My heart is full of food for thought from 22NTC

Looking at a desk from the point of view of person sitting at it: There is a laptop positioned below an external monitor; both have things on the screen.  There is a mic to the left and some printed papers between photographer and laptop.  There is another large monitor to the right, off.  And a tabby cat is standing to the right looking towards the left.
This year I volunteered backstage (assisted by my cat, Amelia) in addition to presenting.

Once upon a time I went to NTEN’s annual Nonprofit Technology Conferences and came away with all sorts of innovative, savvy, practical tips that I could take back and apply at work—sometimes that week.

These days I do a lot less operational work in my day-to-day and more strategic work (let me know if you need help figuring out any blob shaped problems!).  So, while NTCs are still jampacked with practical knowledge exchange and lots of strategic content as well, I find myself reflecting most on the takeaways and questions posed that strike at the soul, why we do what we do and how that should inform what we do, whom we partner with, and the way in which we do our work.

Here are the things that struck me or resonated, and that I am still chewing on.

We have been lied to, and there are people who benefit from us internalizing these lies.

There was an excellent session (with Aki Shibuya, Bettina Sferrino, Vanice Dunn, and Tristan Penn) taking a systemic look at imposter syndrome.  This is something I’ve long struggled with, always wondering when someone was going to find me out, and I really appreciated a look at the systems that perpetuate this experience and who benefits/is hurt by the belief that this something that people like me need to fix internally. 

Are there ways in which we all benefit from learning to trust our own voices and judgment, from gaining experience and the confidence that can come with it?  Sure.  However, the panel also dug into the organizational practices and dynamics that require we feel inadequate – so that we buy into the idea that we must work more hours to make up for what we lack, so that we question our own judgment while accepting the judgment of others in power, so that we strive harder and harder to reach goal posts being moved further and further away because we were never meant to reach them.  These can be practices like not having clear and consistent expectations for performance, and “accountability” that is applied unevenly.  And while there are more ways to make a shift if you are a manager who has positional power, anyone can model things like, acknowledging when you don’t know something, and using one’s own privilege where you can.  

In the chat for another session, there was a beautifully open exchange between several attendees about the use of identity-first (e.g., disabled people) vs. person-first (e.g., people with disabilities) language.  The discussion was around whether it was a way to reclaim “disabled” from being a bad word that we must euphemize, or, whether we should recognize that there are people with disabilities who prefer person-first language.  (All of the people involved in this thread of discussion identified as disabled or as having a disability.) One person who grew up hearing it used negatively against them (as someone with a disability), preferred person-first language. Another person questioned the need to remind anyone that they are a person first. It ended with some folks deciding they needed to reflect some more on whether this might be internalized ableism and people acknowledging there may be generational differences and people may be in different places in their journeys.

“Normal is a scam.”

– Alice Wong

The first keynote was a conversation between Amy Sample Ward and Alice Wong, who runs the Disability Visibility Project (which includes a podcast and book of the same name).  There was a lot of discussion how access is love, about survival, and about how normal is a scam. 

I’ve been working with a coach for my own personal development, and one of the things I’ve been working is on is not judging how I feel, what I want, and generally things about myself.  To declare something (or someone) normal or abnormal is both to participate in this judging and to perpetuate the myths about how the things that make us who we are, that these are things that are wrong (or right) with us.  Who gains from that? 

What do we gain when we accept all of who we are and who others are?  I think only then we can imagine the world that Amy invites us in to build together:

There is no community without accountability—nor without grace.

One of the things I really appreciate about the NTEN community and the Nonprofit Technology is that we a.) keep it real, and b.) thinking critically about technology and the role it plays in creating a more equitable world.

Now, lots of people and organizations throw around the word “community” and don’t always back it up with systems and practice.  So I loved what keynote speaker Angelica Ross said about community:

Now accountability and grace are not mutually exclusive.  But sometimes, when we want people to do better and we know that they can, we can be frustrated and impatient.  However, we can’t control what other people will do or think or feel—even as we feel the urgency of helping others see what we can see from where we sit.

And of course, the penultimate is to actually put our values into practice, and not surprisingly an event full of nonprofit techies is ready to dive in:

Saeed Jones reminded us that there are people in our community who notice how we speak up—or don’t.  Are we learning about the struggles of others?  How will they know they are safe with us?  This can be a form of accountability we practice within ourselves.

Speaking of accountability and actively practicing our values, Ken Montenegro asked a really important question during his session with Colin Boyle about planning for failure:

They were talking about the context of a crisis and how sometimes the person making the decision is simply the person who happens to be there in that moment—and how it’s worth pausing to ask whether this decision should be made by this interim person or whether to gather the right people to make this decision first.  Although this was about IT disasters, this too can be applied much more broadly.  Are the people making the decision the people who understand the implications and who will be impacted by them?

