The diversity-talk list

Posted by emacsen on 5 December 2014 in English (English).

I’m sure that some people are aware of the controversy on the diversity-talk list. I have not had the opportunity to give my side, so I will do so here.

I have a long history in the OpenStreetMap project. It may be difficult to understand that from an outside perspective, but going to an OSM event can feel like a family reunion to me. I see the same people that I’ve met before. Some people I speak with nearly daily online, others I rarely get the chance to catch up with. I know people’s significant others, and sometimes their children. These are people I collaborate with on a project where we share a passion and dedication. We’re all working together to make the world a better place.

On December 1st, Alyssa Wright sent an email where she explained that she’d been in an accident and had suffered brain injuries, and that because of this, she was now “neuro-diverse”.

This statement was very triggering for me, but before I go there, I want to explain what I know about brain injuries.

I have a university degree in psychology. At some point in my sophomore year, I was trying to decide if I was going to pursue it as a career or not. One of the factors that pushed me away from psychology as a career was brain injuries.

I’d studied them in several college courses. As our understanding of the brain increases, the line between psychology and neuro-physiology is increasingly thin. Reading about patients who lost their ability to speak, or people whose personalities changed overnight, or people who became unable to recognize their friends and family, or worse, might be stuck reliving the same ten minutes for the rest of their lives- these cases were extremely disturbing to me. I couldn’t stand the thought of that on a person, and I couldn’t bear the idea of inducing these phenomenon on animals. This effectively ended my potential career as a researcher in psychology.

I also have someone in my immediate family who has a brain injury as a result of an accident. I don’t want to discuss this in detail- I bring it up only as point of reference in saying that I’m quite aware of TBI and the potential severity of the conditions it can create.

But the issues associated with TBI and those created by being born with a neurological impairment such a learning disabilities (as I have) or an autism spectrum disorder, are not the same.

That’s because it’s not the physiological underpinnings that are important in understanding the pain/frustration of the neuro-divergent population, but their personal experience.

Betsy Kolmus, in her reply, did an excellent job of summarizing her experience. I strongly recommend reading it here:

My experience wasn’t exactly the same, but it was similar. I was diagnosed early and put in “Special Ed”. I was put in a “special class” with kids who had a variety of different disorders and disabilities. I’m not going to discuss the educational efficacy of this strategy, but the social effect of it was profound.

Growing up, I had five or six neighbors around my age all living on my block. At one time, we used to play with each other in the streets or in each others back yards. But by virtue of me being in a different class, in a different school, I was socially isolated. I was in “the special class”. Because the school I went to was not the same as theirs, I took “the little yellow bus”, a term that in the US is evocative of kids who are mentally disabled or emotionally disturbed.

The effect was not exclusive to the kids- parents also would ostracize me. Knowing I was in special ed, parents would ask their kids not to play with me. Occasionally they did this in front of me.

Academics was a nightmare for me as well. In some areas of the intelligence test, I score very highly, but in the areas where I have learning disabilities, the results are terrible. My reading comprehension and verbal expressiveness is quite good, but it takes me four or five times longer to read a book than it would someone else. I can explain a scientific concept or process easily, but I struggle with even basic algebra. I have an extensive vocabulary, but I’m unable to spell. Without the aid of spell-check, this had a major effect on my grades, and both students and teachers would chide, “If you knew the word, you’d know how to spell it!”

My childhood was largely one of simultaneously being bored at how slow the classes were, and struggling academically. My childhood was also one of desperately wanting to fit in, but being shunned by both other children and their parents.

In one motion, Alyssa’s statement dismissed all of that.

I was hurt. Specifically, I’ve come to understand that the word I’m looking for is “triggered”. Her mail, intentionally or not, was triggering.

And so I replied.

I stated that her mail was offensive to me. In fact, in all my time in OpenStreetMap, her mail was the thing that most effected me in a negative way. I also said she should be ashamed of that.

While I don’t think that Alyssa set out to make an offensive statement, the statement was nonetheless offensive. I could try to make an awkward and imperfect analogy here, but I think that we all understand how even a statement that wasn’t made with the intention of being hurtful can be very hurtful. That’s how her email read to me- as insensitive and dismissive of years of painful experiences.

The response I received from Alyssa, and the diversity-talk list was shocking. Alysss’a response was not to not take back her words, but to congratulate herself on offending me and to call me an asshole.

And several others did so as well.

On a list related to diversity, in a discussion about the importance of sensitivity to issue of neuro-divergence, I was told that I was in the wrong for being triggered by an insensitive statement (whether intentional or not). I find this situation baffling and sad.

The responses I’ve received since on the list have been incredibly aggressive. Furthermore, the other list moderator (other than Alyssa) has decided to ban me and not answer my questions to him via email either before or after his decision. Since calling me an asshole, Alyssa has not commented, and her mail has not received any of the same scrutiny.

Put frankly- I’m stunned by the actions of these people and the general reaction of the diversity-talk list. While some folks have stood up for me, and I thank them sincerely, the most vocal response has been vitriolic, and hateful and has included a significant amount of patently false statements made either about me or on by behalf. These responses have been triggering and the personal attacks have been disgraceful.

