What HOPE can do better

This year at HOPE, the biennial hacker conference in NYC, several incidents led to a statement of no-confidence in HOPE's code of conduct. You can read more in the statement itself, but the gist is that there were a small number of far-right attendees, including a self-described "nationalist", who were disrupting and intimidating both talks and attendees. The staff didn't handle it well. This is unfortunately consistent with my own experience. I know that the top-level organizers of HOPE genuinely care about creating an inclusive environment, but the current staff and procedures aren't working. Based on both my past experiences at HOPE and on my experiences creating inclusive spaces, here are some observations about where the process is failing and what can be done.

Trained Staff. CoCs need to be applied consistently to create an environment of trust and safety. Enforcement of the CoC at HOPE has been highly variable between staff members, with some seeming to think that it's optional. HOPE requires volunteer work from hundreds of people, but not all of them need to be trained to handle CoC complaints, only the points of contact, which leads to the next point...

Points of Contact. The CoC listed a phone number and an email address for making CoC complaints. If you are being physically threatened, the need is immediate and a phone call or email is not sufficient. Having a single person on call isn't sufficient either. The venue spans 18 floors of the Hotel Pennsylvania, where the line for the elevators takes about the same time as your flight to NYC. Anywhere there are attendees, there need to be identifiable, well-trained points of contact for immediate response to CoC complaints.

Intimidation. Over the past several events, the staff has shown a pattern of refusing to enforce the CoC until a physical assault has occurred, meaning that threats and intimidation have been treated as totally allowable. People who have been going to HOPE for a long time often describe it as feeling like "home." There's no way to have that feeling if you're being threatened or harassed. I understand the importance of free speech in the hacker ethos, but speech can be separated from intimidation. In the recent incident, one attendee bragged (on mic to an entire room) about attending an alt-right rally. That was intimidation, and should have been a sufficient CoC violation to get him removed from the event.

Validation. There has been much less attention to this point, but it's an important one: the effectiveness of a response to a complaint depends just as much on emotional connection as it does on the concrete outcome. Typically, when HOPE staff aren't able to act, they have minimized and invalidated the experience of complaining attendees. Unicorn Riot reported one staffer responding to a complaint by saying he wouldn't care even if an attendee came in with a swastika flag. Instead, just taking the time to understand and discuss a complaint can go a long way towards creating an environment of trust, even if no concrete action is possible.

I'm already looking forward to the next HOPE. A lot of attendees are questioning whether they want to attend again, but I believe in the organizers and in the majority of the community. There's a lot of work to do, but HOPE can and will fix this.