I had the privilege of attending AlterConf in New York City this past weekend, and I am so happy I found the courage to go. I’m not normally one to venture outside my home for any other reason than “I have to,” and the thought of traveling to New York City by myself and attempting to navigate around the biggest city in the U.S. was anxiety-inducing to put it mildly.
The conference was put on by the awesome Ashe Dryden and was so diverse and inclusive and wonderful that after I got there and started to relax, I never wanted to leave the space of people that were gathered in that room ever. I experienced so many feelings ranging from “HELL YES! Let’s do the thing!” to “Hell no…Why are these things still happening?”
The conference started on a fantastic note with two talks highlighting the importance of making programming accessible to non-English people and languages. Christina González talked about a time where a coffee company shipped a gift for her mother, and the personalized label was completely messed up because she used an accent in her last name. Aditya Mukerjee pondered whether it’s possible to create a truly multilingual programming language that can be localized so that developers who only read or write code using their native language can be read and translated by anyone in any language. Why haven’t these problems been solved yet? Clearly English isn’t the only language used by developers. In fact, 50% of the top-ten languages of Internet users are non-Latin and require non-Latin characters! People were quick to point out that this isn’t an Internet-only problem and this problem exists in the gaming realm as well.
There is a strong belief amongst many that online life is not real life. Alexandra Bowen gave a great talk urging people to find and defeat the Internet and social media trolls and to not let those trolls define who you are. Fact: 40% of adult Internet users have experienced online harassment and it mostly affects women, people of color, and LGBT people. Anti-harassment automated tools and algorithms need to exist to keep people safe online because community members are completely swamped by attempting to keep up with doing it on their own. Codes of conduct also need to exist and be enforced. The malicious need to be penalized for abusive actions. The bottom line is we need to work together to keep the Internet for everyone. Take the pledge and #HackHarassment.
Neem Serra talked about unconscious bias and how it affects our perceptions, decisions, and interactions on a day to day basis. She discussed biases other than the usual sexism and racism that we’ve unfortunately come to expect during the hiring process and highlighted many others that may disqualify a job applicant. She then went on to encourage people to amend the process by squashing these biases with six concrete suggestions that people could use themselves or recommend to people within their companies who do hire people.
A very thought-provoking talk was given by Candace Williams’ on cultural appropriation. Problem: many companies are using artifacts that resemble other cultures and profiting off of them without consent cough Urban Outfitters cough. This is problematic in the fact that people aren’t understanding their own privilege and are objectifying others while not understanding the impact of doing such. As a takeaway, Candace urged people to consider using the term “under siege” instead of referring to people as marginalized because it is more active and centering.
Another mind-blowing session was Jameson Hampton’s talk on microaggressions. The constant need for trans people having to educate others and the stereotypes that they face is one. Trans people are not encyclopedias and it is not their job to inform you. Asking questions that may be well-intended are often intrusive and not to mention exhausting. It is also not okay for people to try to box people into a male/female category, which is another form of microaggression. Many websites and contact forms only display or allow users to choose from those two options and that’s not cool because gender goes beyond male and female. Safe spaces need to be created for people to choose their pronouns. Never assume whether someone is male or female based on how you perceive their appearance and if someone wants you to use the ‘they/them’ pronoun those wishes should be respected. Grammar is not more important than people.
The Cult(ure) of Strength
The talk that made the crowd (and me) tear up with emotion was Emily Gorcenski’s. Full disclosure: There were so many takeaways from this talk that I don’t know that I’ll even be able to do it a quarter of the justice that it deserves. I highly recommend watching the talk online when it comes out. Emily shared how words such as “strength,” “courage,” and “bravery” are words that can be used as compliments when often people don’t want to be labeled as such, because it implies that working or functioning when things are difficult is virtuous. People don’t want to be “inspiration porn” and overemphasizing extraordinary sacrifices, normalizes them and turns them into expectations. The tech field is inundated with hero worship and praising strength takes away from work, meaning that talent becomes secondary. Compliment people for their accomplishments and recognize vulnerability, not strength. People are burnt out. Safety is the priority and it’s always the people who have to fight to get out of bed in the morning that have to fight for justice when they just want to be at peace.
While I didn’t mention or highlight all the talks that were presented at AlterConf, I am not exaggerating when I say that they were all fantastic and I learned so much. I can’t thank everyone enough for sharing their knowledge and stories and inspiring me to do better, be better, and to make me want to encourage other people who I know to do the same. It also helped me to be around a group of kind and supportive people. 2016 has been hard in so many ways for so many people. Personally, I lost both my now ex-fiancé and a major client that I thought respected me, and found out that my mother is terminally ill. I had to move myself and my daughter unexpectedly to a new home and school district, and my support system has all but dwindled down to the online community. It was nice to put faces to some of the names that I’ve interacted with (or lurked on) remotely and chat with new people who I hope to someday see again. Kindness and decency does make an impact, and this conference in particular (and one overwhelming, yet exciting solo Mommy day in New York City) is one that I’ll never forget. Thank you AlterConf for the opportunity, thank you so, so very much.
Mandy Moore, also known around the Internets as @therubyrep, is a podcast production expert, mother of orange tabbies, sucker for bad reality television, and boxed wine connoisseur. She adores her 7-year-old daughter, Reese’s peanut butter cups, and sitting around fire pits while listening to country music. She is a huge advocate for STEM education and women in technology.