Jocelyn Harper (who goes by @soandsos on Twitter), became chapter leader of Girl Develop It Wilmington last April. If you follow her on social media, you may have noticed a surprising tweet on Sept. 25, seemingly out of the blue:
I stepped down as chapter leader for @gdiwilm @girldevelopit
— The Nightmare Before Sailor Ghoul Licking Prada (@javavvitch) September 25, 2018
Then, that evening, a followup:
Personal growth is when you realize an organization has let you down but also realizing you have the insight and resources to do better.
— The Nightmare Before Sailor Ghoul Licking Prada (@javavvitch) September 26, 2018
It’s true. Harper confirmed to Technical.ly that she has chosen to separate from Girl Develop It, a national nonprofit headquartered in Philadelphia “dedicated,” its mission states, “to providing affordable, judgment-free opportunities for adult women to learn software development.”
The reason she stepped down has to do with race and feminism and the way organizations deal with being called out, she says. And we need to talk about it, because Black women are often not heard, even in spaces created to be safe for women.
“What was annoying about the situation was how vague it was,” said Harper, who spoke with Technical.ly soon after she resigned. “All of the details around the situation are very vague, and are being purposely kept vague by [GDI] headquarters. It’s very odd to me that they won’t say what specifically happened.”
The controversy didn’t start in Wilmington, but in Minneapolis, where a young Black technologist named Lanice Sims posted a fed-up Twitter thread in August (you can read the whole thread here):
Four days later, the Girl Development Minneapolis Twitter account responded:
— TC Toast and Tech (@tctoastandtech) August 23, 2018
It would be a full month before Harper, or most chapter leaders heard about it.
“My thing is that it wasn’t brought to the chapter leaders’ attention until it kind of came to a head,” Harper told Technical.ly. “It wasn’t of HQ’s own volition to actually tell us about it. ”
The catalyst came with a Sept. 19 Medium post titled “Reflecting on my time as a GDI Minneapolis Chapter Leader” by Amy Gebhardt. Gebhardt had spent a lot of time on self-reflection since Sims’ tweets, and she goes into great detail about how she felt and the process that led her to realize that she had, in fact, contributed to the racist environment Sims had called out.
My hope and intent is to share failures so that other leaders — locally and nationally — can understand some of the things that went wrong here in Minneapolis. I want to challenge all of those currently involved in this organization to read this, reflect on their own experiences, and create a plan for doing better. I hope they can follow through and make necessary changes so that Girl Develop It’s mission can thrive in all 63 of the cities they are currently in. Change, starting from the HQ team, must happen in order for GDI to have positive impacts on its local communities.
Gebhardt’s post caused a stir with GDI chapter leaders, many of whom were convening at a conference the same weekend.
“Another chapter leader made a Slack channel to discuss issues,” Harper said. “For me, I don’t like the fact that this happened a couple of months ago and we’re just now hearing about it. And there was a lot of discussion happening between chapter leaders, but no Black women were actually saying anything. We don’t have a lot of Black chapter leaders.”
She continued: “[The Slack discussion] took the issue of race out of the equation. Somebody that is guilty of something wrote an article and referenced another article about ‘white supremacy in heels‘ — you can’t try to solve the issue by removing race entirely.”
By Monday, the thread had died down, but Harper was still bothered by it. She read to us what she posted to the chapter leaders’ Slack channel:
Is this still being discussed? Because I find most of the reactions in the discussion surrounding this removing that fact that the person who voiced her concern was in fact a Black woman. […] Also, saying that Chapter leaders will be going through inclusion and diversity training is broad. What specifically is going to be taught so that, as in this case, a white woman won’t marginalize a Black woman when she is in a position of power? I think this interaction goes past just diversity and inclusion training and I sincerely hope that it is not a blanket statement from HQ to appease us for the time being without giving details on a course of action.
To boil it down, Harper wanted the leadership to do something besides promises of diversity training and a sense that the organization would take a long-range “there is a lot of work to do” approach to inclusion, which generally hasn’t worked well for women of color.
She said the response she received expressed appreciation for her comments, but left her unsatisfied.
“It was still a non-committal non-answer that’s still not recognizing what happened,” she said. “I support GDI’s mission statement, but as a Black woman it does not align with my beliefs. It came down to: Would I want to stay through that? How mentally taxing would that be? How is GDI vetting these chapter leaders? What else is there? What worries me most is that this just the one issue that we’ve heard about,” Harper said.
She posted her resignation the next day.
“I want to apologize to Jocelyn and to all of the people of color in our community who have not felt heard or supported,” GDI Executive Director Corinne Warnshuis said in a written statement to Technical.ly. “I’m sad to see Jocelyn go, since I think right now we need voices like hers in our community the most. I regret that our organizational culture (stemming in part from our lack fully-formed policies and systems) allowed for any member, specifically women of color, to feel unsafe or unsupported.”
As for how the organization is responding? Warnshuis wrote:
I’m hopeful that we can rebuild the trust of our members and supporters by taking actionable steps to live up to our mission and values. We’ve started to take some of those steps immediately over the past few weeks, including creating anonymous feedback channels, revising our Code of Conduct and Harassment Policy, revamping the chapter leader onboarding process, and engaging short- and long-term consultants to support us in these important next steps.
For now, Harper is concentrating on her job as a software developer at Capital One (she was formerly with O3 World in Philadelphia). She will be a panelist at the Delaware Innovation Week event Women in Innovation, presented by Women in Digital on Nov. 8.
Now, a question to readers: Why is it so difficult to talk about race? Can situations like these be averted with an open dialogue?
Knowledge is power!
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