Episode 013: Religion in Tech with Audrey Eschright of The Recompiler Mag

Panelists:

Coraline Ada Ehmke | Sam Livingston-Gray | Astrid Countee

Guest Starring:

Audrey Eschright

Show Notes:

00:16 – Welcome to “Lucky Episode 13!” …we mean, “Greater Than Code!”

01:10 – Audrey’s Background and Origin Story

Stumptown Syndicate
Citizen Code of Conduct
Free Geek

10:37The Recompiler

The Responsible Communication Style Guide

16:24 – Community Organization; Tech Community Biases

Calagator
The Agile Manifesto
The Overton Window

25:55 – Accessibility in Community Spaces

Open Source Bridge

28:49 – Religion and Social Justice in Tech

Unitarianism

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34:37 – Labor Organization

#talkpay by Lauren Voswinkel
Distributed Denial of Women
National General Strike
Fight for $15

Takeaways:

Astrid: Making space for others.

Coraline: Tech workers face the same challenges that workers in other industries have.

Sam: Importance of spiritual awareness in communities.

Audrey: Go talk to a coworker. Ask a question about work environment and how things get done at your company.

Transcript:

CORALINE:  Hi and welcome to ‘Lucky Episode 13’ of… Hold on, I’ve got it here somewhere.

ASTRID:  I know you know this.

CORALINE:  I wrote it down this time.

ASTRID:  I know you can do this.

SAM:  We can’t wait.

CORALINE:  Astrid, help me out.

ASTRID:  It is Greater Than Code!

CORALINE:  I was so close.

ASTRID:  We’ll do better next week. I’m also joined this morning by Sam-Livingston Gray.

SAM:  Good morning and I have a cold today, but I’m not letting that stop me. I would like to introduce our guest today, who is Audrey Eschright. 

Audrey is a writer, community organizer, and software developer based in Portland, Oregon. But eight years ago, she founded Calagator, which is an open source community calendaring service and an amazing resource for finding nerdly stuff to do in Portland. Then as if that wasn’t enough, she co-founded Open Source Bridge, which is an annual conference for open source citizens. These days, she’s the editor and publisher of The Recompiler, which is a magazine about building better technology together. Audrey, welcome to the show.

AUDREY:  Hi, thank you.

CORALINE:  I think we have a couple of things to talk about in the show today. We should be pretty jam packed but our standard MO is to get to know our guest before we dive in the specifics. Audrey, what is your superpower and how did it develop?

AUDREY:  My superpower is that I keep things together when things are not going well. That turns out to be really useful in community crisis.

CORALINE:  Awesome. What’s your background?

AUDREY:  It’s easier for me to work backwards. Currently, I publish The Recompiler. It’s a feminist hacker magazine. I started this almost two years ago now. It’s been really awesome to work on. Before that, I worked in DevOps for a while. I did some really hairy things involving software installation and networking. Before that, I was a web and mobile developer for several years. Along the same time, I worked on Calagator, which was a really grassroots community projects to help people find what was going on the local technology community. I was the original co-chair for Open Source Bridge, the conference that was mentioned.

Because of Open Source Bridge, we founded a nonprofit called Stumptown Syndicate. Stumptown Syndicate is really involved in the idea of building inclusive and resilient technology communities in Portland and beyond, we like to say.

SAM:  This is great. It’s like five whys for your life.

CORALINE:  Stumptown Syndicate created the Citizen Code of Conduct, isn’t that right?

AUDREY:  Yeah, I helped create the Citizen Code of Conduct and working on that through Open Source Bridge and through the Portland Ruby Brigade led me into more detailed work on incident response and community safety. I now do training for organizers on how community safety works, how to build community processes for handling that.

But if we go back before that, I had done some work in ops. I did QA. I thought I wasn’t going to be in the tech industry because I’ve had some really bad experiences. Before that, I got a degree in geography and before that, I was a really nerdy kid who thought that it would be awesome if computers were small enough to fit in your pocket.

CORALINE:  They should work on that. That would be really cool.

SAM:  I never had that much vision as a kid. I was just like, “I want to do something with computers.” I don’t know.

CORALINE:  I definitely had the privilege of having computers in the home at a young age. Did you get started with computers really, really early too?

AUDREY:  I did. I had a grandfather who was a mechanical engineer and then a project manager. He was interested in business computers and spreadsheets really early on. I also had an uncle who did a degree in computer science and he was just finishing up when I was entering kindergarten.

Somehow I managed to his schools that actually had these computer lab funds, even if they weren’t in higher income areas. I gravitated toward it. It wasn’t until I got a little bit older that people started telling me that they were gender rules attached to this so I had had some good early experiences that showed me that I could write simple programs and it was no big deal.

ASTRID:  Audrey, you’ve mentioned that when you went to college, you got a degree. Was it geology?

AUDREY:  Geography.

ASTRID:  Geography! Did you know when you were going into college that you wanted to have a career in tech or were you actually thinking about something else at the time?

AUDREY:  I was really focused on career in tech. I wanted to do computer engineering and chip design. That idea lasted less than my first year.

CORALINE:  What changed your mind?

