A Global Workshop, A Grand Reopening, and A Man Remembered

The second annual Global Diversity CFP Day will take place in less than a month, on Saturday March 2. Around the world, in scores of locales, volunteer event organizers, technologists, and their friends will host workshops designed to inspire first-time public speakers, and encourage participants to craft and submit proposals to speak at tech events, meetups, or conferences that invite presentations by means of a CFP (call for papers or call for proposals).

Global Diversity CFP Day Workshop, Berlin, 2018. Photo from Ida Aalen (CC BY 4.0)

This one-day uprising of grassroots workshops was instigated a year ago by Peter Aitken, a Glasgow-based developer, and ScotlandJS/CSS conference organizer. As a regional tech conference organizer, he was sensitized to the challenge of finding engaging and diverse speakers, especially unfamiliar faces from underrepresented minorities. ScotlandJS understood the value that open calls for speakers could bring to the conference podium, in terms of fresh ideas and new perspectives, and like many in the industry, Peter was determined to do something about the monoculture too often found at technical gatherings.

The work that he and fellow organizers did to diversify the lineup at Scotland JS — actively encouraging new participants, doing blind review of conference proposals, and coaching new speakers in a workshop-like format — this work was the pre-cursor to Global Diversity CFP Day. It inspired the idea for a one-day event, globally distributed, driven by volunteers in local communities. The idea was eagerly embraced last year in more than 50 cities in 18 countries. Thousands of people participated. The event had consequences. It created opportunities for people to meet and share experiences and knowledge. It built alliances and awareness. It launched new speakers!

Mozilla Tech Speakers is a program that shares similar objectives to Global +Diversity CFP Day. Our values are well-aligned, and at Mozilla, we‘ve codified a commitment to diversity across industry events that Mozilla supports. Mozilla’s program for volunteer technical web advocates provides funding, training, and recognition for speakers who focus on tech topics of interest to Mozilla.

Firefox Reality on Go workshop, Mozilla Tech Speakers meetup, Paris 2018

Over the last 3+ years, the energy and activity of Tech Speakers, not to mention the utility of our public CFP bot, have enabled Mozilla to extend and scale outreach to tens of thousands of developers in far-flung communities, by speaking at local and regional conferences, workshops, and events. What’s also emerged is a community of speakers who collaborate and support each other.

Last year, Mozilla staff and tech speakers in Australia, Asia, Europe and North and South America took part in the first Global Diversity workshops. Trishul and Vigneshwer, who helped organize and facilitate local workshops in India, had talks accepted for the June 2018 edition of Scotland JS. As part of the CFP day recommended curriculum, Jessica Rose offers soothing guidance for newbie speakers in a video called Intro to Public Speaking: The day of your talk. It inspired us to invite her to coach at the Tech Speaker in Paris in September.

Fast forward to February 2019: Jessica Rose has just begun a new position on Mozilla’s developer outreach team. She spoke at FOSDEM this past weekend about Mozilla and the beauty of open source contribution. Her presence at Mozilla is another proof of the subtle and long-term ripple effects of Global Diversity CFP Day, a real event, with positive and enduring impacts and outcomes.

Mozilla Tech Speaker meetup, Paris 2018

This year, we‘re welcoming a new cohort of Mozilla Tech Speakers from a remarkable pool of applicants. In reviewing the diverse backgrounds of many speakers, it was validating to see how many had participated in last year’s Global Diversity CFP day — as organizers, facilitators, mentors — and participants. These are affinities that make us stronger.

In late January, not quite two weeks ago, the Internet Archive, along with Creative Commons and Wikimedia, hosted a mini-conference to celebrate the Grand Reopening of the Public Domain. The live-streamed event took place on a sunny winter Friday at the Archive, a former Christian Science Church, not far from Golden Gate Park. The classic white edifice houses the Wayback Machine servers, along with many other projects for digital conservation — projects that “champion the public benefit of online access to our cultural heritage and the import of adopting open standards for its preservation, discovery and presentation.”

The event was hosted by Internet Archive founder and Robin Hood of librarians, Brewster Kahle, and included talks by Larry Lessig and Cory Doctorow.

Brewster Kahle with the right angle (from a tweet by Brewster Kahle)

We were celebrating the fact that for the first time in twenty years new works would enter the U.S. public domain, enabling 21st century remix and re-use of old works from 1923, like giving us all permission to sing Happy Birthday and post it on the internet without fear of litigation.

