This is the story of how I went to a conference that made me feel uncomfortable, and why that’s a good thing.
What is AlterConf
AlterConf came to Atlanta this past weekend.
So, what is AlterConf? Here it is straight from the source:
AlterConf Sessions are local events that provide safe opportunities for marginalized people in the tech and gaming industries to learn from and support one another. By highlighting the powerful voices and positive initiatives of local community members, we build hope and strengthen the community’s resolve to create safer, healthier spaces for everyone.
When I read the above description for the first time, I thought to myself, “This will be awesome!” I had no idea that this conference would have a major impact on me.
AlterConf makes every effort to be inclusive and accommodating. This made me uncomfortable.
- 2 professional sign language interpreters
- Live English-language captioning
- Gender neutral bathrooms
- American with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessible venues
- Meat, vegan, and gluten-free meals included
I’ve never been to a conference that made such an effort. AlterConf does conferences right. Going above and beyond to be inclusive, accommodating, and welcoming is how all conferences should be.
I had never attended a tech conference so diverse. This made me uncomfortable.
Walk into any typical tech conference and you’ll see a room of cisgender white males. The demographic of AlterConf was anything but homogeneous. You’ll find people of all shapes, sizes, ages, colors and orientations. That’s not just the attendees, but the speakers as well. This is what makes AlterConf extraordinary.
The topics were just as diverse, shocking and emotional. This made me uncomfortable.
From the motivational - Michael Westbrooks’ impassioned plea for non-technical people to take the leap in learning how to code evoked a sense of nostalgia. I vividly remember what it was like when I was just learning how to code and build products. So much so, I offered to mentor him in his journey to become a better software and product developer.
To the inspirational - Juwan Platt challenged us to inspire young minorities to explore Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) by finding ways to contextualize why the tech world matters in a way that young people can understand. The tough question is “How do you make STEM more relatable and interesting?” Although I don’t think he has the full answer to that question, he brought so much energy to the stage and really connected with the crowd that it was a served as a perfect illustration of the point he was trying to make. Energy, engagement and contextualization are keys to inspiring young minorities to pursue STEM.
To the weird - Imran Khan’s talk on “Why Diversity in Video Gaming Matters” taught me more about gaming than I’d ever want to know. However, the growing lack of diversity in gaming is troubling and was exemplified by the fact that most of the Black characters in video games are sports figures. The fact that the only character that Imran, a Bengali-American, could easily relate to was Dhalsim from Street Fighter made me shake my head. Imran suggested that we stop buying games that aren’t diverse in order to send a message to the game studios that they must do better.
To the touching - My former co-worker, Bree Stanwyck, shared her journey about transitioning and how she has navigated many micro-aggressions — “the barely-visible, often unintentional slights that highlight trans people’s position as separate from our cis colleagues.” As her former manager, this talk made me squirm because I not only witnessed some of these micro-aggressions, but I was also guilty of perpetrating some of them too despite my best efforts. Transphobia and transmisogyny are issues that I had never encountered before meeting Bree, and I’m extremely grateful for our relationship because she unknowingly uncovered areas in myself where I need to grow.
To the infuriating and inspiring - Dr. Monica Cox’s struggle to navigate the world of academia as a top, award-winning engineering professor who happens to be a black woman. How someone of her accomplishments could be confused for a janitor was upsetting. Her quote, “I was prepared to be professor, but not a pioneer” resonated with me as I attempt to build a career where Black people are under-represented. To counter the lack of mentors in her field, she promotes finding relatable mentors that are experts in their own organizational circles. More details on her mentoring model can be found here.
To the subtly revealing - My former colleague, Pamela Overman’s talk, entitled “Job Listing Minesweeper”, called out the many discriminatory red flags in typical tech industry job listings. I’m so accustomed to seeing aggressive / masculine-focused job listings that I didn’t realize the power of word choice speaks volumes about a company’s culture. Her format used the classic game, Minesweeper, which made reading between the lines into a fun and engaging game.
To the eye opening - Laurel Lawson’s talk on the lack of access in the tech industry for the disabled was a rude awakening for me. She hit close to home when she specifically called out the building I work in as inaccessible for a disabled person. It made me really think - I take my abilities to walk, to hear, and to see for granted.
And even more - There were even more talks that focused on age discrimination, the challenges faced by parents in the tech industry, and how to encourage minority involvement in scientific computing is a good idea.
After one of the more intense talks, my friend leaned over to me, and said, “This is very difficult for me.” I nodded, and responded with something nonsensical. At the time, I couldn’t shake this uneasy, yet unidentifiable feeling. It was only afterward, that I was able to coalesce my thoughts and feelings into something comprehensible. I was uncomfortable because my eyes were opened to the many issues that marginalized people face on a day-to-day basis.
As Juwan Platt stated in his talk, “No one grows in a comfort zone.” Ain’t that the truth. Being uncomfortable enables me to identify areas where I need to improve because marginalizing others is not just something the “nebulous other people do.” It’s something we all do. And we all can do better. Thank you AlterConf for making me feel uncomfortable.