AUDREY:  I didn’t feel welcome, even sort of vaguely. This was in the late 90’s and in Seattle. There was a lot of pressure funneling people toward Microsoft. The department felt that the best way to deal with the high demand for that — because everyone was hearing these are good jobs, they pay well — was to become as tightly exclusive as possible to make the entry process really hard on people and to carry this idea that you really are to prove you’re good enough. I just doubted that. I didn’t want to be there.

SAM:  It’s like they’re trying to protect their department but they have this unfortunate knock-on effect on everything else.

AUDREY:  I thought I wasn’t tough enough for it and I think I’m just really glad I had enough of the sense of self-preservation that I stopped there and I had ended up with a lot of health problems in college, anyhow. It would’ve just been not possible for me to do that.

ASTRID:  I’m just interested to know what kind of ways did they try to make it really hard to make people prove that they were good enough.

AUDREY:  There were these meetup classes that you had to take. There were two quarters of intro to computing and actually it’s interesting. The first quarter I took it and they had a special section for people who had had some experience with programming with computers before and that was more welcoming than the second quarter, where we were just kind of all thrown into this thing bucket together and it was huge class sections.

I don’t think the TA ever wanted to talk to me and I was already exhausted at that point. It was really early class. Just somewhere in mid-quarter, I thought they’re not telling me anything that says that I belong here. They’re showing me all the ways that I don’t, like I don’t have the right sleep schedule and I don’t have the right motivation and I’m not supposed to be in it for the money but I absolutely needed the money. I came from a really low income background. It was these little things that added up.

ASTRID:  Yeah, I understand that. I had a similar experience with natural science courses where they make you feel like — unless you’re a genius already — you shouldn’t be here.

SAM:  So geography, I’m wondering if maybe switching to geography felt like a second choice. I don’t know… Is that right? I’m also curious like what we could learn from your experience in geography? I think when I was a kid, if you told me geography was a thing you could study, I’d be like, “Really? You make maps. That’s it.” But I’ve come to learn since, there’s a lot more to it than that. I only have the vaguest idea, so what’s that about?

AUDREY:  What ended up happening is that one of my friends told me that there was this really great cartography class that I could take. That turned out to be one of the entry points into the department. I think I took four or five classes for the major before I actually committed to it. I was just like, “No, I’m not going to do this.”

I mean, I’ll do [inaudible]. I’ll do some other science. Really, I love that that’s got me in the door but the thing that has helped me build the career that I have is that I started studying economic geography and social geography, which are these other sub-fields that look at the role of place. Sociology just kind of looks at the big picture in the groups.

Geography says, “Well, what will this place have to do with those social systems?” Or if in economics, you study macro and microeconomics and these super forces. Then in economic geography, you say, “What’s the difference between income in Los Angeles and income in Portland, and you start looking for ways to answer those questions, both in terms of research and in terms of theory.

SAM:  That sounds really fascinating.

CORALINE:  Yeah, did that form your interest in social justice?

AUDREY:  It tied into it, definitely. I did some other stuff in college with a partner group between Seattle and El Salvador. I found geography as [inaudible] at the time was really helpful with that. But the place in my social justice interest comes from religion actually.

I did grow up in fairly social justice oriented religious communities and that also gave me a framework for looking at things. I can kind of see how I got here where I am. If I go social justice, religious background and degree in geography and childhood interest in computers that I finally acted on as later in my 20’s, then yes. That’s my career right there.

ASTRID:  After college, what was it that got you back into tech?

AUDREY:  Many. This kind of explains a lot of it. The timeline is that I went to college during the DotCom boom and I came out during the recession. At that point, it didn’t matter what technical skills I had. I have office skills/ I had some technical skills. I’ve done GIS so I could have gone towards things like city planning. I was still really sick of tech people but I couldn’t find stable work that paid me enough that was full time. I started to thinking I’m better with computers than anyone else in this office. What can I do there?

I was already doing like all these spreadsheet tricks. I had a job in accounting department and I was already doing these things where I was like exporting data from their custom database interface and then importing it back into Excel and nobody can follow it. You know, maybe I should see what kind of tech jobs are out there.

CORALINE:  Did you run under the same problems of not being made to feel welcome when you enter the tech workforce?

ASTRID:  It was actually a little bit better for a while there because one of the things that I used to kind of get back up to speed was this local place Free Geek. I start doing volunteerships there and they do electronics recycling and educational programs. One of which was a build program so you take the computer parts that they have collected from all these donated office computers and you build new machines to a spec. It’s really a great way to get hands-on experience with computer hardware so I took that. There was a lot of validation and configuration. I found myself a QA job that also had hardware components. That was actually an entry-level job.

CORALINE:  How does that lead to the idea of The Recompiler?

ASTRID:  There’s a couple of practices that I’ve used to tell me what to do next. One of them is just to keep asking what’s missing here. I realized that I was seeing so much of the diversity conversation in tech that focused on making people from marginalized groups explain what was going on and explain why we need to be here and what our value is.

I thought what if we could just take that for granted. If we took that for granted, what would I make? What I think is a publication where we talk about technology, our technology skills, and what we want teach people and we don’t have to justify those articles being written by people that aren’t young, straight, white men.

CORALINE:  You think you put the emotional labor out of the equation?

