Part of that world

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Growing up, The Little Mermaid was my favorite movie. I remember getting in trouble for breaking the VHS player by playing the movie so often the tape wore through and broke in the machine. It has issues, I know but child me didn’t notice them. Child me idolized Ariel as a hero; she stood up for what she believed in, she never gave up even in the face of fear and because she, like myself at the time, didn’t fit into the world in which she found herself. Watching Ariel on repeat made me believe that if she could forge a path for herself through such difficulties, then maybe so could I. There have been a handful of times in my life that I have found myself drawn to a group or community and experienced the sense of being an outsider looking in. Currently that feeling is very strong in relation to my interactions with the open source community.

I first learned of the open source software movement as a teenager. I was interested in tech, and the ideals it appeared to be based on matched my own; the free exchange of ideas and information, collaboration and community. However, my interactions with the communities surrounding the projects I used never went well. The few IRC channels and message boards never voiced it directly, yet always made it clear that I was not welcome and that they were not spaces for me. I was inexperienced and less confident than I am today.

As an adult, studying and working in InfoSec brought me into contact with open source communities once again, while moving to Portland has surrounded me with friends who are  open source enthusiasts and community members - a tremendous learning experience. The interest of my youth was rekindled, and I felt drawn again to somehow be part of this complex heaving mass of communities which come together to create a whole ecosystem of technologies. This has lead me to make numerous contributions to various organizations over the last year. I even created a GitHub account which, admittedly, I rarely use.

And therein lies the rub. I have never committed a line of code to an open source project - despite my ongoing efforts, I am not yet a programmer. Because I cannot point to a code repository and say “I did that. I contributed”, I don’t feel a part of the mythical monolithic open source community, or part of any smaller open source community. This feeling could be chalked up to an internal struggle with imposter syndrome, however it is my opinion that this is symptomatic of a larger issue within open source.

The open source community is so hyper-focused on coding contributions, that other types of contributions are devalued. This preoccupation is well documented and needs to be addressed.  

Every day, every month, every year we prioritize code contributions and eschew the non-code work that goes towards supporting code, we’re driving away people who believe in open source, who could be contributing. These people are artists, documentarians, community managers, project organizers, code reviewers, event organizers, fundraisers, testers, translators, security, and potential users. That’s a lot of people and a lot of work that could be getting done by people who are not only experts but love what they do. This is work that often gets done poorly by people not truly skilled or interested in it. Worse, it is work that might not get done at all. Can you imagine how different projects and the community would look if we deliberately made room for these people, encouraged them, acknowledged their contributions and celebrated them as much as we do with those who write code? I imagine a drastically different community that is far more diverse and inclusive.

Now I know that there are those who would say that this is in my head, and that there are no gatekeepers to who is and is not part of the community. To them, I would say there may not be literal appointed gatekeepers to determine who is and is not part of the community, but I would argue that the fact that there are people who are and feel excluded from the community because they aren’t coders means that the community’s complacency in valuing code over any other type of contribution makes everyone who participates in the community a gatekeeper, and it’s everyone’s responsibility to do what they can to change that pervasive attitude.

This is a conversation that’s a lot larger than one person, or a handful of people; it has the potential to make or break project communities and the wider Open Source community at large. It is impossible for a single person to give a silver bullet answer to this problem. Explicitly telling non-coders they are welcome within our community is nice, but it’s a bandaid. We need our actions to match our niceties. Finding the solution starts with acknowledging the issue, and creating space to have a community wide dialogue about it within projects and at conferences. We need to address this at community events and within code of conducts. There needs to be change at a cultural level. Cultural changes are not made by organizers, project leaders or even community managers, though they can help. These changes start with each of us - each person has to change their behavior and encourage the same changes in those around them.

When we want change, we have to make it. We have to emulate it for others. I’m talking about my experiences because I, like Ariel, want something different. I want something better for myself and others. To that end, I give myself permission to say “I am a member of the Open Source community.”, I will recognize and I will celebrate the non-code contributions of others emphatically so others may see them and join in. What will you do?

Tiberius Hefflin

Portland, Oregon 97204