For myself, I’ve been trying to articulate the connection between advocating for speaker diversity at tech events and caring about open knowledge and preservation of the public domain.

Photo by Bronson Farr, posted by Nitya Narasimhan in #MakeTheTalkHappen, Global Diversity CFP Day, NYC, 2018

Access to knowledge is the common thread, the crux of the relationship. The networks that provide access to digital media (audio, video, images, text, research publications, code, recipes, learning materials, and more) and the circuits of tech conferences and developer events represent two types of distribution for extending knowledge and sharing new ideas. You could say that tech events are fleeting and temporal, unless documented and shared after the fact. And you could say that digital content is available 24/7, on demand, except that as the networks become fewer and more centralized, siloed, and censored, availability and choice are diminished. The great promises of the information age are breaking.

If someone else — a government, corporate entity, or other authority — gets to decide and select which knowledge we need access to, it becomes information imperialism, a form of discrimination that risks reducing access to diverse ways of thinking and seeing the world, and brings us to the brink of censorship. Innovation depends upon free and open cross-pollination of ideas.

By constraining and choking off access, we ultimately starve our own abilities, our own future well-being. There’s a very fine line between curation and contraction. Since 2016, we all know more than we ever wanted to about the dangers of filter bubbles.

So let’s never forget to celebrate and sustain the democratization of the conference circuit by the barcamp/hackathon/jsconf pioneers begun in the early years of this century. The connection between that democratization, and the work of those who fight for open content — that intersection of values — has become apparent to me in the days since visiting the Internet Archive and attending the premiere of Quantopia, a multimedia hip hop performance piece, commissioned by the Internet Archive.

Quantopia, DJ Spooky’s remix homage to 50 years of expansive Internet and the digital transformation of our world, premiered at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, an appropriate grand finale for the celebration of the Public Domain. The piece combines remixed sound, image, video, and VR to improvise and explore the generative energy of online media, and the brand-free dynamism of open culture and its artifacts.

Quantopia World Premiere, DJ Spooky, aka Paul D. Miller, with Classical Revolution and San Francisco Girls Chorus, conducted by Valérie Sainte-Agathe (photo by freshelectrons)

Alec Brian Deer was a librarian from Canada who died in January. I had not heard of him or his work until his obituary was tweeted and his work memorialized by other librarians on twitter.

As a young librarian working for the National Indian Brotherhood in the early 1970s, Deer created a system of classification for First Nations materials that made sense in the context of his own indigenous culture. He organized tribal artifacts and archival materials based on relationships of kinship and shared language families. Instead of forcing his heritage into the taxonomy of the Dewey Decimal System, itself an elegant reflection of the white man’s culture and world view, Deer’s work replaced rigidity with metadata that has context and meaning for its users. The Deer Classification System is still in use at the the University of British Columbia’s X̱wi7x̱wa Library, “a centre for academic and community Indigenous scholarship…” that practices “aboriginal approaches to teaching, learning, and research.”

In reflecting on the work of A. Brian Deer and the relationship between local knowledge and global common ground, I found the exemplar I was looking for — a validation of the idea that diversity is crucial: in tech, in taxonomy, in the arts, in library science, in everything we do together to learn, share, and grow.

I found myself imagining someone like Brian Deer emerging today, maybe doing a lightning talk at meetup for digital librarians, or getting his first talk at a conference committed to cultivating new voices. And in that same moment, I reflected on all the voices that we won’t get to hear, that haven’t been preserved, that never found their nerve or their moment. I was reminded of how empowering, even life-changing, it can be to hear voices from unfamiliar places, with perspectives that could never arise from the heart of the mainstream. And in parallel to these unheard voices, there are the stories we can’t embellish and songs we can’t riff upon because they are locked up or lost through antiquated copyright law and other forms of forgetting.

I’ll be in Vancouver, Canada on March 2, for a Global Diversity CFP Day that we’re hosting at Mozilla’s cozy Vancouver office. A network of volunteers — friends, colleagues, Mozilla Tech Speakers, and folks I’ve never met — will be hosting similar events all over the planet for people who want to get started in public speaking and people who like to share what they know. You can do this. And doors are likely to open when you do. Believe me.

Note: All unattributed images above were taken by me.