Stories are powerful because of what they allow us to imagine.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the stories we tell about ourselves and that we tell ourselves (and others) about the world.

One really powerful story we often tell is about failure.  Do we tell it as a story of catastrophe, of how we have become failures?  Or do we view it as falling down while learning to ride a bike, part of the process of learning how to do new things?  Is it a pathway to confidence?

(One of these days they’ll allow you to edit tweets, but “earning” is a typo that was supposed to be “learning.”)

There are, of course, also the stories we do not tell:

Related to the stories we tell (or don’t tell) about failure are the stories we tell ourselves about what we are capable of, and what’s possible.  Are we honoring the full potential of who we are?

Speaking of “the full potential of who we are,” the U.S. political divides have lately centered a lot on the power of stories and language and which ideas are okay or not okay.  (Judging again!)  People are demanding that school boards ban teaching Critical Race Theory, ban saying the word “gay” in schools, and banning books that make them feel uncomfortable.  (There are of course, many far more restrictive and persecutive laws being proposed passed across the country—and books and stories and language are part of this broader discourse.  There are others who can speak to that better than I can.)

Who gets to see themselves and be seen?  Who gets to imagine the future of their dreams?

And stories can be incredibly powerful when we feel alone and disconnected.

And, as Saeed Jones pointed out, many people will say they’re “not poetry people” while still pulling out poems for special occasions.

Imagine if we gave ourselves that gift.  (Thank you, Bettina Sferrino, for that lovely prompt.)

An effective meme can function like a poem as a shortcut to that spark of recognition.

That’s me paraphrasing something said by Saeed Jones in the closing keynote conversation with Amy Sample Ward.  There were a lot of gems and I finally managed to gather myself enough to draw sketchnotes for this one! 

On that note, I’ll let these roll around my brain some more, but drop a line if any of these gems resonated with you as well.

Meetings are better with collaborative notes

It now feels like ages ago when someone at an organization I was volunteering with introduced me to collaborative notes: an openly shared Google Document that could be edited by any of us at the meeting and accessed by us all afterwards.

It was a revelation.

Now, I had always been a huge proponent of taking notes—I even once had a job where part of my role was taking board meeting minutes.  I had also been an advocate for sharing those notes with everyone who was at the meeting. 

But.

Collaborative notes are next level.

Let me tell you why.

Meeting notes, when done well, serve as documentation of what was discussed, decisions made, and who is responsible for which follow-up items.

To be fair, not all meeting notes are created equally, but they should all contain some key information: when the meeting occurred, who participated, what was discussed, decisions that were made, and any action items that resulted (hopefully also with who is responsible for completing them and by when).

When you have documented this key information in the meeting notes, then meeting notes can serve a few key functions.

Meeting notes can serve as a decision log, documenting decisions that were made, alongside with notes about the discussion leading to them, or why those decisions were made.  This makes it easier to go back and look, when circumstances change, to see whether a decision should be adjusted.  Listing the participants also allows you to see who was or was not part of making that decision.

Meeting notes can also act as a way to track who said they would do what, so that you can follow up with the appropriate person after the meeting.  Even for things I’ve signed up to do, action items in meeting notes serve as a reminder that I can then check off (I do like to check things off!).  In turn, my checking things off can tell anyone else looking at the meeting notes that this task has been completed.

And of course, meeting notes can serve as a bit of a historical record for a team, a program, or a project.  How are we progressing?  What changed along the way?  Perhaps, what did we learn?

Shared meeting notes give everyone access to one central source of key information from the meeting.

In general, it’s a good practice to share meeting notes because so that people who were not there (or who joined late or had to leave early) can access at least some of the key information from that meeting.  It’s also good because no one remembers everything anyway.  Even if people take their own notes, then there is a different set of notes per every participant and without shared meeting notes, there is no one source of truth about what was discussed, what was decided, or who needs to do what afterwards. 

And this is critical: Shared meeting notes help create shared meaning. 

Imagine what happens when one person writes down that Keisha from marketing will share the microsite mockups by the end of the week, and another person writes down that Marketing will share the website mockups by Monday. 

Disputes can abound when everybody has their own version of what happened at the meeting.  But having a central source of shared meeting notes means that there is one version to dispute rather than 8 conflicting ones. 

Collaborative notes, when everyone in the meeting contributes to them, give participants more agency in shaping the meaning of the meeting.

Speaking of shared meaning, creating the record of what happened during the meeting together also gives participants more agency in shaping this meaning—not only during the meeting, but what gets documented afterwards.  People are usually more engaged when they both have more agency and can see how their inputs make a difference.  People will have their own interpretations and their own ways to make sense of what happened regardless—better that all those different interpretations come together in meeting notes visible to everyone so that everyone can get on the same page.

