Amid public callouts, two Girl Develop It chapters go on hiatus - Technical.ly Philly

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Dec. 10, 2018 2:01 pm

Amid public callouts, two Girl Develop It chapters go on hiatus

The Philly and Oakland chapters of the national nonprofit have paused their programming after callouts of racism directed at GDI leadership. An open letter signed by 150+ community members calls for a leadership overhaul. What will happen next?

At a Girl Develop It workshop.

(Photo via Twitter)

Nonprofit organization Girl Develop It (GDI), which provides access to tech education for women, is facing backlash from its national base after three former staffers and organizers called out racist behavior and a lack of inclusive culture.

The most recent complaint came to light during an hour-long podcast interview with Philly-based developer Shanise Barona, a former GDI program coordinator interviewed by Atlanta-based tech consultant Kim Crayton. On Crayton’s podcast, #causeascene, Barona depicted the organization as an unwelcoming environment for women of color.

“I didn’t feel empowered,” said Barona, who identifies as Afrolatina. “I didn’t feel respected or valued. I didn’t feel like I mattered. I definitely felt like a token. And it was very disappointing.”

During the interview, Barona outlined a range of problematic experiences during her time working for the organization, which is decentralized but has a number of staffers working out of Philadelphia.

“While I was there, there was a coworker who would say racially offensive things,” Barona said. “The way she spoke to me was completely inappropriate, very different from how she engaged with other members of the team. I pointed this out many times.”

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Barona described being repeatedly told she was being “emotional” when bringing up work issues, and being asked to deal with problems after work hours.

She declined to comment further for this article.

Barona’s story is the first one to point to a lack of inclusivity inside the nonprofit’s leadership, but there’s more background. Two other experiences shared publicly by organizers have brought light to similar issues at local chapters, and a lack of immediacy to the Girl Develop It HQ’s responses.

In Minneapolis, technologist Lanice Sims took to Twitter over the summer to air similar complaints, which resulted in local chapter leaders stepping down. The issue was not immediately reported, which prompted Wilmington-based Jocelyn Harper to resign as the chapter lead, citing a lack of transparency around the Minneapolis situation.

“I regret that our organizational culture (stemming in part from our lack [of] fully-formed policies and systems) allowed for any member, specifically women of color, to feel unsafe or unsupported,” Girl Develop it’s Executive Director Corinne Warnshuis told Technical.ly Delaware in October.

A Dec. 6 statement from GDI regarding Barona’s statements offered an apology.

“In recent months, there have been incidents that marginalized the very people we want to include,” the statement reads. “We are deeply sorry. While we cannot comment on internal HR matters, we will be completely transparent in acknowledging that we have a lot of work to do in building an inclusive, diverse, and equitable culture.”

In October, the nonprofit also sent a message detailing specific steps it had taken to improve culture inside the organization, including the launch of a GitHub Pages-based Inclusion Changelog to share its actions, which included the implementation of an anonymous incident reporting process and engaging a multicultural community and organizational development consulting firm.

Following the controversial claims from Barona, the Philly and Oakland chapters of the nonprofit put their programming on hiatus, and an online open letter signed by over 150 current and former chapter leaders, volunteers, students and the like is calling for an overhaul of its leadership.

“You now have a choice: you can show your community (and the world) how leadership can empower women through actions and demonstrate what it looks like when true leadership embraces all of its community,” the letter states. “Or you can ignore your community and continue down a path to an untrustworthy and uncertain future.”

“I’m sorry personally, and we as an organizations are sorry,” Warnshuis told Technical.ly Philly on a phone call on Thursday. “We are committed to changing and have engaged outside support for HR to update internal policies and then engaged organizational change management consultants to start doing the long-term work.”

Warnshuis, who began her GDI career as the Philly chapter leader and has been executive director since 2014, said hearing Barona recount her time at the organization was “really hard.”

“I’m sorry for anybody who is a part of our community who has been harmed or had a negative experience,” Warnshuis said. “I totally support people speaking out negative experiences. We need to hear from our community and do better.”

Will the open letter’s requests be heard by GDI leadership? On Monday, Warnshuis did not immediately respond to calls or emails seeking a response to the document’s call for a leadership shift or increased transparency policies. On Thursday, she did say that despite the controversy the organization was not considering shutting down.

“GDI’s impact is incredible,” Warnshuis said. “We’ve helped people change their lives, we’ve build their confidence. I don’t think erasing this organization would serve anybody.

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Full disclosure: Girl Develop It Executive Director Corinne Warnshuis worked as an events coordinator for Technical.ly from 2013 to 2014. That relationship is unrelated to this report.

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Technical.ly Delaware reporter Holly Quinn contributed reporting to this story.

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