AUDREY:  Yeah. To say like we’re welcome here, we’re accepted here, you don’t have to prove anything and that’s freed up writers to talk about what happens when they accept that too. Our games issue really got into some of those feelings about, whether you were good enough to be in games, whether you were allowed to play games than to like the games that you like. That absolutely inform people’s work.

SAM:  The thing that I love about that is that as a young-ish, straight-ish, white man, I read some of those articles in the Recompiler I thought, “Wow, these people are way more hardcore than I will ever be.” It was really inspiring and eye-opening.

AUDREY:  Yeah, it has this really, really funny effects.

CORALINE:  The Recompiler, as I understand it, focuses on a given topic for each issue. What made you decide to focus on topics as supposed to being like a general-purpose technology publication.

AUDREY:  It’s just an easy way for me to organize the ideas that we can do. We have listed the topic really closely. I think we had security and disability hacking in same issue because those were some great articles that people have pitched to be. We’ll probably do more of that kind of thing where there’s like this [inaudible], do they go together? They’re both relevance to our audience.

But because I’m really interested in the breadth of these topics, having topical themes let me do the same thing of like what’s every question that I can ask about that. Let’s see if we can find ways to answer that. What’s every question I can ask about the technical impact of surveillance? Things like that just kind of give me a framework to do the work around.

ASTRID:  Audrey, what are some of the more recent projects that you’ve been working on with Recompiler.

AUDREY:  We did a successful Kickstarter for a book in September, called The Responsible Communication Style Guide. Its focus is on helping people in technology use language that’s welcoming and inclusive so helping people understand why you might want to talk about blacklisting and why listing something or when you talk about your replication, you want to use leader and follower.

Just getting into some of those kinds of terms and those intersectional framework around the way we talk about users of technology, the way we talk about any kind of user facing information documentation that’s internal or external marketing messages. That’s giving people a resource guide for that.

We were like, “This book doesn’t exist. We need this book anyhow.” Thursday Bram, who’s the editor for this, he kind of come to me with this idea a while ago and we just started seeing this fall, how language was really so important to how people are being excluded now too. It’s feeling like even more of a hot, important thing to be working on.

SAM:  Yeah, I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on my copy of that.

AUDREY:  Yeah and we’re just starting to get in the first pieces from the editors and writers. There’s always a really magical moment on the magazine when all of the articles come back. Usually, the deadlines all fall within a week or two of each other. There’s always this magic moment when I start reading them and I go, “Oh, they all fit together and everyone’s got something really special to share that I just haven’t thought about. I have a feeling that as we get the content for the book, we going to feel that way too.

CORALINE:  You mentioned politics. How that does impacts the work that you do with the Recompiler, either in the past or in the present and the future?

AUDREY:  Well, the most direct one is that because I’ve been focused on any oppression work in tech, I’ve been asking what can The Recompiler do as an educational resource that will help people’s safety. Right now, we’ll help people build community responses that are effective. The biggest impact that this is had is that I threw out my concept for the issue that has an open call right now. I threw out all the topics that I had in mind and I said, “We’re just going to come back to security, again.” I really do security issue but we’re going to talk about it again and we’re going to talk about it from a really focused angle of who’s most vulnerable and what do we do to help.

CORALINE:  I know a lot of people are feeling very vulnerable right now with a lot of the advances that have been made over the past eight years, looking like they’re going to be rolled back.

AUDREY:  Yeah, it’s really a scary time for a lot of people in my life. I’m really grateful that a lot of what I can contribute is not just general support but a sense of what the practices and processes are that we need to start helping people. It’s a practice run, you know, working on Calagator than working on Open Source Bridge. These all taught me a lot of skills around community organizing and around bringing people together on a shared cause that feel very relevant and useful for me now.

ASTRID:  Can you tell us a little more about Calagator and how it got started?

AUDREY:  Yeah, what you see if you go to Calagator.org right now is a little green and white website that has a listing of tech events. There are anywhere from three to five to ten events happening on any given day. This is just in the Portland Metro area. What’s actually happening behind the scenes is that it’s an open source Rails projects, set up as a platform. Unfortunately, it’s still requires a little bit of technical knowledge but it can conceivably be deployed for any community that has shared events information that they want to present.

The way that it got built is that I’ve been talking to people in the user group community, which at one point, I think was about four groups. Either there was like a Perl Group, a Ruby Group and PHP Group and there had been MySQL User Group that I hadn’t heard anything about them for over —

SAM:  And there was the Portland Access User Group that didn’t talk to anybody else.

AUDREY:  Yeah, so there’s a very small set of things. What was just hilarious to me is that nobody knew what was happening and it was such a small community, yet I will talk to people and they go, “Oh, there’s a Perl group.” It helped that if you were having meeting at [inaudible] so at least you could check the calendar there.

I just started asking questions about that like, “What user groups are in town? What if we put it on a wiki?” We had our first Portland BarCamp in 2007. I had just quit a job and promise that I will have a lot of free time to help organize it. I think the month before so that I had something to show up. I just threw together as wiki and I said, “I’m just going to list every user group that I can find I’m going to sit here in Google, search for everything, catalog it and that would be useful. You would have also done it. It was useful. People said, “What we really need is to know where are these meetings happening.” Maybe they get to have it on a calendar and I said, “Okay, fine. I’ll create a Google Calendar.”

