This article is about my own experiences in making my user group and community events more inclusive for people from diverse backgrounds. I am going to use growing my user group as an example as this one was an example where making small changes had a dramatic effect on my community. I’m hoping it can help my MVP friends look at how we as a group can grow our community and be more inclusive.
Beer and Pizza – stalwart of any tech event, right?
My user group was lucky enough to have some funding for drinks and food. This is typically beer and pizza. When I took over the user group in late 2015 I noticed there was a number of people who were not eating or drinking. They were also just sitting in groups by themselves whilst the rest of us were standing around eating pizza and drinking beer.
I didn’t like that, so I thought: what can I change?
I made a small change – I didn’t buy as much beer and instead bought an assortment of non-alcoholic beverages (e.g various soft drinks and water) as well as changing up the pizza flavors to include vegetarian options as well. This had a dramatic effect in that people were more engaged since the people who used to just sit by themselves in the corner now were all also standing around enjoying pizza and communing with the rest of the user group.
Start small – you can’t change the whole world
My initial steps were to start with my own user group – to see what effect I could have at a small scale. I was interested to see if by opening up my user group, would that have a flow-on effect both to my local SQL Saturday event and more importantly – within the greater Christchurch community?
As above, I made a small change – I started small by making food and beverage (F&B) options more inclusive. This resulted in more and more people from diverse backgrounds who previously would not have come along finally showing up. The user group grew almost 3X from 300 members in 2015 to over 830 in 2019. Word began to spread that there was an event dedicated to helping people learn, but also provided food that was inclusive to people from different cultures. Also, special dietary requirements are something that I try my best to accommodate as well.
Get some help from like-minded people
When I first took over the user group it was run by three men, so when I started in a leadership capacity I asked one of my friends who was female to join us. Sarah had been involved in helping out with SQL Saturday so it was a no brainer for me. What occurred was that because Sarah was involved in other community activities, and specifically Women in IT groups – it meant that she helped bring more women to the user group. It also meant that more women came along because Sarah was there at the beginning of the night during the social part, and so people were more engaged (of course, it helps that Sarah has a warm bubbly personality makes people feel welcome too!).
It isn’t just about you.
In order to grow my user group further, I started attending other user groups as well, often speaking at several of these events too. When I spoke at other user groups I invited people to come along and learn about data. However I didn’t just go to technical user groups; I also visited other community social group and events (for example, I had friends in the Indian and Iranian communities and spoke at their events about career development). I talked about a culture of true community and how we all had a part to play in looking out for each other.
I mentored young students who wanted to know what they should do to get their first job. Sometimes, I even introduced them to their first boss! Often, I would also look out for tech conferences or university events to attend either as a speaker or as a volunteer in order to further build community.
My aim was to instill a culture of community collaboration. Now, we were all part of a broader technical community - it wasn’t just “the data people”, or the “the .NET team” but rather an inclusive and diverse group of technologists learning, connecting and helping each other out. When the horrific Christchurch attack happened on March 15 – it was this very communal connection between disparate groups that brought our community closer, and helped us in healing.
Being extroverted isn’t always a good thing
If you’ve met me – I’m, ahem, loud. Or a nicer way of putting it is that I’m passionate about everything I do. Which means I get excited about “making stuff go” – whatever stuff is.
It is easy for others to say, “Well you’re an extrovert; this is second nature to you.”
However, being extroverted can have both positive and negative effects. Positively, it can inspire people to make changes, to embrace new things and this worked very well in my career when I had to get a room full of people energized to create, fix or manage solutions. This has flowed on into my community activities in getting people to help grow the community.
There is however a side effect to this, and it is that passion sometimes can put people off. It can be overwhelming for introverted people and also people whose culture is more quiet and measured. It has taken me some time in my life to know when to tone it down. This happened in my career in 2003 when I had one of the best technical people working for me, but they were very quiet and my team had a very vocal culture. Also, I was the leader of the team and I’m – well – loud. I could tell this person did not feel included, so instead of walking over and talking face to face which I knew made this person felt uncomfortable, I would instead email/text instead. Also, rather than having team activities at the pub after work, we did a range of other inclusive team activities instead.
The amazing thing that happened was that this person met me halfway – I learnt to become a better listener, and they became a more proactive communicator, and would even walk over to my desk and initiate conversations!
I then decided to try this same approach with people from other cultures that tended to be more reserved. I practiced speaking in a quieter voice, improved my active listening skills and learnt to ask a heap more questions that I normally would - this had a great effect because it engaged them in conversation and allowed them to actively participate.