There can be power in who gets to write the meeting notes and thus synthesize and determine the meaning of what occurred during the meeting.  On the flipside, it is also easy to dismiss the official notes when you think they’ve missed a lot or misunderstood a lot of what was said.

And collaborative meeting notes that everyone can see in real time allow for people to clarify and correct things during the meeting.

When people co-create the notes during the meeting—as opposed to adding their individual notes to a shared document afterwards (which, let’s be real, will likely be mainly the notes of whoever cares the most)—this gives others in the meeting the opportunity to clarify and correct things that may have been noted incorrectly or that are unclear.  Yes, sharing out meeting notes after the meeting still allows for this but sometimes people don’t, or they do raise it, but it gets lost in the email inbox swamp.  Being able to see and respond and raise the question during the meeting, while everyone is still there, means it’s more likely to be resolved and resolved more quickly than the devolving reply-all email chain.  Who needs that endless back and forth when everybody has already checked out of the meeting?

Simply put, collaborative meeting notes are more efficient and they help you facilitate more engaging and effective meetings.  Make your meeting notes collaborative by default.

Improving our defaults

Last week, I was at #17NTC (the 2017 Nonprofit Technology Conference) and I’m still processing all of the things I learned or ideas that were sparked and how I might apply them in my work or in life generally. But one of the biggest takeaways for me was a question:

How can we improve our defaults?

This was sparked by a session on improving website accessibility for people with disabilities. Someone on the panel mentioned how, in the most recent version of Drupal, they had worked to improve the defaults so that some level of accessibility was built-in even if the organization using the platform didn’t specifically care about or pay attention to accessibility. Most of these things, like offline adjustments for accessibility, could benefit everyone. Otherwise, they were no detriment to the user experience for anyone else.

One of the other suggestions in the website session was that we should build accessibility into our budget and our project schedules so that crossing it out is a active choice. Similar to automatically opting people in and making it an active choice to opt out—which can be annoying for e-mail lists but beneficial for 401k participation.

The day before, I’d been in a discussion with community organizers where we were talking about venue. One mentioned that a challenge was that the space they currently had for events was not accessible for people in wheelchairs or who otherwise had trouble getting up and down stairs. They were raising money for a lift, but in the meantime, they stated upfront in each event description that the venue was not wheelchair accessible. Which sounds a bit counterintuitive, but the organizer mentioned some community members appreciated that the information was there, that they didn’t have to ask. Because they have always had to ask—many organizations hosting events, in leaving this type of information out, made an implicit assumption that people attending their event would not have disabilities.

One: Don’t make people ask.

From the start of the conference, there were efforts at inclusivity all around. When I checked in, I could pick up a pronoun ribbon to attach to my badge. In one look, people could know my name as well as that I use she/her. Other options included him/her, they/them, and there was also a write-in option. There were gender neutral bathrooms. At the opening, the CEO mentioned both of these along with the nursing mothers room, the prayer room, and other amenities that recognized we are not simply session-attending robots. In addition, recognizing that there were many first-time attendees, she explained some common lingo and abbreviations. There were “I’m shy” buttons, for those who were happy to talk to others but perhaps looking for the more outgoing attendees to make the first move. There were Birds of a Feather lunch tables and volunteer-staffed Dine Around Town reservations so, although you could certainly eat with whoever you chose, nobody had to eat alone or had to figure out how to ask a stranger to eat with them in a city they didn’t know.

None of these things are terribly difficult to do. None of these things precluded people from choosing otherwise (e.g. some chose not to use the pronoun ribbons, some chose to make their own plans for meals). But as someone who has come a long way to be able to ask a stranger if they wanted to eat lunch, about what an acronym stood for, and who still struggles with these things, and has watched others stress out about trying to find a place where they could pump or breastfeed, about whether or not they could even get into the building, let alone use a bathroom once inside—it means a lot to be seen.

Two: Inclusivity means nothing without access.

Inclusivity is not the fact that you have taken down the signs that say “No coloreds” or changed your policy from being a men-only club to one that allows female members. Sure, nobody is actively stopping women or people of color from applying to jobs in technology (or any other field). Nor is that an explicit reason people don’t get promotions or aren’t seen as leaders in spite of actions that would demonstrate leadership if only they looked like what we expect a leader to look like.

Inclusivity is meaningless without access; inclusivity is as much about removing barriers as it is about creating the space and opening the doors. As in, not only are we not restricting membership by gender, but we’re also ensuring that this space is actually accessible to all community members for the purpose we aim to serve. If people need to be able to spend a day learning at a conference, they will also need to go to the bathroom, possibly need to pump or breastfeed, may need a space to observe their religion, will need to be able to get in the building and into all of the rooms in which we are holding sessions and events. If we want people to lead at all levels within our organizations, then we need to look for those actions in all places rather than only in the places and people we’d expect.