The people that were at that conference session, I gave them access. Somebody else said that the mailing list called PDX Groups that was user group organizers. I asked, “Can we get everybody on the PDX group list access to the calendar? I don’t want to update their events. Can we just update their events,” and the answer was no. It was not actually possible.

I don’t think you can, yet, see that easily with Google Calendar. Probably because they think you live in an office, where everyone’s already got permission, which lots of people do. It just didn’t match what we needed so we kind of did this for most of the year. I thought, “We’re software developers. We’re in the open source world. What if I just email everyone I talk to about this,” which is about 30 people. What if I just send them all an email and I said, “You’re invited to a code sprint,” and that was what happened. I sat there, I Google code and I made a repository and that’s how Calagator got made, that I had to have a repository that day.

SAM:  What does that the name mean?

AUDREY:  It’s the calendar aggregator but then we could have like an alligator mascot. One of the originally quirky members was named [inaudible] and he sent me this detailed multi-page spec a couple weeks before the D-Day. It’s funny we did come back around a lot of the things for the spec. But what we originally built was a page that had a really basic Rail Scaffold and you could create an event and that it happens some place so you can create the venue. That’s really actually like the main framework of the code. Even still, there’s all of these other things that do [inaudible] and they import, they export. But at its heart, there’s just two models and two main controllers.

Every two weeks, we had a code sprint that went all the way into the summer, [inaudible] did the hosting — that was really important — rebuilds the design. But we still had a couple of dozen people that were showing up every other week at our little co-working space that a lot of things were happening at the time.

It helped me so much about building software and about working with people and about bringing people together. I feel so lucky that I got to do something like that. It’s still a news that it’s still successful. There’s always more we could do. Like I would really love to be doing a lot more mentoring of new contributors but it’s there. I can ignore it for a month and it’s still there.

SAM:  That’s one of the secondary things that I love a lot about Calagator. The primary thing I love about Calagator is if I’m bored, I can go and look at it and go, “Wow, that looks really neat.” I should do that. But I love that you built this thing. I went to one of the first one or two code sprints and then I sort of got sucked into school and other things. But I love that it’s still going. I love that the repo is still active. I love that there are people actively inviting newbies to come and contribute to this ongoing, living, breathing software project. I haven’t looked in on it myself recently but it still has the potential to be a really nice, welcoming space, which is great. It’s everything I love about Portland right there.

AUDREY:  Yeah, and this is back to the geography degree, though. Could I have been built somewhere else? Portland disadvantages turned out to really work in our favor. At the time there wasn’t a lot of funding for anything. The user group scene had no money. No money in it. It was all pretty scrappy. But it meant that there wasn’t any competition.

You know, people would come to the code sprints sometimes and ask me, “How are you going to monetize this?” I just go, “Who cares?” We have software. That’s probably not quite the [inaudible] now but there was just a lot of freedom to go and do it.

SAM:  And a lot of technical talent here already to draw on, which is really nice.

AUDREY:  Yeah, absolutely. I had kind of absorbed that Agile Manifesto so I really wanted to work from that but with people like Ward Cunningham, that was the environment too. I didn’t have to force it on anybody. I just had to remind them that we were really truly going to do the simplest thing they could possibly work and not the next big enough but thing after that. It’s like we ready to start with these simple things and there’s a lot of my job too just to keep bringing people back to that.

CORALINE:  It sort of ties back in something you said at the beginning about your superpower of keeping things in control and keeping things moving, amidst lots of chaos.

AUDREY:  Yeah, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to practice that.

ASTRID:  Audrey, it seems like one of the ways that you found to combat some of the bias in non-diversity in tech is to volunteer and to do community organizing. What are some of the things that you’ve learned from those experiences that you wish could be more broadly applied to the tech community?

AUDREY:  I think that a lot of people in tech go for the technological solution first and ask what software we can build. What has been most successful in my experience is this one-on-one conversations that everything that I’ve gotten started from, you end up with very different answers when you sit down with people and you ask, “What’s going on? What do you see? Do you know every source for user groups in Portland?” I don’t know every source for user groups in Portland.

You just come to a very different ways of doing things and I think it’s funny because it’s so innate for me now. But at the time I get out there and I start meeting new people, I end up explaining that again. I end up repeating this over and over again. I would agree completely that the way that I have made things welcoming is by building spaces. This is kind of 10 years running, in my involvement for [inaudible] group [inaudible] in open source.

There was a point about five years where I went, “I survived here because I made it happen. I need spaces where I could be welcomed and those were spaces that other people could be welcome.” I really focused on how I could use the kinds of privileges that I didn’t have to stretch that further. If I am this gender-conforming then how can I make it easier for people who are less gender-conforming? Even looking at what do I wear in conferences, how does that make things more or less comfortable for other people?

ASTRID:  That’s interesting. Can you expand on that a little more?

AUDREY:  It’s like in politics, there’s this idea of The Overton Window that you can stretch people’s bounds of what they think is normal and reasonable. I think for social cues and social norms, that’s really the case. Unfortunately, we mostly see it when it’s used negatively. But there’s a lot of positivity too in that.

