Girl Develop It’s (GDI) Philadelphia Chapter Leader Suzie Nieman announced Tuesday she has stepped down from her role at the tech education network aimed at women and underrepresented groups.
Nieman’s resignation, a response to what community members are calling a racism crisis inside GDI, effectively halts the local operations for the nonprofit’s Philly chapter.
In an open letter posted on the group’s Slack channel, Nieman denounced the handling of “institutional racism” stemming from incidents inside the Delaware and Minneapolis chapters and within its Philadelphia headquarters, which led some 200 community members across the country to undersign a fiery open letter to the nonprofit’s board of directors at the end of last year.
In the same message, Nieman called on the chapter’s community of 5,000-plus to sever ties with GDI in all digital platforms.
“GDI HQ and the board continue to lack transparency and have missed the many chances that they have been given to address these matters,” Nieman said in the document. “With no substantive change, this organization will continue along the same path: harming the marginalized people that they claim to be supporting and devaluing the mission statement, which harms the entire community.”
Today I have officially ended my involvement with @gdiphilly and @girldevelopit. I can not continue participate in an organization that is taking an "ignore it and eventually it'll go away" strategy to the racism crisis it is in right now. #GDIStrike
— Tracy Levesque (@LilJimmi) January 29, 2019
Nieman, who joined the open call for leadership to step down, told Technical.ly that while the board did not expressly consent to the closure of the Philly chapter, with no active organizers or chapter leaders, operations were effectively ceased indefinitely.
Bindu Jallabah, GDI’s director of operations, told Technical.ly in a brief email that the local chapter has not officially been shuttered.
“GDI Philly is not shutting down,” said Jallabah, who joined the organization in 2016. “We did receive a letter of resignation from one of our chapter leaders; however, we’re committed to continue serving our community.”
In a follow-up email, Jallabah said new chapter leaders will be appointed. Though a timeline was not shared, “we are actively working on a new process for bringing on new [chapter leaders].” An email sent to the organization’s board of directors inquiring a response to Nieman’s statement was not immediately answered.
Let’s put this latest bit of news in the national and organizational context:
The Philly chapter first launched in 2011, the third out-of-market iteration of the New York nonprofit working to get more women into tech roles. If Nieman’s resignation and the local community backlash indeed puts the chapter out of its active status, it joined a list of at least 10 local chapters (of 63) where local leaders have declared they are halting operations. A crowdsourced, running tally of chapter statuses can be found online alongside a list of public statements from chapter leaders.
Ninety minutes after Nieman’s announcement, close to 200 members had heeded her call to join a new Slack group called We Evolve. The group, product of an emotionally charged town hall and planning session held Jan. 19 at Indy Hall, has the goal of supporting and encouraging women, trans men and non-binary adults in their tech journeys, while providing an independent hub to discuss next steps for the community.
“At the Town Hall there was a sense of great sadness and disappointment at the way that GDI leadership has responded to the issues of racism and discrimination,” Nieman said. “But moreover, a strong sense of support, community, and desire to rise above this and continue to be there for each other.”
Perhaps telling of whether the GDI community will follow a new path is the sentiment of Ivana Veliskova, a long-time GDI alumna, who works as a front-end engineer.
“I am not surprised that this is the direction that the local Philly chapter decided to take,” Veliskova said. “I told the chapter leaders that I will support them whichever way they go. I’m pretty upset with HQ. Essentially, what I got from their response was, ‘Here are your two options, either you are with us or against us and we won’t change or see your point of view.'”
More than once, this reporter has kicked a question around the newsroom: Why has this story, which features dozens of women in tech leaders rebelling against a well-established organization, not attracted the attention of national tech media? Perhaps it is a question of how this industry values gender or race issues? Or perhaps it is that GDI’s HQ mostly-Philly-based workforce been a limiting factor?
No matter the case, it’s crucial to keep an eye on the Philadelphia chapter, the one that first elevated the figure of Executive Director Corinne Warnshuis into the national landscape, and its outsized symbolism in the overall narrative of GDI.
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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