Code4Lib 2018 – Diversity scholarships and my experiences at an amazingly inclusive conference

For those of you who don’t know, Code4Lib is a community for information technology in the library industry. The community hosts a yearly conference, this year in Washington, D.C. For the past decade, since I first started working on my open source project C# MARC Editor, I had been eyeing the conference as an experience I would love to participate in but unfortunately would likely never get the opportunity to do so.

This year, when the first emails went out about the conference, I started browsing the conferences’ website. To my surprise they had a scholarship link, and it turned out they were giving away diversity scholarships.

It’s a strange feeling to apply for a diversity scholarship as someone who had quite a bit of passing privilege growing up. The imposter syndrome kicks in quickly.

“Do I really deserve this?” I asked myself.

I don’t have any stories of being pushed out of the information technology industry because of my gender. I’ve only been out as transgender for a little over a year. Surely there’s someone more deserving than myself of such a scholarship.

All of my friends convinced me to sign up regardless of my fears and worries. After all, deciding who was truly deserving of a scholarship to attend the conference is what the scholarship committee was for. I sent in my application, fully expecting to not hear anything from it.

A few weeks later, the email arrived in my inbox. I won the scholarship, along with 12 other awesome individuals. I was blown away. I couldn’t believe it, but I was going to the very conference that I had been aching to attend. I was extremely excited, but the nervousness kicked in almost immediately.

Sure, the conference had diversity scholarships, and a code of conduct, and on-site duty officers to police the code of conduct, but it’s hard to know how seriously that’s actually taken. Plus, I’ve never traveled by myself before, at least not to a place where a close friend wasn’t waiting for me on the other side. Not to mention the fact it’d be my first trip as a transgender woman.

I arrived at the conference hotel late Monday night, and found myself sitting alone at a table at the bar, eating a late dinner. Next to me were two fairly loud tables of conversation. One of which I heard a buzzword, “Spark in the Dark,” which I was pretty sure was the name of a pre-conference talk the next day. I finished eating and nervously asked if they were there for Code4Lib. They were! As it turns out they were from Stanford.

Imposter syndrome strikes again.

“What university are you from?” they asked me.

“None. I work in manufacturing,” I sheepishly replied, before eventually working up the courage to mention I made an open source MARC editing tool at a previous job that I still support. We ended up talking until the bar closed that night.

A similar conversation would happen repeatedly throughout the conference. I met wonderful people from the Library of Congress, Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and more. Nearly every time I was asked what university I worked for.

That was the worst thing that happened at the conference. It was amazing. Aside from the expectation that everyone at the conference works at a major university, I was immediately included in conversations and welcomed with open arms.

Aside from my own fears of being transgender, no one ever questioned me. Sure, there was some misgendering, but every time it was almost immediately corrected and apologized for. It was far and above what I could have possibly expected.

Despite the warm welcomes, I still was fairly closeted at the conference at first. I was afraid of outting myself as transgender. That is until a conversation the next evening with another conference attendee. We were talking about our jobs, and at some point the subject of North Carolina and bathroom laws came up. Here I was, expecting the worst, because nothing good comes of political discussions, when the other attendee came out as a transgender woman to me. I too came out at that point. We both laughed that our “gendar” went off, and the conversation continued.

That was the extent of it. A few quick nods to having a shared experience, and right back to the conversation.

The next day, I met more and more people from all over the library industry, and of course I talked up my project when I could. I forget who first brought it up, or how it was brought up, but I was told I should give a lightning talk about my project. I quickly declined, because I wasn’t there to advertise in front of 450 people, and not to mention my fear of speaking in front of people, my social anxiety, and the unspoken dysphoria of being trans and speaking in front of that many people.

But people persisted. It turns out I had a very unique perspective, as somewhat of an outsider to the library industry, and lots of people I talked to said I should sign up for a lightning talk.

So I did. It was terrifying, but I did it. I got up in front of 450 people, and who knows how many watching the live stream online, and spoke about my project for five minutes. To get around my fear of advertising it to everyone, I instead only mentioned it briefly in my introduction of myself, and instead spoke on the methodology I used in creating it. If you care to watch, I have it uploaded to my YouTube channel.

Afterwards, I couldn’t walk in the halls without someone congratulating me on a great talk, wanting to pick my brain about MARC records, or to tell me how brave and awesome I was for talking at my first Code4Lib.

It was amazing.

Even aside from the welcoming and encouraging environment that I was thrown into as a newbie, it was a wonderful experience that I would do again in a heartbeat if given the opportunity.

What was even more impressive to me, was that the inclusiveness didn’t end at scholarships and a welcoming environment. The code of conduct was taken extremely seriously, and the few times something happened that was questionable, it was immediately called out and dealt with in as anonymous a way as possible, while still informing the community that they were making sure the issue had, in fact, been dealt with.

Even the talks spoke of being inclusive. The opening keynote was by Chris Bourg, the Director of Libraries at MIT. She spoke about social justice, and how libraries as well as the technology industry can do better when it comes to representation. There was an awesome talk about bias in algorithms, that was eye opening.

This is exactly how conferences should be run.

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