If you start making a place for yourself and insist on it, there are people that will respond to that and they go, “I like you. I’m okay with you. What if people like you are here.” But there’s just a couple of different directions to that can operate.

SAM:  At the risk of being [inaudible] white guy who brings this up, it occurs to me that Stonewall was perhaps an example of that and some people are saying, “This is our space. This is important to us and bringing that to the forefront and dragging The Overton Window quite a bit off to the left over the years.”

AUDREY:  Yeah, I would say that in gay visibility, like LGBT, in terms of that is visibility, that’s absolutely part of what’s happened. I know I sit on this really funny level in Portland, which is half the kids have rainbow hair and when I was in high school, I’d dye my hair purple and that was a really extreme thing to do. It was a big deal that I dyed my hair purple. I didn’t have like a bad kid reputation but that was a thing that people wonder, “Well, if they go to church and they have purple hairs, it’s going to be okay.” Now, every kid in Portland has punky, dyed hair and it’s really great. It is just like the little ways like that too.

SAM:  One thing that I find really interesting and I’ve noticed that a lot of other people find really sort of novel and surprising, then eventually refreshing about Open Source Bridge is some of the ways that you make that space much more radically accessible than, I think a lot of other spaces that people have been in. Some of that are just with blue painters tape on the floor. You want to talk about that a bit?

AUDREY:  There’s really kind of a fun thing that’s happened with that where every event that I’ve gone to and other Open Source Bridge organizers have gone to looked at, what people were bringing to that in terms of the accessibility. The blue tape marks off walking lanes so that people have a place to stand, if people have a place to walk. Especially, if you use any kind of mobility device, that’s really key because otherwise, you sit there and yell at people because we’re going to run over their toes and they’re blocking your access.

But we didn’t invent that. We got that from Aida Camp and Aida Camp, I think got that from [inaudible]. There’s a lot of these practices that have aggregated down to different events and I love that people come to open source spaces and the first time they’ve seen that, they take that onto other events. If we’re doing blue tape and we’re doing food labeling like really inclusively blue labeling, if we do those things, [inaudible] taken that even further and started making sure that there’s accessibility in the area so if you have a wheelchair, you can sit next to your friends and making sure that there’s always captioning.

We’ve taken the All-gender restrooms feedback to use in our space, which is actually sometimes a little challenging because Open Source Bridge happens in a shared space so we can’t just re-label everything and not impact somebody. We have to talk to them about it. I love that there’s this shared practices going on. We’re not all just trying to come up with these individual answers. We’re bringing them back to each of our communities.

Open Source Bridge, for the last five years, we’ve been having it at the First Unitarian Church in downtown Portland. It means that the keynotes happen in the sanctuary where they have a pipe organ and that’s been a lot of fun. You know, you get the pipe organists playing [inaudible]. The first time we’re in there, we didn’t realize that there was an organ. It was what we are doing?

SAM:  It’s hard to miss. It’s a big organ.

AUDREY:  I know. It just didn’t come up. We’re all sitting there and going why we don’t have an organists. Missing out on we’re missing out on this opportunity. It seemed a little odd, I guess for people to be working at a church like that. But it turns out the First Unitarian’s mission and Open Source Bridge’s mission overlap really closely. They’re very much focused on welcoming communities, organizing, and creating super spaces for people. They looked at what Open Source Bridge was doing and they said, “This is great. This is exactly what we [inaudible] to be used for.” It wasn’t just about the technology part of it.

ASTRID:  Earlier, you had talked about how religion informs some of your social justice, I guess like in protest to do something because you grew up in a religious community and that we don’t talk about it in tech. It’s a weird thing that we don’t talk about it because for some people, it is a huge part of their life just like how they feel about technology. I understand other people may have had like really bad experiences so they want to divorce themselves from it.

But for me, I grew up in a religious community, then I went to a religious university so I’ve seen both sides of that hole. It can be really scary because if you don’t fit in, then you’re just completely kicked out. But then on the other hand, when you find other groups that have like a religious undertone but they’re welcoming, it can be the thing that saves people. I find that with technology, it can be such a challenging experience, even if you take away some of the issues of diversity and inclusion but just trying to be better, can be very mentally challenging that it would be great to have more of the union between what people need to be more spiritually taking care of, in addition to what they need to grow as a person and as a technologist.

I kind of wanted to tackle a bit more about how the religion and the social justice ties together for you because you use technology as the thing that you create, to try to do something about those things, which I find really interesting.

AUDREY:  I once speak a little bit too, why tech approaches this this way. I think it’s part of those geek fallacies around logic and emotion and how we are all rational beings and the whiteness in tech, honestly, that it combines into the set of things where everyone is supposed to be like a catalyst skeptic and it’s really great if you could be card-carrying atheist. Like Christmas culture where you don’t talk about feelings and that’s tied to not talking about religion. You know, spirituality and feelings absolutely go together. You know you’re talking about things that you feel, not things that you necessarily can put out there on the table and show people. Like geek culture really has rejected that but I think that’s also way that it is less welcoming to people to not reflect that aspect of people’s experiences. I don’t think that you have to be religious in a formal sense to have a spiritual element in your life.

