Changing the Open Source Status Quo

Aisha Blake
March 5th, 2020

In business and in our individual careers, so many of us rely heavily on open source software. We need it but open source isn't as open as it's often made out to be. Too many projects are unfriendly, even openly hostile, to new contributors. This effect, combined with the intersection of many underrepresented identities in tech, effectively shuts people out of the process. Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and women are at some of the most visible of these intersections. There are many more. Consider who contributes to open source.

The status quo is made and remade every time we as maintainers add to our documentation. Every time we, as maintainers, engage with the community via social media, issue queues, and our documentation, we help decide who contributes. We contribute to their safety and their productivity. Right now, barriers to contribution are severely limiting our industry's capacity to create and sustain open source projects.

There's an opportunity here. There are thousands of highly skilled potential contributors ready, willing, and able to contribute to open source projects but they need to know that they'll be safe in doing so. A handful of projects are intentionally focusing on this work and making incredible strides towards a more inclusive open source community.

Gatsby's most admirable quality is the company's commitment to that community. Yes, it's a great tool but what use is any tool that is too difficult to use or too obscure for most people to access?

  • One of Gatsby's core values is "You Belong Here". We back it up with a clear code of conduct that we consistently reference and enforce.
  • The documentation is vast, includes specifics around contributing, and provides materials that make it easy for people outside of the core team to teach as well as learn.
  • New contributors who have had a PR merged in are invited to the GitHub organization and offered swag as a thank you.
  • There are even a limited number of one-on-one mentorship opportunities available.

Consider your own community and adopt the strategies that are feasible for your project. Who comes back to contribute more than once? Who is heard when making decisions as a group? Who feels empowered to speak publicly about your project? When interpersonal issues arise, who is believed? Take the time to examine your project's processes and documentation. What's missing? What's out-of-date?

Tear down as many barriers to entry as you can identify. The more people are encouraged and prepared to participate, the more likely it becomes that you'll be able to share the burden of maintenance across a wider team.

At the same time, listen to people in marginalized groups. Show up, sit down, and stay quiet. Support individual contributors and affinity groups. Participate in those groups where your presence doesn't introduce a safety concern. (Ask if you have any doubts, and maybe even if you don't.) You could do this by sponsoring an event like the Blacks in Technology Conference or attending a local Lesbians Who Tech event. Once you're there, avoid centering your own experience. Absorb as much as you can from the experiences of others and educate yourself on how to be the best ally possible. Keep in mind that you don't get to decide that you are an ally. We all have to earn trust over time.

Here are some truly wonderful folks who are already sharing valuable resources and insights:

  • Kim Crayton founded the #causeascene movement, which is all about disrupting the status quo throughout the industry. She speaks freely and clearly about injustice in tech and how to fight against it. If you're ready to put in the work to make your organization more inclusive, reach out about her tech leadership coaching.
  • EJ Mason is an accessibility professional. They're a skilled web developer, writer, and speaker who also posts honestly about living and working in tech as a disabled person. You can learn about how Accessibility is a Hydra during their upcoming session at REFACTR.TECH.
  • Coraline Ada Ehmke has worked for decades and created not only tools but entire communities to help make open source (and tech in general) safer and more inclusive. Perhaps you've already adopted her Contributor Covenant. You can see her perform original music discussing online harassment at this year's <title of conf>.
  • Amy Wibowo is the brilliant mind and keen eye behind BubbleSort Zines. Her soft, playful aesthetic is both an expression of her own creativity and an invitation to "people who don't think computer science is for them."
  • Léonie Watson is one of the strongest advocates of web accessibility out there. As a member of the W3C Advisory Board and co-Chair of the W3C Web Applications Working Group, she's played a huge role in guiding the way we all build for the web. Consider supporting the conference she organizes, Inclusive Design 24, this year.
  • Hui Jing Chen is an accomplished designer, developer, and speaker. Her passion for the web, and CSS in particular, shines through in everything she creates. Several of her talks focus on non-English web typography and she regularly shares her unique perspective on everything from internationalization to web specifications via her blog.

Follow them, listen to what they have to say, and use your privilege as a maintainer to amplify their messages. Keep an open mind and you'll discover challenges you never knew existed, refine your vocabulary around diversity and inclusion, and establish a resilient community of open source contributors.

Aisha Blake
Written by
Aisha Blake

Teacher, speaker, and community organizer who learned to code via Neopets. Loves theater, karaoke, and dogs.

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