Today the Ada Initiative announced that the nonprofit will be shutting down in mid-October. Founded in 2011, the Ada Initiative is a nonprofit feminist organization created to help improve open source culture and build a more inviting, productive, safe environment for women. In this interview, the co-founders, Mary Gardiner and Valerie Aurora, look back at the organization's successes, and the work that still needs to be done.
Looking at the Ada Initiative from when it was announced in 2011 to where it is today, how did the organization evolve to meet community needs?
Oh, our vision changed a lot! Our original vision was that we would do a lot of what we had we done as volunteers, just full-time: write a lot of blog posts and op-eds, give talks at conferences, and maybe write a book or two. Our topics would include advocating for the conference anti-harassment policy and responding to whatever recent sexist community snafu had just happened. When it came to supporting our work financially, we figured that companies that benefited from open source software would just hand over giant wads of cash to an unproven new nonprofit run by two former software engineers.
We ended up with something much more complicated and much more effective: a mix of conferences for women, training for men, and public advocacy for anti-harassment policies and codes of conduct. Instead of being funded primarily by corporate sponsorships, our funding was approximately equally divided between individual donations, workshop fees, and corporate sponsorships.
The Ada Initiative made a huge impact in open source communities. What do you consider to be its top three accomplishments?
Our crowning achievement is definitely the widespread adoption—and enforcement!—of conference anti-harassment policies across open source conferences. We can't think of any major open source conference without an anti-harassment policy today, but when we began this work, you could count the number of open source conferences with anti-harassment policies on the fingers of one hand. Now literally hundreds of conferences have policies, and the rates of physical assault and pornography in presentations are way down from 2010. We were incredibly pleased and surprised that many conferences outside our official scope—open technology and culture—also adopted anti-harassment policies.
The seven AdaCamp conferences for women in open technology and culture were enormously successful in two ways. One was in the direct impact on the women who attended; many of them used the phrase "life-changing" to describe their experience at AdaCamp. They also tell us, years afterwards, how their careers and personal lives dramatically improved since they attended AdaCamp. It was more than just learning how to use git, or taking the HTML5 tutorial; it was learning about Impostor Syndrome and understanding how their experiences as women in open technology and culture fit into a broader picture. AdaCamp also served as the gold standard for how to run an inclusive, welcoming conference. Many conferences have already adopted the best practices we modeled and refined, such as photography policies and access lanes. We just released the AdaCamp Toolkit, which documents in detail how to run a conference of AdaCamp's quality.
The Ally Skills Workshop was a surprise hit. The workshop teaches men how to respond to sexism in simple, everyday ways, taking the burden off women to do all the work of changing the culture of their communities—especially important in free and open source software where women are still so scarce. The workshop had its start when Valerie went to an Allies Workshop run by Caroline Simard, then a VP at the Anita Borg Institute, in which she invited men to role play along in scenarios where they could act as allies to fight sexism in the workplace. After about a year of iteration and refinement, we came up with a version that was better suited to communities like open source software; for example, most people at a Linux conference are terrified of role-playing. Now the attendees almost universally love the workshop, and some version of it has been taught to more than 2,000 people. We've also trained more than 40 people to teach the workshop, and people are teaching it in a variety of communities.
Which high-priority goals weren't you able to achieve?
Valerie personally wanted to have a bigger influence on reducing the toxicity of the Linux kernel community and increasing the percentage of women in Linux. In the end, Outreachy has had a much bigger effect on the percentage of women in Linux. We had several projects in different degrees of development over the years that we'd love to have done, given infinite time and resources. There's room for an event that has an AdaCamp-like level of community building, but for more senior women at the executive level in open tech and culture. With the growth in awareness of Internet harassment campaigns, and their increasing organization, there's ample room for collaborative efforts between different feminist organizations on developing responses. We at one time considered organizing a series of summits to address this.
Are there other organizations currently working to achieve similar goals?
Outreachy (formerly GNOME Outreach Program for Women) is doing fantastic work to bring internships in free and open source software to underrepresented groups under the guidance of Marina Zhurankhinskaya, Sarah Sharp, and Karen Sandler. Previously, Outreachy internships were funded primarily by corporate sponsorships, but now you can also support internships for open source projects such as Humanitarian OpenStreetMap] by donating directly to Outreachy. We wholeheartedly encourage people to find out more about how they can be part of this important work.
You released the AdaCamp Toolkit recently. Will you still be involved with leading AdaCamps?
We have no specific plans to be involved with any future conferences, using the AdaCamp Toolkit or otherwise. Running seven conferences in three years was enough, thanks! One of the things we are looking forward to is the first time someone says to us, "I went to conference X last weekend and it was even better than AdaCamp!"
What's next for you both?
Valerie is going to continue teaching the Ally Skills Workshop as a consultant, and is considering writing a book on a topic related to women in tech. Mary is looking for a leadership position with the right organization in the Sydney, Australia area. One of the sadder parts of ending the Ada Initiative is ending our close working relationship with each other, but we are excited about the future and what it will bring.
(For more information on why the Ada Initiative is shutting down, visit the organization's website.)
Check back for our Diversity in Open Source series, which starts August 10.