This approach takes time, effort and requires constant focus of the end goal – to make people feel included no matter what their diversity is. It is certainly not an easy skill to develop, but it's possible!
can WILL feel a bit uncomfortable for you
This process is not meant to be easy or comfortable. There will be times when there are misunderstandings because of language barriers, cultural differences and social nuances. You will need to be socially aware, and ensure that you address any miscommunications in an appropriate manner. Be careful of your personal biases as well. My technique is to reframe the question from another perspective, share context or describe what I’m talking about another way that might help people understand better and connect.
There have been times where I have gone to an event to support a community, and yet felt like I didn’t belong, didn’t know what was going on and afraid to offend others. However, even though I felt uncomfortable in those situations, I stayed anyway because my goal was to be there and help others. That said, I often think to myself how great it would've been if the event organizers had cared enough to ask what they could've done to make the event more inclusive.
If you don't know or are not sure, ASK!
After the March 15 Christchurch shooting, I wanted to donate gifts to children who had lost their parents in the tragedy and show support however I could. This involved attending the local Eid al-Fitr celebrations to mark the end of Ramadan. I’d never been to Eid before, I’m not a Muslim and I was not sure what to do. I looked it up online and spoke to some of my friends who are Muslim to get an idea of what I needed to do or expect. Whilst attending it I did feel overwhelmed at times, but luckily for myself I had a purpose to bring some small gifts to kids to show that the greater community cared for them. That helped me during those times. I wouldn’t say I felt uncomfortable, but I was outside of my comfort zone and it was during this time that I internalised:
“…now I know how it feels for others who feel that they don’t belong.”
Since then, it has been an important reminder for me to be more inclusive and continue to help others more as I don’t want people to feel like that at my events, or at any other events. I make a point of saying hi to anyone and everyone who is willing to engage, and always remind myself to be respectful to all dimensions of diversity - be it race, gender identity, religion etc.
What can I do as an MVP (or a community leader)?
The thing I would recommend is to reach out to leaders within your community, to see if there is anything you can help with either from a technical perspective, or even just volunteering to help make their event better. I organize a lot of events so I have helped leaders of other communities with organizing/managing things or connecting them to other people and sponsors that I know in the wider community.
If event organizing is not your thing, consider being a speaker and attend different user/community groups that you don't normally go to. Perhaps one that involves students, and help mentor them on how they can develop/grow their careers. I regularly speak to disadvantaged Maori youth as I made a connection years ago with someone who was passionate about up-skilling kids from underprivileged backgrounds. There might be groups that could benefit from your tutelage or mentoring. Being able to help a young person get that first job when they felt that they couldn’t because of their background is a wonderful feeling, and one that makes you want to keep at it.
If you don’t enjoy organizing events or public speaking – how about writing? Blog posts and the like are a vital part of extending our reach within the wider regional community, and this is another important avenue to help others learn and lead the way on diversity and inclusion. It might mean submitting an article for a site/blog that is not part of your normal (technical) posts, but could instead be focused on combating imposter syndrome, how technology brings people together or how different groups can be aware of the pitfalls of social media, burnout etc.
All it takes is that one step to reach out, and you will be amazed at the support and appreciation from people who you can help.
The one step that makes a difference
I hope this article helps you in some way to look at how you can boost diversity and inclusion within your own community, wherever you are in the world. I used my user group as an example of how small changes can have a big effect on diverse membership and also helping people feel included. Yet, this is a continuous, ongoing effort because just making one change is not enough – we have to do more. We need to do more.
Often what I thought was fairly straightforward was not for others – so my small step resulted in a big change for others. Often we overlook things that we assume "everyone gets it" ; however, as an example from a technical stand point, my most popular blog posts are the ones that I wrote thinking, “This is so simple that no one will read this.” But I realize that what I might assume to be simple might be a hurdle for someone else. This is true for people who are diverse – what might seem easy for me as a European Maori male who has been in the IT industry for 20 years – those things can be quite difficult for others because I, too, am privileged.
Perhaps you might feel that all this requires too much change and effort. There is a fear of change that is natural to humans - we are wired to react with distrust when the status quo is challenged. What happens is that we narrow our perspective and “circle the wagons” which is the opposite desired effect of creating a more inclusive community.
I ask you to look at these changes from a positive perspective, which is why I wrote about my own experiences to show you that it isn’t always easy but by remaining focused on the goal of helping include people and to embrace diversity – it creates potential for positive change. Celebrate any and all small successes you have and then use that to drive more improvements to have even bigger success. This will give you a good foundation to work from and more importantly will make others think about their own actions and maybe change how they embrace diversity and inclusivity in their own lives/workplace. As a Microsoft MVP, we are leaders within our communities after all!
MVPs have a calling to make a difference – not just on the technological front (which we’re all good at) but also how we make people from all backgrounds and identities feel included at our events, or through what we write and present on. Let's work together to make our industry a better, kinder and more inclusive place, and become better people too.
Enjoyed this article? Follow @HamishWatson on Twitter at @TheHybridDBA.
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