Reflecting on my time as a GDI Minneapolis Chapter Leader

I’ve been taking my time reflecting on this thread, written by Lanice Sims, for the last several weeks and I think it’s about time I publicly respond to it:

Some initial disclaimers to note:

  1. I am a white woman who has had a very privileged path into tech.
  2. I’ve been part of the Girl Develop It Minneapolis chapter’s leadership for almost four years and believe in GDI’s mission.
  3. I’m sharing the following exclusively from my vantage point. I ask you to please keep in mind that there are other perspectives and experiences involved that I do not necessarily mention.
First and foremost: I have seen, been part of, and contributed to many of the items Lanice mentions in her thread. She is right. She, along with other women of color within our community, deserve a sincere apology from me, GDI Minneapolis, Girl Develop It HQ, and former local chapter leaders.

I want to talk about what happened, but not all of it is my story to share. I’m going to focus on the things I am responsible for and hope others have a chance to learn something from my experience. Though I feel strongly that I have a personal responsibility to take ownership of what happened in our chapter, it’s worth noting that I have not been the only leader in Minneapolis. I have been in my role the longest and certainly contributed to the harm that our chapter has caused, but there are other leaders —locally and nationally — who I believe also contributed. Though not all of them may choose to do it in this format, they, too, need to take responsibility and apologize.

My hope and intent is to share failures so that other leaders — locally and nationally — can understand some of the things that went wrong here in Minneapolis. I want to challenge all of those currently involved in this organization to read this, reflect on their own experiences, and create a plan for doing better. I hope they can follow through and make necessary changes so that Girl Develop It’s mission can thrive in all 63 of the cities they are currently in. Change, starting from the HQ team, must happen in order for GDI to have positive impacts on its local communities.


My Initial Reaction

In the spirit of full disclosure and honesty, I want to tell you about my initial reaction to reading Lanice’s thread. This played a key role in my reflection as a chapter leader and has contributed to many of the conclusions I’ve come to. I am not at all proud of this, but want to acknowledge that though we may think we are allies, we still might find ourselves perpetuating a toxic culture at times.

A few days before Lanice’s thread was shared, I read (and retweeted) this article written by Rachel Elizabeth Cargle:

I remember reading it, nodding my head in agreement and thinking “I’ll never be like these white feminists. I got this.”

It was embarrassing how quickly I became one of these toxic white feminists this article describes after a team I was part of was called out for not being inclusive or creating safe spaces for people of color. Specifically…

  • I cried (over the phone with another white chapter leader from a different city)
  • I panicked about my own reputation (what will people think me? How will this hurt my “brand”?)
  • I thought about all the time and energy I put into this organization and tried to remind myself of good things I thought I had done for my community (we’ve had a few women of color in our classes…)
  • I started thinking of a million excuses (I was doing my best, I didn’t have the support I needed from GDI HQ or local volunteers, our chapter grew so fast, I was unexpectedly pregnant, changed jobs, was on maternity leave, tried to step down from my role for 18+ months, couldn’t get other leaders to step up, blah, blah, blah)
  • I started tone policing (couldn’t the marginalized group be more “kind” about their feedback and consider the consequences for our chapter?)
  • I was defensive, angry, and hurt. I made this about my feelings and took this as a personal attack, just as Rachel Cargle predicted I would.

Yikes. The same chapter leader I cried on the phone with sent me the “When Feminism is White Supremacy in Heels” article again later that night. As I was rereading it, I realized I was one of those toxic white feminists. Aside from being a human being I didn’t want to be, I also wasn’t going to get anywhere if I continued to listen or respond with this attitude.

That’s when I started actually reflecting on my time as a Girl Develop It Chapter Leader.


Conclusions

Over the last several weeks, reflecting on my time as a chapter leader has utterly consumed my thoughts. I read through years worth of emails, tweets, and messages. I thought of some obvious times I thought I had failed and dug deep to find failures that were more subtle. I briefly chatted with members from the GDI HQ team and spent hours discussing issues with former chapter leaders from around the country. I spoke with people I trust who know very little about Girl Develop It and I also discovered I need to find a new therapist (my now ex-therapist suggested I pay more attention to Fox News…).

I’m not done reflecting and I’m certainly not done listening or learning, but I am feeling a bit of urgency to share some of the conclusions I’ve come to. Here’s where I’m at so far:

I should have done more to ensure women of color within our community and leadership team had equal and respected voices.

