Omaha Code School

Safe & Inclusive Events February 23, 2015 — By Sumeet Jain

Last night, attendees of Startup Weekend: Nebraska reported three violations of our code of conduct. This post provides brief descriptions of each instance and the manner in which they were/are being handled by the event organizers.

Shane Reiser, the lead organizer of Startup Weekend: Nebraska, is posting his own summary and sharing it with the global Startup Weekend community. As the co-owner of Omaha Code School – the hosting venue – I also feel responsible for the events that occurred and want to be as forthright as possible.

The three violations of our code of conduct are described as follows:

  1. During the first night's pitches, a presenter made a joke that alluded to slavery.
  2. During the final demos, a presentation employed a stock photo which objectified women.
  3. During the group photo at the end of the event, a man who was part of the group photo made a joke that alluded to his arousal.

Redress

The course of events including the initial report and related actions on the part of the organizing team and venue staff are as follows:

  1. After the final presentations on Sunday night, two attendees sought Beth Haubert – our Director of Operations – to report violations of our code of conduct.
  2. Beth consulted briefly with Shane and me to keep us informed and verify the protocol for response.
  3. From the summary of events passed on to us, the identity of one of the offending parties became known. Shane immediately sought that individual out to issue a warning, as per our code of conduct, and re-establish an expectation of compliance.
  4. Meanwhile, Beth re-engaged with the reporting attendees to confidentially record the details of their report.
  5. The offending party whom Shane had sought out had already left the event and lives outside the state. Shane will be reaching out via phone to deliver the warning.
  6. After recording details from the reporting attendees, Beth related necessary information to Shane and me, and we decided upon a course of action consistent with the reporting protocol in our code of conduct:

    1. Identify the remaining offending parties. In the case of the offender who violated the code of conduct during the group photo, some canvassing using the photo itself will need to take place. This might take some time, but we'll get it done.
    2. Speak with each party, either by phone or in person, to issue a warning and discuss the nature of their offense.
    3. Warnings will remain in effect for any events at Omaha Code School. Another offense from the same persons at our space will result in their immediate removal from the premises.

Failures

This weekend, people felt unsafe or excluded in our space. We apologize, and we commit to making improvements to our handling of violations:

  • We will refine our reporting protocol to explicitly verify whether the reporting attendees feel in immediate danger and/or want assistance with exiting the venue to a safer place.
  • Attendees at events in our space will formally agree to the code of conduct upon joining the event.

    • This is challenging for us, especially when we host events that are open to the public, have no signup page, and where time of arrival is flexible. We're committed to figuring out a sustainable solution, but we admit we don't know what that will be yet.
  • All events at our space will begin with a brief review of our code of conduct.
  • Every event at our space will have at least one dedicated code of conduct liaison to receive and handle reports.

    • While it may take time for us to prepare this, these liaisons will be provided with training in intervention and immediate confrontation to correct behavior.
  • Of course we will continue to document reports of violations. But we will also document occurrences that occupy grey areas of "appropriate enough" vs. "definitely inappropriate", so we can debrief properly and learn.

Importance

As I spent the better part of last night thinking about this, it occurred to me that some people might find the offenses trivial and our reactions overly punitive. I disagree and feel it's worthwhile to explain why.

If we are to be serious about increasing diversity in tech, we must take the creation of safer spaces seriously. It is the tactical counterpart to the philosophical advocacy for diversity. As an example, consider the third offense from above:

During the group photo at the end of the event, a man who was part of the group photo made a joke that alluded to his arousal.

How does this make the space less safe? Probably in a number of ways, but for starters: Historically and systemically, women have been victim to sexually motivated violence from men; so what feels like a benign joke about arousal to a man could be perceived as threatening to a woman near him.

Even if feeling the threat is an instinctive and only momentary reaction, that moment's stress may be one of many felt by the woman that week, day, or hour. Consider the difference in what "safe" means to that woman versus the man. Consider that that woman is almost certainly not alone in her perception.

When event organizers say they haven't had any problems being inclusive, they usually don't consider that instances like those we describe above are simply considered normal by parties in power. But the people who feel excluded by such instances do not consider them normal, and the result is a more fractured and less inclusive community.

So creating a safe space means changing the way we define "safe" and rebuilding a fairer standard for normal behavior – and doing so publicly, so that the individuals, organizations, events, and industries that care about inclusion can be distinguished from those that do not.


There were also two instances of sexist behavior reported, which are being handled separately:

  1. A hypothetical customer for a product being demoed was depicted using a stock photo of a young woman and referred to once as a "cute millennial".
  2. When a man wished to join a conversation, he stepped and stood directly in front of a woman who was already part of the conversation.

We're hosting a round table discussion about creating safe and inclusive tech events this Wednesday evening. If you're interested in learning more about the subjects this post touches upon, please join us. Joe Gerstandt will be moderating the discussion.

RSVP: https://ti.to/omahacodeschool/safe-and-inclusive-tech-events