How I Organized a Series of Six Panels on Technology with Only Women Speaking.

#newtopics at Eyebeam. Photo by Jessie Daniels

A few weeks ago, I held the sixth and final panel in a series I hosted at Eyebeam called New Topics in Social Computing. The series was an attempt to reset the clock on the discourse around internet and technology in culture. This is a moment of transition and uncertainty and I wanted to gather the greatest minds to think through where society is heading. It just so happens that the greatest minds — the nineteen speakers invited to these events — were women.

It began as an idea for a single panel. I wanted my friend, the labor reporter Sarah Jaffe to meet another friend of mine, the artist Lauren McCarthy. Their ideas on the automation of labor and the emerging field “affective computing” were complementary in ways a panel format could demonstrate. While I was planning the event, I met the designer Sabrina Majeed and I wanted her to be part of the conversation too.

While I was looking at potential venues, I began a residency at Eyebeam and mentioned my idea. The organization just moved to a new location in Brooklyn and were eager for programming to encourage people to check out the new space. “Could I host three panels then?” I asked. Sure, they said. I sketched out some ideas for discussions and had trouble narrowing down the topics. So I checked in again: “Could I host six panels?” Sure!

Before I continue — Thank you Sabrina Majeed, Sarah Jaffe, Lauren McCarthy (Emotional Labor and Affective Computing), Sydette Harry, Erin Kissane, Melissa Gira Grant (Online Abuser Dynamics), Katherine Cross, Sandra Ordonez, Seda Gürses, (Free Expression and Online Anonymity), Karen Levy, Sarah Jeong, Alice Marwick (Consent and the Network), Bina Ahmad, Raven Rakia, Ingrid Burrington, Kade Crockford (Resistance Under Surveillance), Tressie McMillan Cottom, Sava Saheli Singh, and Karen Gregory (Data and Education).

SPACE

I often go to lectures and conferences around New York. Sometimes attending these events I feel unwelcome as a woman, often in subtle ways, but ways that I thought through while planning this series of talks. I took notes on events where I left immediately at the end and contrasted those environments with events where I felt comfortable to introduce myself to speakers and ask more questions. I wanted to create a space where an audience feels welcome and their presence is not about being a person sitting in a chair who is trans or is a high school drop-out or any other marker of identity — a space where people can show up and just be.

I am particularly uncomfortable in conference environments where there is a clear division between speakers, audience, and administrative staff. So it was important to keep the space informal and friendly. Events were free. I asked the audience to meet us at a restaurant after every event to continue the conversation. It helps that I had an institution like Eyebeam to host these events. It is a rare safe space in the tech art community and I would encourage anyone to apply for their residencies.

Every night drew a great audience. I love that people showed up even in polar vortex cold weather, but the smallest crowd happened the night of the grand jury decision on Eric Garner — people who wanted to come went to protests instead.

SELECTION

This was simple. I invited people I admire, that I learn from, who are the very best and most knowledgeable about these subjects. I could have thought of three times as many women to speak at these events. If you are wondering how I found them, well perhaps this tutorial I wrote with Divya Manian will be helpful.

There was always going to be a cis white woman on stage (me), which meant that if I didn’t pay attention, these “all women” panels might have reinforced other hierarchies. In the initial list of speakers I wanted to invite, I noticed that a significant number of them speak openly about their queerness, trans identity, or race. I never want to count and categorize people or tokenize. I don’t always know if someone is a person of color or not. I don’t know if people are trans unless they are out. But it seemed to be that about half of the speakers — again the best possible people to speak about these topics — are women of color, so I figured my list was solid and went with it. These speakers are all as busy as they are talented. I waited until I could get all of the speakers to confirm for the same date. It was not about filling slots but making sure the selected speakers could make it.

Still, I took it as a given that I was excluding someone or something relevant, and that these events were resilient enough to provide safety to more communities, the process of including people only made the events stronger. To give an example: before the first panel, someone called me out on Twitter for not doing anything about accessibility. For that I was grateful. Because I learned about providing captioning service and found a sponsor — Mailchimp — to cover the cost. I have no idea whether anyone from the deaf community showed up to some of the events or not. It’s not for me to know. The point is someone knew there was a space they were welcome and accommodated and they wouldn’t have to announce their deafness to be present at these events. Despite being vigilant, there were other issues with accessibility. The elevator at Eyebeam was broken at the time of the first two panels and the venue is on the 5th floor. On both occasions, we emailed all ticket holders to alert them. There seemed to be no easily resolution, no alternate venues that I could book at the last minute. If you were unable to attend any of these events because of the elevator, I am terribly sorry. I know just saying it doesn’t amount to much, but my embarrassment over the elevator has since made me prioritize accessibility and I will more forcefully advocate for it in any future events I organize.