This means calling out my peers the moment I see an action that doesn’t align with GDI’s values. This also means being willing to be called out myself and responding with empathy, respect, and a genuine desire to change. This means actually listening and not echoing a voice for the sake of checking an inclusion box.

I should have followed through when I claimed diversity and inclusion efforts were a priority for our chapter.

There are absolutely no excuses here. While some of my circumstances were valid (I really was burnt-out, pregnant, and trying to step down from my role), there were so many things I could have done differently with the energy I did have.

  • I dropped the ball on an opportunity to include Lanice in our leadership team, which should have been a priority.
  • While I was ramping down, I left the new chapter leaders installed by HQ to work out their own issues, which included marginalizing the one woman of color.
  • I waited far too long to address problems with one of our former chapter leaders not abiding by our code of conduct.

Other leaders, if nothing else, please hear this:

There is an “MVP” (minimum viable product) version of running a chapter. It’s often what happens when leaders are feeling burnt-out. We get into an autopilot mode and it’s fair considering most of us have full-time jobs and personal lives.

In Minneapolis, we had a minimum number of classes per month we committed to, along with a code and coffee or monthly meetup. Our MVP was getting those events on the calendar, finding an instructor or sponsor or two (usually ones we had worked with in the past), and offering it.

But that is not (and cannot be) “MVP” for an organization that claims inclusion as part of its mission.

If attendance at your events isn’t representative of your local community, you have work to do. MVP for the next event is ensuring you’re making efforts and changes to create a more inclusive space.

In Minneapolis, we knew this was a problem. We wanted to fix it, but we didn’t know how and we used our energy for other things (things we thought were higher priority than figuring out why minority women weren’t attending our events).

You — as a leader — may have limited energy, resources, and time, but you get to choose what to do with that energy.

I can’t help but think: “what if we only offered one class per month instead of two and we spent that energy/time focusing on why our classes were almost always exclusively white women under 50?”

“What if instead of offering JavaScript for the third time this year, we try to partner with other local organizations with similar values? Maybe ones that had a mission focused on people of color?”

“What if we found other ways to advertise our classes so women who aren’t already on social media could find us?”

“What if we had spent our energy differently?”

GDI was founded on the idea that certain groups of people have been left out of tech education for no good reason. If we offer classes and only white women show up, we aren’t fixing the original problem we set out to fix (in fact, I think there’s an argument that we could be perpetuating it).

GDI’s “MVP” doesn’t mean “teach white women” just like making an engineering team more diverse doesn’t mean “hire white women”.

I’ve grown a lot as a leader over the last four years. I believe that our chapter has had a positive impact on our community, but Lanice has helped me realize that the positive impact came at the sacrifice of others — specifically women of color.

For all of this, I am sincerely sorry.

Girl Develop It needs to change here in Minneapolis and perhaps around the country (I don’t know enough details about other chapters to really speak to this, however). I believe in GDI’s mission wholeheartedly, but I also believe we can’t continue to have such a significant gap between actions and values.

We need to prioritize the right things. The HQ team along with local leaders need to be held to a higher standard. Just saying the right things or tweeting an inspirational quote or two doesn’t necessarily translate to action or impact at a local chapter level.


What’s Next

My last official day as a chapter leader has been on the calendar for quite some time now. It’s been a difficult decision to step down and it’s especially challenging to leave our chapter without the next leadership in place, but it may be helpful to “reset” here in Minneapolis.

I care deeply about this community and genuinely believe that GDI’s mission can have a positive impact on Minneapolis and Saint Paul — assuming actions and values align.

If you also love Girl Develop It’s mission and want to ensure all aspects of their values and vision are fulfilled here in the Twin Cities, I encourage you to read through the chapter leader role and reach out to the HQ team with all of your concerns and questions.


Final Thoughts

Change doesn’t happen overnight, but I do believe that if we continue to call each other out, provide feedback both publicly and privately, and approach criticism with empathy and respect, we will get there.

It shouldn’t be up to individuals in marginalized groups to call us out or be the ones to initiate change (that’s asking for unreasonable amounts energy, time, and emotional labor — and it’s putting the burden onto a group that’s already been burdened). That being said, I want to thank Lanice, Jenessa, and Chelsey for having the courage to bring up these issues. You have each inspired change in me and I hope you will also inspire other leaders within this organization.