Posted: Thu, December 03, 2020 - 3:59:05
We are writing this blog post as a response to the discussions about exclusion and oppression within SIGCHI that occurred on the Interactions blog in summer 2020, and a call for respect, inclusion, fairness, and transparency in SIGCHI. Our collective, fempower.tech, started the #CHIversity campaign at the 2017 Human Factors in Computing (CHI) conference because we didn’t feel welcome in previous years . Through this, we created our own space within SIGCHI. We are one of many groups working to make SIGCHI more inclusive and welcoming to everyone who wants to be a part of this community. SIGCHI is a volunteer-led organization that is not only shaped by elected leaders but also by community members who care. Over time, communities create their own ways of working to make changes in their organizations. Sub-communities form when individuals or groups don’t see themselves represented or fitting in to the larger community.
Grassroots groups like AccessSIGCHI or fempower.tech and formalized groups like the Realizing that All Can be Equal (R.A.C.E.) team do this work because we hope SIGCHI can be better. However, when these groups take actions, in some cases encouraged by SIGCHI leaders, they can encounter opposition, disapproval, and accusations of wrongdoing. For example, the R.A.C.E. inclusion team recently explained how the SIGCHI Executive Committee (EC) halted their diversity and inclusion work , and Jen Mankoff discussed how the EC hampered her efforts to address accessibility issues in the community by suggesting she violated ACM policy . Based on these descriptions, as well as the experiences that some fempower.tech members have had while doing inclusion-related work in the SIGCHI community, we as fempower.tech observe a pattern that suggests that those holding power to make decisions in SIGCHI do not value community-driven inclusion efforts.
When grassroots or formalized groups have worked to build a more supportive community for themselves, the SIGCHI EC has sometimes responded in hostile ways that undermine or proactively stop these volunteer efforts (as described in the preceding paragraph). We believe that a volunteer-led organization should be open to engage with community efforts to improve situations for those who experience marginalization. We are disappointed that SIGCHI has repeatedly failed to choose a more constructive and responsive approach when engaging with community efforts.
Jen Mankoff’s post reminds us that marginalization and oppression are not one-time, isolated experiences. They are systemic concerns that affect people’s everyday existence. Many are working to make changes, formally and informally, to dismantle the barriers of racism, ableism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. Groups like the Inclusion Teams, SIGCHI CARES, AccessSIGCHI, or the CHI2019 Allyship initiative offered hope that SIGCHI wanted to tackle problems related to marginalization. Yet, by stating that the R.A.C.E. inclusion team and Jen Mankoff, an AccessSIGCHI leader, had violated ACM policy, the EC appeared to undermine its own efforts. Members of fempower.tech who are part of equity-seeking groups have experienced similar (micro)aggressions and scapegoating. This has led us to feel used, unsupported, or unwelcome at meetings and/or conferences.
Creating or supporting initiatives led by people from marginalized groups—and then challenging their work—exploits the good intentions and beliefs of SIGCHI leaders, members, and volunteers who are trying to make positive change. This erodes trust and damages communities already experiencing marginalization. What is especially unsettling about the R.A.C.E. team’s experience is that the people who were doing the work that the institution requested were undermined when their efforts gained traction in the community . Indeed, SIGCHI has repeatedly started inclusion-related projects without providing them a clear path to success. Through these actions, SIGCHI has let its members down, time and time again.
Scholar Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt notes that “failing to interrogate institutional decision-making processes while claiming to work towards social justice” is one way individuals (un)consciously sustain white supremacy . When organizations apply their rules inconsistently, in ways that silence volunteers and activists without decision-making power, they not only perpetuate the status quo but also actively harm movements toward more just, caring, and inclusive communities.
How can we make changes in an organization that seems to repeatedly move in a more inclusive direction only to undermine such efforts? For example, the lack of year-to-year continuity between conference organization and new initiatives makes it seem that the work and energy that volunteers expend to make improvements in one year is not valued in the next. Instead of expecting people in leadership roles to make these decisions, community negotiations could decide which initiatives need to be carried forward.