TOPICS

I named it New Topics for a reason. This was an attempt to open up the discourse around privacy, surveillance, and online communication for multiple solutions, critical perspectives on solutions, and a deeper consideration of the power dynamics when these technologies are put in practice. How anonymity online can be a double-edged sword — providing safety for marginalized communities while also enabling the trolls doing them harm. The emotional labor of jobs like community manager. The technology to simulate empathy. We talked about patterns and dynamics of online harassment and tactical solutions. How “revenge porn” has broad implications for privacy, first amendment rights, extortion law, sex, surveillance, and consent. And user consent as a guiding principle of internet freedom. The talk on surveillance was focused on case studies rather than a more abstract conversation. The discourse around surveillance is already abstract, so we talked about surveillance as a lived experience. We ended with “Data and Education,” because so many people in tech think education is a solution, rather than its own set of problems.

FORMAT

The events were in panel rather than presentation format in the interest of collaborative discussion. I would email an outline to speakers beforehand with questions I’d likely ask and relevant links. Discussion typically went for an hour before breaking for a half hour of audience questions. When I started the series I began with excessively lengthy introductions but in later talks, I went straight to facilitating the discussion between speakers, which was more engaging. The audio for every event was documented but no video. This was both the most efficient use of resources and also a personal decision. I have (uncorrected) transcripts available to anyone who requests them and plan to do something with the written documentation — either a book or a dedicated website, depending on permission and interest from the speakers. A variation of Geek Feminism’s code of conduct was read at the start of every event and audience questions were progressive stack. I picked an hashtag — #newtopics — not commonly in use. There are a lot of little things I did like constantly rearranging which speaker’s name was mentioned first when I’d tweet out reminders about the events. In questions, I try to bring up as many names of women working in these spaces that I could.

LANGUAGE

I have “only women” in this headline to grab your attention, but I am conflicted about the language and flaunting this attribute. Nothing about the promotional material mentioned the fact that no men were involved in these events. This is important to me for a number of reasons. First of all — every speaker was there on her own merits. More importantly, I am hesitant to do things that reinforce the gender binary in my attempts at creating more diverse spaces. If a speaker at one of these events were to transition in the future, I would not want the documentation invalidating the individual’s maleness. This is where I am learning and I would appreciate any feedback from trans men and non-binary persons about how to dial down the volume on cis men without the unintended consequences of harming others.

Adding to where I feel conflicted about this is, as much as I hate for it to be the case, just pointing out that trans women are women remains political rather than obvious. That I need to type this in 2015 is a disgrace. Trans representation in feminist spaces is critically important when in just the past year, publications like the New York Times and New Yorker have hosted confoundingly bigoted voices debating this fact.

FEEDBACK AND LANDSCAPE

I am very lucky to have a friend in Melissa Gira Grant. Before moving forward, I ran just about every decision by her. I also reached out to Divya Manian, Courtney Stanton and Darius Kazemi for advice, and many many others. That so little went without a hitch is not just good fortune but because of this feedback, helping me think through potential setbacks.

The New Topics series is just one project in a landscape of initiatives that have emerged in the past few years. Leaders like Dorothy Santos, Leigh Honeywell, and Seda Gürses, events like Facets, AlterConf, Beyond the Code, and initiatives like The List, Deep Lab, Model View Culture, and Double Union are working for change. It is important we have a number of initiatives because people need options. Conflicts happen — (yes, in progressive activist spaces. Please read Revolution Starts at Home if you are doing diversity work) — and, moreover, people have different ideas of how best to accomplish shared goals. More initiatives result in more gates rather than new gatekeepers.

DE-CENTERING MYSELF

I was only the moderator of the series, which meant stepping back so attention was directed to the speakers rather than on me. My other tasks were administrative in scheduling and booking events (with ample support from the Eyebeam staff). The one place I will always center myself is in taking responsibility for any problems with the New Topics series. If anything went wrong it was my fault. Don’t blame the speakers, don’t blame the hosting institution. I organized it and any errors and mistakes were mine. Public speaking doesn’t come naturally to me at all. I have learned how to trick my body into not having a panic attack whenever a mic is in my hands. But there remain areas where I try hard and still screw up and it’s actually not okay that I screw these things up. For example, it is very hard for me to pronounce unfamiliar words. I can practice saying someone’s name over and over again and still stumble on it. This is unacceptable as a moderator of an event. So I try harder. There are many areas where I could have done more like providing childcare. I worked without a budget besides some travel expenses for speakers and the live-captioning transcription fees. This was easier for me because I did not have to worry about conflicting interests from a sponsor, but I also wish I could have properly compensated my speakers for their time.

MORE GATES FEWER GATEKEEPERS

New Topics let me demonstrate what I wish for the rest of the technology community. I hope this post is helpful to anyone planning events, but part of me wonders if I am selling the project short by calling attention to it as a diversity initiative at all.

I don’t consider myself a diversity expert. I’m just someone who tried to put together a series of tech events that aren’t bullshit. I learned a lot in the process of planning these events and can’t thank everyone involved — speakers, audience, and other supporters — enough.