I take a weekly yoga class and my yoga instructor has studied Buddhism and that’s not the only thing that informs her class. But she just has this focus on our sense of connection with ourselves and the other people in the room and in something greater than ourselves out there in the world. She says that could be the ocean, that could be nature, that could be your loving relationship with your pets. I appreciate that her practice gets out into that that it doesn’t have to be this one narrow, specific way of understanding it.

CORALINE:  I tend to the Unitarian Church for many years when my daughter was younger here in the Chicago area. I had the privilege of being on the board for the building. It was an historic buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright called Unity Temple. One of the things that I loved about Unitarian philosophy and the Unitarian approach to spirituality is that it drew from a variety of people’s experiences, combining them in a really interesting way and it was put out our connections to each other and our connections to the notion of something greater than ourselves.

AUDREY:  Yeah, and with something that I’ve interactive with Unitarianism, I really appreciate that aspect of it.

CORALINE:  I had the opportunity to speak at OS Bridge a couple years ago now and I was excited when I [inaudible] going to held in the Unitarian Church because Unity Temple is designed and was inspired, I think by the meeting house to service society and friends. It was designed such that no matter where you sat in the sanctuary, you were equal distant to the pulpit so I was kind of hoping for that same kind of physical space arrangement at the Unitarian Church in Portland because I think it emphasizes that we are all equal and we’re all equal distant from each other and from the ideas that are being discussed. But it was just a big auditorium but I think it still work anyway.

AUDREY:  So much just what you bring to your use of the space can be reflected in that. Our intention for how we use the sanctuary, what we’re there to do. People come to be really supportive of those keynote speakers. The conference doesn’t have a culture of tearing people down or looking for the holes in their argument. It has this really supportive, caring culture. We all come together in a sanctuary and we convene. In religion you convene in that conference you convene. But to convene with intention, I think it just takes it a little bit further into that spiritual area.

CORALINE:  Definitely.

SAM:  We’d like to take a moment to thank another one of our supporters on Patreon who is Chris Sass. Chris is a Ruby developer, living and working in beautiful Hawaii. I’ve had the privilege of working with Chris for a year and a half now. In addition to his considerable technical skills, I’ve benefited from his kind demeanor and his willingness to schlep his stand-up paddleboards up to the other side of the island, just because I was there on a weekend. Thank you for that and for supporting us in this show, Chris. If you’d like to support us, you can visit us at Patreon.com/GreaterThanCode and sign up. Any amount that you give us will get you into our listener-only Slack.

CORALINE:  Audrey, you talked about organizing. You organize Calagator in the effort behind making that a reality and you are one of the organizers for OS Bridge. What are some of the other ways that as tech workers, we can organize to do some social bid?

AUDREY:  Funny combination of technology and geography to create that I was telling you about before. Let me in to something similar to Lauren Voswinkel’s #TalkPay, which is that I started collecting salary information around Portland and programmers. This is a few years ago now.

I’ve learned that there’s a lack of conversation happening between lots of people working in tech about working environments about pay, about what we get asked to do at work, about on-call process. Part of where I’ve taken this committee organizing is also toward trying to raise awareness of the opportunities that we have for workers organizing that there has to be kind of this funny disconnect where people endure whatever happens at work and then they go off and they recover in our communities or technical communities included.

Now, we’re seeing this discussion happening around burn out in open source. That’s a labor issue. We’re seeing conversations happening with so many code school graduates coming into the industry, about pay, about compensation, about what to expect, about training. Those are labor topics.

I’ve been trying to invite people to start having conversations about that with their coworkers, with their friends and like Lauren did with the TalkPay thing, to just ask people really basic questions. Maybe you don’t feel comfortable, yet starting off with, “We have the same job title. What did they pay you?” But you can work into that.

I’m surprised how much people in the work environments that I’ve been in and people talk about everything that they don’t like and then they don’t do anything. I think that there’s a disconnect again where tech workers don’t want to think about this as work but you get paid. Most people won’t show up to their company if they don’t get a paycheck. They’ve always been these two startup employees that like their paychecks start bouncing and they keep showing up. But most people show up because they get paid.

CORALINE:  In the 90s, pre-recession, I was involved with a lot of efforts to try and unionize tech workers. Everyone was doing so well and making so much money that they didn’t see a need for organizing. I’m an [inaudible] at heart and I’m really excited inspired by the early days of the labor movement in the 20s and 30s, which coincided with a lot of thinking about political structures and economic structures and the notions of justice and injustice in the workplace and how we would deal with them. Those labor organizers were very active, very goal-driven, very well-organized, and developed a lot of tactics that resulted in some great things like the 8-hour workday and the 5-day workweek and workers compensation and a lot of this other issues. In tech, we’ve stopped talking about those things.

AUDREY:  I don’t know if you’ve ever heard people say that tech is the last middle class job. But I think that has a big influence on that that there’s kind of this gap between what we think of as working class or blue collar work and the actual industrial nature of programming. Resistance to unions, I think comes from not connecting the work that people are doing to those histories and not remembering those organizing histories. How did we get the 8-hour workday? There were a lot of steps.

