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Open Source / Tech Life

How to Be a Better Ally in Open Source Communities

In this episode of The New Stack Makers, we sit down with GitLab's Fatima Sarah Khalid to talk about allyship in open source communities and beyond.
Oct 25th, 2023 10:25am by
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“Being an ally goes beyond sticking pronouns to our badges or pronouncing our coworkers’ names correctly, it’s about putting action behind our words and our commitments.” Fatima Sarah Khalid said this as part of her keynote at the Linux Foundation’s Open Source Summit Europe in Bilbao, Spain last month.

“It’s especially and even in situations that make us uncomfortable. And it’s about acknowledging that, for many people, this feeling of otherness is constant. Systemic oppression is constant for many people.”

We sat down with Khalid, a developer evangelist at GitLab, during the event to talk about the lifelong journey of allyship when applied to our work and our contributions to open source communities.

“Allyship is supporting and uplifting people from underrepresented or marginalized backgrounds.” It’s really important, she said, to not get bogged down in the hefty terminology of allyship. “It isn’t about the big things that you can do. But it is about the little interactions,” she said. “There are small changes and ways that you can be an ally in your everyday interactions that can make you a better person and make the community around you more welcoming.”

Open source communities tend to be significantly less diverse than even the tech industry it supports. In fact, open source communities have somewhere between 4% to 14% women and non-binary contributors — this range is due to the fact that open source contributor data is notoriously challenging to measure. And while Africans, who represent 17% of the global population and are among those who could most benefit from free and open source software, they are among only 2% of contributors.

“There have been a lot of initiatives in order to improve that. I think having these conversations here and giving talks about allyship is one way to help further that conversation,” Khalid said. And as former The New Stack writer Rin Oliver wrote, increasing diversity is not just the duty of the marginalized.

So, how can open source become a more welcoming and inclusive place for those marginalized by the tech industry? How can open source maintainers and contributors become better allies?

Much of open source community communication is written — overwhelmingly in English, asynchronously, and on Slack. That’s why community dialogue has to be monitored, backed by clearly communicated and enforced moderation best practices — inclusive language enforcement can, for the most part, be automated.

“It’s also good to be wary of the time zones in which you’re having those meetings to make sure that you’re inclusive of the different contributors that you might have across the globe. And they’re also able to be a part of that conversation,” Khalid said. At GitLab, a fully distributed remote team of about 2,300 employees, they maintain a handbook full of meeting notes. Open source community leadership can also facilitate asynchronous conversations that more people can drop into.

Of course, an easy way to maintain a more inclusive open source community is by welcoming and acknowledging more than just technical contributions. Writing and translating documentation is an important contribution that shows more than just English-speaking engineers are welcome.

Events are an important way that larger open source projects build communities, but often have some of the lowest diversity numbers. Khalid shared some ways that open source events can be more welcoming:

  • Hold welcome activities targeted at newcomers and marginalized groups
  • Have quiet spaces and prayer rooms — not for phone calls!
  • Broadly communicate an enforced code of conduct
  • Partner newcomers with mentors, especially from the same region or language
  • Work to make sure you have a wide definition of diversity represented on stage
  • Include workshops or talks with actionable ways to increase diversity and belonging

Perhaps even more impactful than allyship in an open source community or event, is learning how to be an ally within your organization. This is something GitLab almost uniquely prioritizes, even having its own Ally Lab, “which is a buddy system, where if one person is learning to experience new cultures, and they’ll get paired up with somebody from another part of the world, and they’ll learn together,” Khalid explained. “It’s a great way to build connection in a remote company, but also allow people to learn more and educate themselves about experiences.”

Even before you’ve joined, when you’re in the interview process at GitLab, you are welcome to request to speak to anyone from the employee resource group (ERG) that you identify with. “To better understand the culture at the company, before I joined, I asked to speak with someone from the Women’s ERG.” She explained that it wasn’t an interview, “but it’s an opportunity to learn about the culture and the way that people interact within the company.” She’s also a member of the Asian ERG, which includes remote gatherings to celebrate holidays together, as well as the Global ERG, which, as someone based in the U.S., she says she is more listening in.

Beyond this great conversation, Khalid offered the audience of the Open Source Summit commitments to keep in what she calls your “Allyship knapsack.” Read these out regularly to remind yourself of these commitments on your journey to being a better ally:

  • I can educate myself about the experiences and perspectives of marginalized groups, and listen to those groups when they speak.
  • I can speak up when I hear someone saying something racist or inappropriate.
  • I can use my voice, my time, and my platform to amplify marginalized voices by sharing their work, promoting their ideas and helping to create more opportunities for them.
  • I can donate my money to organizations that work to support marginalized groups.
  • I can use my social networks and my connections to advocate for policies and practices that promote equity and justice.

But, as she mentioned, these commitments can feel a bit abstract, so she then shared with the audience five times when she witnessed real-life examples of allyship:

  • Her manager encourages Khalid to speak up and share her ideas in meetings — which in turn encourages her teammates to listen.
  • A white, male co-worker withdraws from speaking at an un-diverse event, explaining why and offering to find more speakers from under-represented groups.
  • At an airport, a Black woman stands up for Khalid, when she was a victim of Islamophobic slurs.
  • After a team dinner runs late, a coworker offers to walk her back to her hotel.
  • At a conference, several community members reported a code of conduct violation when they witnessed a situation where Khalid was visibly uncomfortable.

“I hope that from today onwards, you’ll choose to embrace allyship as one part of your identity as well because we all have the power to make positive change in our communities,” Khalid closed out her keynote. “And we can do that by choosing to be allies.”

More Episodes from Open Source Summit EU 2023

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Integrating a Data Warehouse and a Data Lake

WebAssembly’s Status in Computing

PostgreSQL Takes a New Turn

Powertools for AWS Lambda Grows with Help of Volunteers

Open Source Development Threatened in Europe

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