A question has lingered in my mind lately: how to achieve true inclusion in technology without excessive gatekeeping? This discussion started on the Mentors and Coordinators mailing list when multiple people debated about our current selection process in the initial application. In case you don’t recall all steps required to follow on Outreachy currently, here is a brief summary:
Before candidates can see the complete project list, select the ones they would like to work on and contact their possible mentors, they have to fill a form disclosing information about their current time commitments and answer a few essay questions. Those answers, and any further information they provide, are the tools we use to judge if the applicant (1) has faced systemic bias and/or discrimination and (2) belongs to an underrepresented group in technology. I’ve written about the challenges of the process to distinguish discrimination and/or systemic bias from hardships on the Improving decision-making when reviewing applications report, but mentors and coordinators introduced some valuable points to this debate.
Describing everything you’ve lived as a minority is an emotionally taxing process that many may find themselves incapable of doing. Being required to write about your own story could force you to relive traumatic experiences, and that could prevent many people who rightfully deserve an opportunity like Outreachy from being heard, understood, and welcomed. I can see this impacting the participation of especially vulnerable groups like neurodivergent people.
Another problem is finding a balance between legal requirements that may prevent us from approving applicants that don’t recognize in their life experiences multiple instances of discrimination and/or systemic bias, though it is clear they do belong to an underrepresented group in tech; and reaching those in need. It took me a long time to come to terms with my identity, and to understand the extent of the damage discrimination and systemic bias provoked in my life. Is it really fair to exclude those who aren’t aware of the limitations society imposes to them for being who they are?
I don’t have easy, uncomplicated answers to those questions. And it’s harder to reach a fair verdict the more informal an outreach program is.
I wrote a call for action for the Portuguese tech community in an essay called In defense of a greater inclusion (Em defesa de uma maior inclusão in Portuguese). In response, many groups which defined themselves as initiatives focused on women only started to review their scope and started to adopt the name “Diversity”: Linux Chix became Diversity.linux; Rails Girls switched to Diversity.rb; a group extremely involved with Python adopted the name Diversity.py, while another focused on UX chose Diversity.ux; and the main group created to join forces was called Diversity.co. However, all of that movement is happening on Telegram groups. While essay questions make sense in a formal program such as Outreachy, it isn’t a satisfactory solution for us in this case.
A thoughtful resolution is yet to be seen.
Aim for the best you can do
Evidently, solving discrimination and systemic bias for once involves so much more than offering internship opportunities. Outreachy has a relatively specific public: those who are able to overcome many barriers, despite a hostile society. But that’s no demerit, in my opinion—there is only so much we are capable of doing with limited resources.
That’s a unpleasant lesson to learn, especially when we talk about individual efforts. When you are a person from underrepresented groups with relative professional success, you feel responsible for dedicating tears and blood to inclusive initiatives. You recognize that while you certainly are a hard-working person, much of your success was due to luck—else, anyone with the same background as you could obtain the similar results. And this causes many of us to get burned out, and/or to slowly drown ourselves in depression as we realize we can’t in fact change as many things we wish we could. That is a feeling that has haunted me lately, especially as I watch my country being engulfed in a wave of conservatism and bigotry that might not end soon.
Therefore it seems to me that the most sensible approach isn’t just asking ourselves how to promote true inclusion, or how to resolve remarkably challenging things, but primarily “what is the best we can do at the moment?” and “how can we improve?”.
Outreachy seems to be taking a few steps towards that.
After two rounds of intense application review, organizers are thinking about changing Outreachy’s timeline a bit. Instead of having the initial application period and the contribution period running at the same time, they could be two separated processes with their own deadlines. This may be a good solution to prevent the submission of initial applications too late, and frustration from every party involved in the internship program. I appreciate this idea. It requires a few adjustments before being completely implemented, but I believe it offers a more stable environment for every party involved in the selection process than the current format.
Outreachy will announce the next cohort of interns soon. I’m looking forward to welcoming them, listen to their stories and witness them succeeding in the open source world.