We advocate for structural change that recognizes the interlocking nature of marginalizations. Such change requires a combination of: sustainable resourcing for initiatives such as the Inclusion Teams, SIGCHI CARES, and the Allyship program; individuals unlearning harmful behaviors; better communication with the community; and grassroots activism having pathways to hold governing bodies to account. We urge that these groups be given the necessary, equitable resources and support to ensure their efforts toward a more inclusive SIGCHI are sustainable and equipped to alter old structures. This means official inclusion-related groups must have the power to hold the EC and other bodies’ decision-making processes accountable. Finally, the EC and other governing groups must have the will to enact the changes these groups recommend.
Change is challenging, and the work of volunteering is not equitable, especially across a group as diverse as SIGCHI consisting of students, precariously employed researchers, professionals, and faculty. Given this, the best way forward for our community is to heed the various calls to action which liberate us all . This requires work from the EC and other formalized SIGCHI bodies. It requires them to take our caring critique of their systems seriously and to behave in ways that support rather than harm those already experiencing marginalization. As we said at the beginning of this article, we critique and actively work to improve structures for those of us who experience marginalization precisely because we care about this community and hope it can help all of us thrive. As fempower.tech, we want to work with the SIGCHI community as a whole: grassroots activists, international members, formal advocacy groups, and the EC. We need collective action and concrete changes: no more relying on individuals and incrementalism. Indeed, “change happens slowly” is a narrative that centers those closest to power rather than those experiencing harm.
Many of the requests that others have made [2,3,6,7] and that we amplify are not impossible demands or blue-sky thinking. They are what should be the baseline in just systems. SIGCHI’s own mission and vision statements say as much:
SIGCHI MISSION : ACM SIGCHI facilitates an environment where its members can invent and develop novel technologies and tools, explore how technology impacts people’s lives, inform public policy, and design new interaction techniques and interfaces. We are an interdisciplinary field comprising academics, practitioners, and educators, and we welcome a variety of approaches to solve these complex problems. The mission of ACM SIGCHI is to support the professional growth of its members who are interested in how people interact with technologies and how technology changes society.
SIGCHI VISION: We aim to enhance our members’ ability to innovate and understand technologies for the greater public good.
With this blog post, we join others who want to help SIGCHI achieve its vision of supporting the greater public good. We as fempower.tech ask that SIGCHI meet grassroots and formalized groups with respect and equality rather than opposition and aggression. In short, we ask that SIGCHI work toward realizing the mission and vision that it celebrates itself as already doing.
1. Strohmayer, A., Bellini, R., Meissner, J., Mitchell Finnigan, S., Alabdulqader, E., Toombs, A., and Balaam, M. #CHIversity: Implications for equality, diversity, and inclusion campaigns. Extended Abstracts of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, NY, USA, Paper alt03, 1–10; https://doi.org/10.1145/3170427.31883962. Grady, S.D., Wisniewski, P., Metoyer, R., Gibbs, P., Badillo-Urquiola, K., Elsayed-Ali, S., and Yafi, E. Addressing institutional racism within initiatives for SIGCHI’s diversity and inclusion. Interactions blog. Jun. 11, 2020; https://interactions.acm.org/blog/view/addressing-institutional-racism-within-initiatives-for-sigchis-diversity-an
3. Mankoff, J. A challenging response. Interactions blog. Jun. 17, 2020; https://interactions.acm.org/blog/view/a-challenging-response
4. Dutt-Ballerstadt, R. A checklist to determine if you are supporting white supremacy. Inside Higher Ed. Jan. 12, 2018; https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2018/01/12/checklist-determine-if-you-are-supporting-white-supremacy-opinion
5. Irani, L. “A call to action for the ACM” liberates all of us. Interactions blog. Jun. 29, 2020; https://interactions.acm.org/blog/view/a-call-to-action-for-the-acm-liberates-all-of-us
6. Harrington, C., Rankin, Y., Jones, J., Brewer, R., Erete, S., Dillahunt, T., and Brown, Q. A call to action for the ACM. Interactions blog. Jun. 22, 2020; https://interactions.acm.org/blog/view/a-call-to-action-for-the-acm
7. Rankin, Y.A., and Thomas, J. Straighten up and fly right: Rethinking intersectionality in HCI research. Interactions 26, 6 (2019), 64–68; https://doi.org/10.1145/3363033
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