcomers can find established groups daunting as it is, and cliques just reinforce that. Don’t be afraid to ask those in cliques to make an extra effort to talk to those who don’t have anyone to talk to.

Certainly, at RubyConf AU (which happened last month, and I was one of the organisers) I think this is one area where we can clearly improve. I’d love to see official greeters and social connectors, as a role for volunteers and other regulars: if you spot someone who looks a little lost or lonely, go and have a chat with them.

Also, strive to make events as accessible as possible - and this covers things from dietary requirements, to wheelchair access, to hearing assistance, to facilitating child-care. Don’t be afraid to make a statement on this too (something that we learnt from the eurucamp organisers).

Speaking of statements, I think it’s important to show people that you take creating a safe space seriously. Codes of conduct are a good first step, but make sure they outline the desired behaviour, what will not be tolerated, and how you will go about enforcing this. You need to walk the talk - saying “we’ve not had any problems before” is not enough.

Lastly - and this is another thing I need to be better at - be aware that language matters, from how you describe your events through to how you address people. The term ‘guys’ is an excellent example - some consider it to be gender-neutral, others don’t. You could argue about semantics and context - or, you could find a more welcoming term that suits more people.

At the end of the day, being a great event host is hard work, and maintaining an awareness about peoples’ needs is hard work, but both really help to strengthen an event or community and make them welcoming places for wider audiences.

The Shoulders of Giants

I cannot say this enough: my perspective is constantly growing and evolving and improving, and there are many people to thank for this - in particular, my parents, and my dear friend Melina Chan. A lot of my recent growth has come from Twitter - here’s a selection of folk who’ve helped me (whether knowingly or not):

I don’t want to hold up these people as the token ‘diverse’ Twitter accounts I follow, because that’s not the case (and some have been friends for many years), but they have opened my eyes to a broader and better understanding of diversity, discrimination, and the world. Following all of these wise minds would be an excellent move.

All of what I’ve written above comes with the disclaimer that I don’t think I’m doing this topic justice, and many people have written far better things on this topic (the links I’ve shared are definitely worth exploring). If I can provide people with just a small step towards a much deeper understanding, then that’s a fantastic thing. Thanks for reading, this turned into a longer essay than I expected!