On Hackerspaces and Inclusion

TL;DR: Inclusion and diversity need to become core hackerspace values. When our spaces lack diversity, we should accept responsibility and take action, not make excuses. A little effort can go a long way.

Everyone running a hackerspace should be thinking about inclusion. There are a few interrelated issues that I keep seeing come up in the hacker/maker/DIY community, and I feel obligated to help give them some of the attention they deserve. Some spaces are doing a really great job at fostering inclusion and diversity, but these values are not yet widely accepted as part of hackerspace culture, and they need to be.

We should care about diversity. All too often, when I talk to members of the hackerspace community about diversity, I'm asked why it matters, or even told outright that encouraging diversity isn't worth the effort. In defense of my fellow hackers, they are also usually quite open to reconsidering their position when presented with good reasons. The reasons fall into two categories: practical, and idealogical.

The practical importance of diversity is simple. Hackerspaces are made of people, and the more awesome people you include, the more awesome your space will be. Diversity doesn't mean, as some might think, lowering the bar for members. It means not pushing away potentially valuable members for silly reasons. It means including everyone who has something to contribute, especially if it's different from what current members are contributing. It means opening up spaces to new socioeconomic groups who will tell you how to make your space relevant to a wider audience, and as a result more stable and sustainable.

But for me, the idealogical importance of diversity is even stronger. The hackerspace movement is about removing artificial technological barriers and using self-education and peer-education to reclaim the ability to make our world. If we leave people out for no reason other than their gender, skin-color, income, etc. then we are the ones placing artificial barriers and hoarding knowledge for our personal and selfish gain. Then we are hypocrites, and doomed to sabotage our ideals.

We have to accept responsibility and promote diversity and inclusion. Another common belief in the hackerspace community is that if we aren't actively discriminating against or excluding people, then there's no problem. But building an inclusive community takes more than that. Demographics are naturally self-reinforcing. Word-of-mouth travels through our social networks, made of people who are likely to share our demographics. When we teach workshops or hold events that are relevant to us, they are most likely to be relevant to an audience who shares our demographic. And there's nothing wrong with that, as long as we acknowledge and correct for it. When you're new to a group it's easy to feel like an outsider, especially if you perceive yourself as somehow different from the group's majority demographic. On top of that, members sometimes unknowingly say or do things that push people away because, through no fault of their own, they've never had to consider different perspectives.

A common response to the gender imbalance in hackerspaces is "Women aren't interested in what we do here." But on closer inspection this is just the "No True Scotsman" fallacy. In effect, it says "We [men] are True Hackers. If you are interested in something we are not interested in, you are not a true hacker and don't belong." To illustrate this point, ask yourself whether a clothes modding workshop or a Starcraft LAN party is more in line with the mission of a typical hackerspace. Then ask yourself which is likely to be better received.

The bottom line of resistance to making a hackerspace more inclusive is often "We don't want to change anything, we like things the way they are." That's a perfectly natural human response, but if it dominates your thinking, you don't have a hackerspace, you have a country club with Arduinos.

What we can do. Luckily, being inclusive is actually not that hard! At i3 Detroit, where I was a co-founder and board member for several years, inclusion was always one of my priorities, and I got a good sense of what works and what doesn't.

Just being actively welcoming to newcomers goes a long way. It doesn't need to be anything complicated, just saying hi, introducing yourself, and asking if they have any questions or if they'd like a tour. Sometimes that's a distraction to members who are in the middle of a project, but specifying best times for newcomers to visit, and a standard onboarding process can make it a lot easier. This is one reason I've never liked the idea of new members requiring a sponsor. Instead I like the idea of accepting anyone who shows interest and offering them a mentor to help integrate them into the group.

It's also crucial to create a safe and welcoming environment. That means having a sensible code of conduct and/or harassment policy. The policy should make it clear that if you're uncomfortable it's ok to voice your concern, and that someone trustworthy will listen, without judgment, and work to restore a safe environment.

Another key is being open-minded about what activities fit into your hackerspace's mission. If you give people the benefit of the doubt, you allow your space to grow beyond what you can currently imagine, and encourage people to push limits and take ownership in the space.

Finally, having a way to include students and other low-income members is important. A guest policy is one way to do that. Tiered memberships are another. A lot of spaces have "starving hacker" rates. At i3, we have two membership levels that are effectively the same, but a good number of people choose to step up to the higher level when they're able. Offering "scholarships" or no-fee memberships for those in financial need can also help. Even if they don't have a lot of money to spend on materials, those members may have awesome skills to share, and may be valuable contributors to group projects. And of course, members often grow through their involvement in hackerspaces. At i3, we had a "founding guest" who helped build the space even though he couldn't afford membership. Four years later, he's now a director and dues-paying member.

The hardest part of inclusivity is realizing that we can't see what's missing, that we have to actively seek it out. The rest is not that hard at all. Once we do that, our spaces benefit from a broader and more diverse membership, and more ties to the community. Some spaces are great at inclusivity, but as a community we still have a ways to go.

If you're part of a hackerspace, is this something your space talks about? What types of things do you do to foster inclusion and diversity? What works? What doesn't?