Here’s how we describe the cycle but I’ve seen happening at tech companies. People work really hard, they try to make change, they can’t make change, they get burned out, they have these lengthy conversations over beer with all their coworkers, everybody complains about the same thing, and complaints are fine. That’s a really good starting point. But what happens is that everybody drinks enough beer and they get just enough vacation, they get enough downtime, then they go back to accepting how things are.

SAM:  Or they get another job and start cycle somewhere else.

AUDREY:  Yeah, exactly.

SAM:  Because we have a lot of ability too.

AUDREY:  People do crank through that cycle a couple of times, at different places and if you are more marginalized and less privileged, maybe you don’t make it through as many cycles of that. You don’t make it through as many before you decide that you had enough for you, you actually can’t find that next job.

CORALINE:  Audrey, have you heard about a project called Distributed Denial of Women?

AUDREY:  Yes, I have. I think that somebody you started.

CORALINE:  Yeah, the idea is to be inspired by those early labor organizers and actually take a day — February 23rd — for women and non-binary tech to do a general strike, to call attention to injustice and inequality in the tech workforce. You have thoughts on that that you’d like to share?

AUDREY:  I would say that strikes are the most difficult thing to pull off. I love the idea and the intent behind it but I think there are so many steps that go before that. In my experience before a general strike can really occur, I’d be really interested in hearing more about the kind of local participation that’s happening to build that.

One of the things that I was curious about with the intent of the Distributed Denial of Women is that in my experience, if I don’t show up for a meeting, if I don’t show up for a day, people just make decisions without me. I’m interested in how the Distributed Denial can still build disability because I think that disability is a way that women and not men in tech suffer.

CORALINE:  I’m doing a lot of work to try and reach out to other groups who are working on issues like this. Recently, a conglomerate of social justice in tech organizations in America came together to discuss the idea. Some groups are organizing at the local level to not just become invisible for a day but become hypervisible for the day. The idea is that when your presence is not felt, when you’re not doing the unpaid emotional labor, when you’re not doing the diversity work at your company as the token diverse person, that lack will be noticed.

But to sort of support that idea, a lot of local groups are organizing events where they will come together as a group and say, “We are all in tech. We’re all women. We’re all non-binary people and these sorts of things are important to us. By appearing in public as a group, we’re organizing events as a group. They’re trying to call attention to the fact that we exist and we’re playing a valuable role.”

Visibility is a really important thing and it’s sort of a dance between not showing up to work but showing up to other things to increase the visibility and increase awareness of just a sheer number of people who are doing really, really critical work in this field who are marginalized and who do suffer from injustice and inequality in the workplace and then the industry as a whole.

AUDREY:  I’d be really interested to see what kinds of things people did for that. The kind of things that I participated like our local May Day rallies. On May 1st, it’s the International Workers Day and a very few tech workers participated in that, even. All of our communities have these interesting points to connect to.

Part of what I’ve really focused on talking to people is just to show that those connections are possible. Step one is to accept that you’re a worker, steps two is to go connect with other workers. There’s a couple of different strike actions going on. There is the general strike for January 20th and I haven’t seen a lot of discussion about that in tech but I think that’s one of the most powerful things that everyone could choose to participate in. There is not a modern general strike in the United States to look at.

SAM:  That’s the first I’ve heard of it and I’m looking it up right now.

AUDREY:  Yeah. I tell people the same things in over and over again [inaudible] because this information doesn’t get out. There is a general strike for January 20th and a general strike means not just that you don’t go to work but you don’t shop. Not just Buy Nothing Day, the day after Thanksgiving, which by the way [inaudible] groups have turned that into a Black Friday event which is really amazing. But a general strike, it’s we stop everything so that we can protest.

I guess what I’m trying to get is there’s just all this really interesting opportunities for people to practice that right now by being in here, by talking to you. I hope that I can also help push people toward that and that some awareness of that because so much of what you can do right now is just show up. Just find one of these things and show up.

ASTRID:  So I think here what you’re saying and how important is and I agree but also feel the fear of what if I’m the only one. Going back to what you first started out talking about and saying, “You and I, we have the same job title. What are you making?” That feels like the scariest conversation in the world because it seems like there’s not a lot of people who want to have that conversation. People tend to get really defensive about why are you asking me about money because money seems to be a very sensitive thing for many, many people.

Given that we don’t have a very active consciousness, about thinking about yourself as a worker, understanding your rights as a person who labors, how can you start those things in your own little communities without alienating people?

AUDREY:  There’s no way that privilege plays into this. More senior employees have a lot more privilege in terms of asking tough questions at their companies and starting those hard conversations. I think if you think that you’re making more than your coworkers, maybe you shouldn’t ask them what they make, you should offer your own information.

If you look at it and you think, “I don’t need anything because I’m really comfortable.” Maybe telling other people just what your situation actually is, that can have a big influence too. The number of times that women have filed unequal pay complaints because somebody finally let them in on what this spreadsheet said about what people were making. That’s huge.

There’s a role for people to use their privilege to really facilitate that so anybody who’s listening and they think, “I don’t have that yet.” Okay, you can ask really casual questions. I don’t expect everybody to be as persnickety as I am but you have at least, ask like, “What’s going on there? How does your mentor treat you?” Or you hear complaints or how do you feel about our [inaudible] schedule. You can get a lot of places with that.