Several prominent OpenStreetMappers have written me privately with their support, saying that they have silently unsubscribed from the list.

I volunteer for OpenStreetMap in a number of capacities. I am one of the developers of MapRoulette, a popular game used by OSMers. I’m one the organizers of the NYC OpenStreetMap Meetup. I’m a member of the OSM Data Working Group and OSM Communications Working Group. I also created and run the Imports US mailing list. Previously, I helped found MappingDC and the OpenStreetMap US organization and have been involved with organizing events, writing articles about OSM and supporting doing large scale edits and imports.

OpenStreetMap is important to me, and I have worked had and continue to work hard to make OpenStreetMap a welcoming, inviting place for everyone. That is why I run public mapping events, it’s why I try to make mapping more accessible through gamification projects like MapRoulette. Diversity is not just important, it’s key to the continued success of our project.

At this point the nature of the diversity-talk list is the opposite of that. While my response to Alyssa’s comment was strong and may have appeared out of proportion, the response to it has been outrageous and exactly the kind of behavior that a code of conduct should be there to stop, rather than encourage.

It’s become clear through this incident that acts like name calling, slander and threats are acceptable to the most vocal actors on diversity-talk and that there’s no consideration made to the pain people that people feel when someone says something insensitive or triggering. These victims are either attacked or ignored.

As a community, diversity makes us stronger. Despite what has happened on this list, I stand by my convictions around the need for greater diversity. I believe that increasing our diversity is key to growing OpenStreetMap, Free Software and Free Culture in general, but because of this incident, I don’t have confidence that the most vocal actors on the diversity-talk list are the ones who will be able to carry this vital mission forward.

Comment from rw__ on 5 December 2014 at 12:28

I’m sorry that you had that experience.

Comment from Pieren on 5 December 2014 at 13:43

I just discover this list. It’s even missing in the MailingList wiki page. I’m surprised by the answer of Alyssa here which tells me that we should never reply before taking time for a deep breath. Btw, who is the other moderator ? I also had a bad experience on the import list with a moderator that blocked me on the import list (if I remember correctly) several days for really nothing (or something that way maybe overinterpreted when you express yourself in a foreign language). I think we need a coach for our ML moderators or a moderator for moderators ;-)

Comment from zool on 5 December 2014 at 16:30

I was too shocked by the strength of the language to take it all in at the time. I even foolishly tried to mediate until i realised how bad the situation was.

My question is how can we find a healing experience in this? The situation, though indeed sad and baffling, was interesting as we seemed to have a microcosm of bad OSM mailing list conversational behaviour, and perhaps have a chance to use the diversity list to work through some of the problems in front of an audience and then try again, setting a good example for other fractious lists.

Instead you got unjustifiably banned to shut the thing down, I don’t even know where to start on the ethics of this and i think that the diversity list is probably unredeemable as it stands. I haven’t been back to read more.

I got more involved in OSM again recently because I was inspired by Kathleen’s mini-crusade on the need for diversity; I may never have spoken so publicly about my own neurodivergence as on that mailing list. It’s a shame it blew up, isn’t it.

I thought i noticed some White Knighting going on, you know, with people using their defence of Alyssa as an excuse for aggression. But we all deal with our corners.

Comment from JBacc1 on 5 December 2014 at 19:20

Rather surprising… I did not expected something like that happening and increasing too that level that fast… Any idea how many subscribers there are to diversity-talk? It seems that only about 20-30 people are writing there, but is the circle that small, or are there many silent readers? I wonder if a small group could react harsher than a large, self-regulating one.

I hope we do not loose you with the event, and wish you can go on « happy mapping ».

And I wonder if the list can really come out of that without simply dissapearing and reappearing in an other form…

Comment from pnorman on 6 December 2014 at 08:41

Any idea how many subscribers there are to diversity-talk? It seems that only about 20-30 people are writing there, but is the circle that small, or are there many silent readers?

Although the list has always been mainly white anglo-americans, the recent moderator actions have caused some members to leave in disgust. This has left a list less diverse than others, an ironic state for a list named diversity-talk@

And I wonder if the list can really come out of that without simply dissapearing and reappearing in an other form…

We don’t normally shut down lists, but given that the list was already quiet for months on end, the latest subscriber loss is going to destroy any relevance it had left.

It is disappointing, but I guess it’s unlikely to have an impact. It’s not as if the list was able to impose anything on other mappers outside of the list, and as I said above, it has no activity for months on end.

It will be as before - those who care about diversity will work on it, without regards to the list.

Comment from baditaflorin on 9 December 2014 at 19:12

I did not even know that we have such a list :)

Comment from tmcw on 15 December 2014 at 19:10

While I don’t think that Alyssa set out to make an offensive statement, the statement was nonetheless offensive.

This is it, Serge. If you can say both of you were speaking from painful life experience, and are both fallible - but at the end of the day are people worthy of respect - it would do a lot here.

For those lacking context: the thread, the 60 day ban. I’ve added the mailing list to the wiki.

Our first effort, the CoC, was very close to acceptance right around the time everything went south, partially due to Serge’s helpful input.

Login to leave a comment