Organizer thoughts: Beyond Codes of Conduct

The super short version: A Code of Conduct (CoC) isn’t enough. It’s just one tool that helps shape the culture of a community.

I’ve been involved in running a fair number of conferences and community events. And while I largely avoid being actively involved in event planning these days, I pitch in here and there and follow a little what’s going on.

It’s important to know that what I’m about to share isn’t to dunk on the organizers of that event, or that event. I don’t know the team personally and have only participated there once, but their reputations are solid and I have no reason to doubt them. It just happens to be a specific instance, so I think it’s not helpful to leave out the specifics. In fact, the main reason it’s all noteworthy to begin with is that this team went to great length to demonstrate their (credible!) commitment to building an inclusive and diverse community.

So. After having gotten all these preambles out of the way:

The other day I remembered something that I experienced a little while ago. It was at Internet Freedom Festival (IFF), billed as “one of the largest, most diverse, and most inclusive unconferences in the world”.

I was in Valencia, and as part of my Mozilla Fellowship, I got to participate in IFF while I was there. My partner was also there, and we had our toddler in tow — which is also why I got to check into the conference after the initial rush of morning registrations. I assume that’s why someone took the time to read out, aloud, just to me and our 1.5 year old, the full code of conduct, rather than just have me sign it. (Could it be possible they read it out aloud to 1.000+ participants individually? Maybe? But I digress.) I’m a fan of codes of conduct and inclusivity statements generally, and am fascinated by the different shapes they take. Most of the events I was ever involved in thought long and hard about them, and used variations over the years. (ThingsCon’s current inclusivity statement is short and sweet.)

So, at IFF that year, there was a whole section that stood out to me. It was about making fun of accents, or imitating accents. I have to admit, I hadn’t particularly considered singling out that aspect up to that point, so I was fascinated by it and thought about it quite a bit. And it makes total sense, especially at an event that has a global footprint and there the dominant language (English) isn’t the locally dominant language (Spanish). Again, I felt like I had discovered a blind spot in my own thinking — after all, almost all my events were also held in English even though they took place in non-English speaking (or at least, not predominantly English-speaking) locales like Germany, or occasionally the Netherlands or Finland.

So I started bouncing around the event, trying to dip in and out of sessions, testing how well that would work with a toddler. Unsurprisingly, not that well. I remember people being exceedingly friendly and supportive of this, but still felt like I was imposing on others. Disruptive at worst, distracted at best. So I quickly changed gears and started wandering the hallways and backyard so I could chat with some people while the kid could explore nearby. That seemed to work well enough.

(Sidebar: In fact, I recommend it. Parents of young children: If you can, I encourage you to make a point to be present at events. It helps shape that particular industry and maybe in a not-too-distant future the organizational infrastructure will evolve to make it even as easy and pain free as it could be! Ask for daycare options and crèches, and what the policy is on bringing children. Good organizers will work something out with you even if they cannot just maintain childcare infrastructure without anyone requesting it.)

Within an hour or two, I found myself chatting with a group of 3 other people I didn’t know. I don’t remember their names or employers. However, I distinctly remember 3 things about that conversation:

  1. These three all were English native speakers (American, if I remember correctly).
  2. They all worked for organizations that provide funding to that particular ecosystem. So they are what in the lingo is called funders. I don’t know if they funded IFF.
  3. Within 5 minutes of the conversation starting, one of them started joking in and about German accents.

Now I don’t think they were aware at this point that I’m German; they certainly weren’t making fun of me personally; and I’m not easily offended, so I didn’t particularly mind it personally but did recognize the very specific violation of the Code of Conduct.

Since none of the other funders in the group brought it up, I figured as the non-native speaking non-funder I should bring up that this probably wasn’t all that appropriate. To make sure she could save face, I responding in a jokey voice that I had been impressed by the long spiel about imitating accents specifically as part of the code of conduct introduction during registration. Her reaction was as predictable as it was, in hindsight, exactly the wrong kind of defensive: Something like that it’s OK for her to do it because her grandmother was German, or something along those lines. She clearly was a little flustered, aware of the slip. Of course I let her off the hook quickly; the others stayed out of the conversation.

I didn’t find that particularly shocking, and experiencing this as a white guy at a tech conference means it never felt threatening or anything — much unlike I imagine many women and PoC experience frequently at events.

But it was a stark reminder that these funders felt totally comfortable making accent jokes at an international conference, presumably after seeing that this was even identified as a specific issue in this particular context.

So I’m wondering now:

  • How can we make sure that the CoC isn’t just a document, but enacted, enforced, lived throughout events?
  • How many times might things like this — violations of the letter or spirit of the CoCs and inclusivity statements at our own events — have happened and we as the team never learned about them?
  • How can we make sure this isn’t just social signalling but has the desired effect of actually make people feel welcome, and also make sure that the burden of policing this isn’t on the participants who already have to deal with the abuse, however “small” the infractions might be?
  • And how can we make sure especially that funders and others in a position of power behave accordingly? After all, funders in that space should lead by example and behave the best possible way. For what it’s worth, if a funder thinks they can get away with anything less than exemplary behavior then they’re not welcome at my events (and neither is their funding).

In other words, we need to go beyond just having codes of conducts and a line of reporting reporting chain (although those are excellent first steps!). But it feels like there’s a gap between these basic mechanisms (Step 1) and a fully formed culture that helps prevent incidents from happening in the first place (Step 3). Step 2 is a bit of a blank for me. Pointers, as always, welcome.

ps. I’d like to iterate that while I didn’t get to participate in many sessions, IFF overall seemed like a lovely event and community.

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