But then also as an organizer, what I do is I look at people’s vulnerabilities and I ask what can we do to support them as a community. If somebody isn’t asking questions because they think they’re going to get fired, I can tell them that there are legal protections. That doesn’t stop you from getting fired but it does give you some recourse. There are legal protections for a lot of these conversations.

I can tell them that I might help to meet somebody else who can give them some support inside, their organization or similar one. Now, that I’m out of programming workforce for the most part, I don’t have anything to burn. I can help facilitate those conversations. I can also ask about like material things. I’m looking at ways that I can support people through periods of joblessness if we hit another really bad recession.

That’s the thing that you classically done is that put together support and strike funds. If people lose pay because they strike, then you put together funds to pay for any misses. It goes back all the way into American labor history.

Fight for $15 is not really just a union movement. It doesn’t involve people signing union cards or becoming union members necessarily. But it’s a movement to get fast food workers standard $15 an hour pay. The way that it’s built up over the last couple of years has started with just individual lock outs. This is part of why because it’s a good framework to look at because it starts with just a couple of sets of McDonalds’ workers all walking out of the job one day and using their collective power to do that.

But it’s grown into these really big, organized events with strikes, picketing, and petitioning. You have to have something that you’re negotiating over. We think about our vulnerability as we’re pursuing this but fast food workers are about as vulnerable as you get. There are a couple of jobs that are needy as poorly paid and more dangerous. But it’s the most precarious kind of work that people have. You can be fired for anything. You end up working multiple places. They’re not good paying jobs. They’re not supportive jobs.

CORALINE:  Not full-time, not offering benefits.

SAM:  This is purely an anecdote but I talked to somebody once. This woman who was working as a professional dominatrix and she said that the one time that she had had a job in food service, she had never felt more humiliated and she would rather do sex work than work in food service.

AUDREY:  Yeah, so doing food service in high school told me that I wanted to work in an office. Right?

SAM:  Right, yeah.

[Laughter]

AUDREY:  The moment that I could get hired for clerical work, I did it. It turns out you have to be 18. I think, if fast food workers can handle this, then surely tech workers can also live with that vulnerability. If there is this gap between what you think you have to lose, I worry that in tech, the way that these aren’t the last middle class jobs that isn’t permanent. There’s no way to pour more people into an industry and have the pay rate stay the same. The history just doesn’t brought that out. I worry that things are going to get a lot worse before people are willing to mobilize.

SAM:  Yeah, there’s whole other conversation there about the changing nature of work.

AUDREY:  Just a nod at the labor automation affects every industry and it takes jobs away from every industry. Back to that sort of care of communities, if we’re not talking now about how we care for people when there are no jobs, it’s going to hit us sooner than we think.

CORALINE:  It really makes me appreciate people like you, Audrey, who have the power to bring together communities of people who are aware of these issues and are interested in spreading awareness of those issues around and organizing for doing some social good. I really appreciate people like you.

AUDREY:  Thank you and I feel like it’s been a long, hard process to get even this far.

SAM:  Before we wrap up the call, we like to end every show with a reflection section, which is just a chance for us to talk about what we’re going to take away from this and if we have any calls to action, we can challenge our listeners with those. Astrid, it sounds like you’d like to go first. Go for it.

ASTRID:  One of the things that I got out of this, which was actually quite early on, was when you said, Audrey that you think about what’s missing here and how you can fill that gap. By doing that, not only are you helping yourself feel a little more comfortable in giving space for yourself but you’re also making space for others.

CORALINE:  I think in saying that I was most interested in what you said, Audrey, that you’re going to sit with me for a while, it’s an obvious truth. It was obvious as soon as I heard it. It was not obvious before I heard it and that is the tech workers are workers and tech workers face the same sort of challenges that works in other industries have. We have greater privileges in the form of salaries and mobility and things like that but those are ephemeral and I think there’s a sort of elite in some in tech work.

We don’t consider ourselves as laborers. We don’t consider ourselves as workers and that we hold that difference in mind to our own detriment. I’ll definitely be thinking about ways that we can sort of tie back into a collective identity and see how that informs my work.

SAM:  Segueing from that I feel like we also have this ideal in technology of sort of rugged individualists, not only do we want to be logical, we also we want to solve everything ourselves. This conversation has really reminded me a lot of the importance of both of spiritual awareness that we can bring to our work and make it invest in our day-to-day lives and work and try to make it more meaningful and to try to use that to build communities because the communities around us that we participate in and that rebuild really are the things that are going to outlast any of our jobs to the things that we’re going to carry forward and there’s the ways that we take care of each other. I’m really glad that we’re talking about all of this. That’s really what I’m here so thank you. My eyes have not been dry for forty minutes just so everyone knows.

AUDREY:  If I can ask people one thing, if I can have a call to action then I would really like people to go talk to a coworker to just ask a question about your work environment, about how things get done at your company but just to start a conversation around that and see what you get from that, what you learn from those kinds of interactions.

SAM:  Well, thank you very much, Audrey. This has been a really wonderful, enlightening conversation. It’s been really great having you on the show. Thank you for joining us.

AUDREY:  Thank you. I’m so happy I could be here.

SAM:  Everybody out there listening, thanks and we’ll talk to you all next week.

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