The last few years have been transformational in many ways for people from underrepresented and marginalized communities. Events like the COVID-19 crisis and racial justice movement have highlighted the systemic inequities in the U.S., and revealed how crises disproportionately affect these populations.
The GIS community has been on the forefront of the efforts to help address these inequities, but also remains a predominantly white, male field. Esri’s recent Federal User Conference (FedUC) was a perfect example of how, as geographers and GIS practitioners, we can (and do) make diversity and inclusion efforts a central part of our work and our lives.
I’ve attended FedUC every year for the last 13 years. It has always been a great place for me to develop my skills as a GIS practitioner and a Geographic Information Systems Professional (GISP). It also is an excellent venue through which to continue to build my professional community, but the last few years have been particularly important. As a conference that is tied directly to geographic analysis, situational analysis and the discussion of place, it’s not surprising that there has been an increasing emphasis on leadership, justice and equity. Sometimes this emphasis on leadership, justice and equity appears as separate conversations, but more recently it has come to be a larger conversation about community and inclusion.
With the advent of all-virtual-everything, I think that this year’s FedUC was more important than ever in terms of helping our community of GIS practitioners to stay in touch and stay engaged. It’s ingrained in us to consider how events affect our work and our lives; I have a sense that having this conference was important to us on a practitioner level, but also in a deeper way. In particular, I applaud Esri for moving forward and especially for creating space for us to have more intentional and difficult conversations about what it means to be “other” in a very homogeneous field. It would have been so easy to say, well, we just can’t do breakout sessions and it’s all going to be presentations. But Esri, and more specifically, the Esri Racial Equity Initiative, made this conference a richer experience for all of us.
This year at the FedUC, I moderated a breakout session called “Creating Inclusive Spaces for Women of Color in Government Technology.” Esri gave me latitude in developing the content, and supported me in building a fantastic panel of women in GIS and technology. I was given the opportunity to direct the conversation and ask some not-so-comfortable questions. I wasn’t sure how it would work out at first, but it was clear early on in the preparation that we had something special.
We had an amazing session with four women of color from the public and nonprofit sectors, and from local and federal government. Our panelists were from different racial and ethnic backgrounds and hailed from very different parts of the world. We discussed identity, what inclusion means (to us), and what inclusion could/should look like in the workplace. It was an excellent conversation that was so honest, open and incredibly inspiring.
So many of the comments the panel received during and after the session thanked us for sharing our experiences. The attendees thanked us for our creation of a space for the conversation, and appreciation for the conversation itself. Despite hearing from external voices, that “we’re in 2021 and times have changed,” we all agreed that “the workplace” has not changed enough, and we still have a lot of work to do. The honest conversations that we had that Tuesday afternoon on MS Teams meant a lot to me, to the panel, and clearly to the attendees. I was so honored to be able to facilitate such a rich and diverse conversation.
Reflecting on the session in the last few days, it is clear to me that there were some important lessons learned in the session, about how to be successful as an underrepresented group in the tech space:
- Find mentors — Your mentors don’t have to look like you, but they must support you. Also look for someone who takes you outside of your comfort zone.
- Build your community — Seek out coworkers, people in your field, and friends with similar experiences. Share your successes and your challenges.
- Identify and establish your boundaries — What conversations are you willing to have with other people? Which conversations are no-gos?
I also participated in the “NorthStar and Blacks in GIS” panel on GIS careers at this year’s FedUC. This was more of a conversation between me, the moderator and the other panelists, about our experiences as people of African descent in technology. We had some similar conversations in this panel as in the women of color panel, but the thing I took away most specifically from this session was this reminder: We might have similar backgrounds and we might look similar, but no two people have the exact same experience. We must stop looking at racial and ethnic groups as monolithic cultures and stop making assumptions. This goes for people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.
I had many people contact me on LinkedIn after these two sessions. All of the comments were extremely positive and supportive, and many people expressed their gratitude for the panelists’ openness regarding our successes and challenges. Many people who expressed these sentiments were from marginalized communities, but there were also allies who wanted to express how important these discussions were to them as spaces of awareness and learning.
We had great conversations at Esri’s 2021 FedUC. We didn’t have all the answers, but we did identify and offer solutions. We opened up about difficult topics and shared some pieces of ourselves that influence our experiences. I am grateful for these opportunities, and I hope to see more of this kind of discussion happening at tech conferences in general. We need to continue to open the doors to communication through all areas of technology and I hope that everyone reading this article will ask the organizers of the next conference they go to: “Where are the breakout sessions about race, gender, justice and equality in technology at your event?”