Girl Develop It’s board chair resigns, but local chapter leaders remain skeptical - Technical.ly Philly

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Dec. 11, 2018 2:28 pm

Girl Develop It’s board chair resigns, but local chapter leaders remain skeptical

From Philly to Seattle to Ann Arbor, at least 21 chapters of the coding education nonprofit have paused or permanently ended their programming. A response from GDI's board, some say, missed the mark again.
At a Girl Develop It class.

At a Girl Develop It class.

(Photo by Yasmine Mustafa)

In an internal Slack message sent to Girl Develop It (GDI) chapter leaders on Monday evening, the organization’s board announced that cofounder Vanessa Hurst had stepped down as board chair.

Hurst’s departure is part of the board’s response to an ongoing controversy around racism and a lack of inclusivity at the coding education nonprofit. Alongside the announcement, the organization shared a five-page document outlining a number of internal protocol changes and a pledge to add staffers to GDI headquarters.

“There have clearly been some misses with how GDI has handled issues regarding race and racism,” read the statement, signed by boardmembers Brenda Jin, Erica Baker and Janelle Jolley. “As Board members, we are ultimately responsible for how everyone is treated in the GDI community, and in that capacity, we would like to issue a sincere apology to anyone who was harmed or hurt by racism they experienced while involved with Girl Develop It.”

The five-page response fell flat among many of the org’s current and former local leaders, who had clamored for major institutional shifts in an open letter to the board, itself a response to a series of public callouts of racist behavior and a lack of inclusivity from chapter leaders in Minnesota and Delaware, and more recently former HQ staffer Shanise Barona, in an episode of the tech podcast #causeascene.

“The Board’s response to our open letter was inadequate at best,” Seattle chapter leader Heather Glenn Wade told Technical.ly. “While I appreciate they are outlining new organization policies to handle the reporting and investigation of discrimination claims, it is not apparent to what extent the GDI board is acting on the specific allegations mentioned in our open letter.”

At press time, per Philly chapter lead Suzie Nieman, nearly half of the organization’s chapters, including Philly’s, are currently on hiatus even after the board’s response. Per Barona, the number of chapters on hiatus is 14, with another seven ceasing operations permanently in response to the controversy.

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Barona, who held the secretary of the board role prior to her departure, called the response a “farce” and put into question the board’s legitimacy, since their terms ended in September. The board did not immediately respond to an email from Technical.ly seeking a response.

The latest is a surprising twist to the nonprofit’s public story, long touted by many — including the Obama White House — as a model of accessible coding and professional skill-building for women in tech. To others it’s yet another symbol of the limits of white female leadership in supporting people of color, in particular Black women, and a need for intersectionality as the norm for inclusion efforts.

For Wade, the recent response from GDI fails to promptly address internal policies that “are inhospitable to underrepresented and marginalized members of our communities” and that the nonprofit simply promised to revisit the policies “soon.”

“The Seattle chapter is officially on hiatus,” the chapter lead said. “We are considering permanently ceasing operations unless we are met with a swift leadership change.”

Nieman confirmed local programming remains halted in Philadelphia ahead of a 2019 town hall meeting to discuss next steps.

“The statement last night was a good start, but there are still a lot of outstanding questions,” said Nieman. “The statement largely dealt with organizational policy, not any next steps on handling incidents reported by Shanise and others.”

Another GDI chapter leader, who asked not to be identified, said the document “felt like a bunch of ‘more soon,’ which is their usual MO.”

“It’s basically a step to distract us,” the leader said. “I compare it to giving your kid candy so they’ll be quiet while you shop or do chores. They’re saying that they are going to hire for this and that and create a policy for this or that but no concrete actions that will be taken, particularly around having [the] executive director [Corinne Warnshuis] step down.”

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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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