Three: Improving accessibility + increasing inclusivity = benefits to us all

Revamping your website from looking like Times Square to being less cluttered and focused is not only easier for people using screenreaders but is a better user experience for all of your website visitors—yes. Not having to navigate stairs helps even those of us who can walk when we’re moving heavy carts of equipment or boxes of supplies—sure. Being able to use either single-person bathroom rather than having to (or feeling like you have to) wait for the one that says “Women” even while the one that says “Men” is empty—heck yeah.

But it also benefits us all because we’re getting whole people. People who aren’t spending mental energy (and actual energy, and actual hours of time) on planning out how they’re getting from point A to point B via points F and U because of stairs, or because of needing to pump every few hours or because they need to bring their own interpreter, or because there isn’t a bathroom they can use within a 15 minute walk (as exhibited in Hidden Figures), or because they need to assist their opposite-sex adult child who has special needs in using the bathroom, or because the way they observe their religion frightens some people who do not know them. When people can bring their best selves and their whole selves—why would we not choose that over people bringing only a part of their brain power, a part of their time, a part of their talent and passion and brilliance? If we’re willing to spend time and energy on recruiting/hiring/engaging the right people, why wouldn’t we make sure we could get the best of them?

Four: We will never be completely inclusive or accessible.

Another recurring theme, in the session on website accessibility, and in many others, was to let go of perfect. We may not currently have the budget to install an elevator. Or the capacity to overhaul our website.

But what can we do right now to make it better?

Maybe it’s saying, to our community members who use wheelchairs: We see you. We can’t fix it yet, but we wanted to give you a heads up that there are stairs. Maybe it’s not having a prayer before a meal but having a moment of silence for those who wish to pray, to create that space for them. Maybe it’s considering what will be readable to people who are color blind or who have issues with low-contrast when you’re choosing the colors on your website, or writing detailed descriptions for your images in your blog posts. I remember a friend of mine (who is a quadriplegic) once telling me a story about talking to bar owner about how changing the doorknobs on the bathroom door to lever door handles would make it so much easier for him to get in and out of the bathroom. To which the owner responded, “Oh, that’s it? I could do that.” At a previous organization that only had about 20 staff, they didn’t have space/need for a dedicated nursing mothers’ room, but they installed a lock on the conference room door so it could be used as such.

When we have the opportunities to do the big overhauls, that’s wonderful. But more important is that we try to improve our defaults. Like what if, instead of waiting for people to ask for a raise, we evaluated everybody’s compensation every 6 months, and within our capacity, gave everyone raises who deserved one regardless of whether they had asked? Or asked everyone about professional development they were interested in rather than just saying yes to people who asked about it? What if we simply got rid of urinals? What if the form you filled out to get your event added to the calendar or your business added to a review site asked whether or not the space was wheelchair accessible? If job websites required employers to post jobs with a salary range, rather than employers requiring it of applicants, and to post their policies around family leave rather than requiring candidates to ask? At my husband’s company, it is expected that, if the company pays for you to attend a training or a conference, you will share what you’ve learned with the rest of the team afterwards. I don’t know if that’s policy or just a cultural thing, but that make sense. Whereas I heard another attendee comment on going back to the office and their boss telling them to go back to work and stop bothering them with all of these ideas. Why waste everyone’s time leading someone on if they won’t be able to get into the restaurant, if the highest salary you can offer will not meet the minimum of what they are seeking, if you’re sending them to a training for the sake of checking a box rather than using professional development to enhance capacity, if the contribution people make to the organization have nothing to do with how you compensate them? In addition to being disrespectful and not inclusive, it is simply inefficient. It doesn’t make any sense.

We’re bleeding opportunity cost, and we’re usually not even aware of it.

I’m sure there are plenty of things I’ve not mentioned, and pitfalls with some of the things I have. I’m not perfect and plenty of my defaults could use improvement. I had the awesome opportunity to present at the conference, and I talked about flipping the switch with change-resistors: what do we risk by not doing X?

I’ve always struggled with that because quantifying output or input is easy. We spend a lot of money on education, for example, and money in and of itself is not an answer, but neither is not spending that money. What is the cost of an under-educated citizen? Of a person who ends up in prison instead of in a job? Not just the cost of running the prison or feeding inmates, but the cost of that person’s potential had they not ended up there in the first place? I’m willing to bet it is greater than the cost of providing certain services or programs. Not all of them. But probably a significant number. If someone figures out a good way to calculate that, let me know. I don’t know that the data would prove this theory, but I don’t know that it would disprove it either.

I could keep going, but I’ll end on this note:

What are our defaults? What are the inherent assumptions? How might we make our defaults better?