Diversity in Tech: Proximity is not Inclusion.

On my LinkedIn profile picture I have a picture of myself standing outside my family’s village home. Our village home is in the outskirts hours away from the nearest metropolitan city and removed from most of life’s “first-world” conveniences, but to me it represents a part of me that makes me feel human.

Likewise the professional headline on my LinkedIn page over the months has subtly shifted from “Software Engineer” to a “A human being who likes to write good software”. In conversations I now seldom refer to myself as a “Software Engineer” but rather I simply say “I write Software”. If it’s not obvious yet: In a field where I’m underrepresented, (perhaps even in society) where I’m the “other”, I’m highlighting what matters the most to me — my humanity. #MyHumanityMatters

Humanity matters so deeply to me because like many other minorities I’ve encountered I’ve learned how to mask my humanity — the genuine me — in order to be acceptable in professional and academic institutions where I am a minority. My life has been groomed to play the game. Yes as minorities we know the routine. We know the double speak. We know how to consciously shift our tone and how to take extra precautions to seem non-threatening.

A few years ago I once had an African immigrant vendor who took a liking to me advise me that even if I’m misunderstood or experience microagressions in the work place to never question it, just accept it and collect my paycheck. We’ve heard of men and women who’ve missed out on business opportunities due to harmless cultural expressions (dreadlocks, dashikis, braids, afros). As minorities we’re well familiar with the emotionally draining games and the many well meaning lectures family and friends have given us that encourage us to take on great discomfort to mask our genuine selves so others around us may feel comfortable. Without a sense of humanity, or Ubuntu it’s difficult to thrive whether it be in tech or society in general.

Besides the training and recruiting of underrepresented groups being insufficient, another cause for underrepresentation is a lack of community. I can recall a few years ago in college I spent most of my time at the library reading anthropology, sociology and history books about Africans in Africa and in the Diaspora (Cuba, Brazil, Colombia, U.S. etc.,) more than my actual program. Although I was in an Engineering program at most times I felt isolated as if I didn’t belong. I was in proximity to knowledgeable professors and intelligent students but I still lacked a human connection with them. Proximity in and of itself isn’t inclusion. Sometimes it’s a lack of community that prevents minorities from participating, advancing in the tech world or seeing the tech-world as a fulfilling community.

When one questions their importance in a community they avoid participation and any contribution. Not surprisingly more and more I became less involved in my studies and found fulfillment in art, music and history studies that asserted my humanity. The success of modern technology, especially technology spurred by Open-Source (Ubuntu for ex), has always been the community. Likewise the success of an individual in the tech world is the community empowering the individual. There aren’t any shortcuts around increasing minority representation in tech — As minorities we need such a foundation and a sense of community in order for us to be successful.

So how does one build an inclusive community? At its core inclusion is about a community including a being as a whole. It’s about a community dignifying someone’s perspectives, experiences and giving importance to them and their personal growth. My parents call it “Ubuntu” an African Philosophy popularized by Mandela with such sayings as “A village raises a child”. It’s a shift of thinking that suggests an individual’s success is also a responsibility of the community. In turn a community’s success is also a responsibility of the individual.

I recently went to a tech expo last year where I was one of the only three black people I observed in three days. This wasn’t a problem, however, because I quickly made friends. Some of the attendees talked to me in depth, asked me meaningful questions about my projects, my interests, my personal background, were I lacked some technical depth they pointed me to the right resources and patiently answered my questions — we exchanged contact information and even had few laughs. Thank you Nginx!

Including members of diverse groups into your company, your institution or one’s worldview doesn’t necessarily make either grow. Companies, institutions and individuals only grow when they consciously expand themselves into another’s world and learn from another’s experiences. It’s not about reaching diversity quotas, but in doing so companies must make the conscious effort to encourage the minority’s sense of well being. It requires the non-minority as not imposing her experiences as the “default” but instead dignifying the other’s experiences and actively including them in a way that respects the other’s values and sense of worth.

At my current workplace, a small startup, my coworkers have taken commendable measures to ensuring my emotional, spiritual and social needs are met — From a Yogi I get to consult twice a week to taking as much time to visiting my family back in the African mainland (an activity of significant importance and learning to me) to the time the company as a whole boycotted a local business that had treated me unfairly due to the way I looked. This is a start in what it means to include a being as a whole — dignifying someone’s experiences.

As minorities we’re breaking into a field that historically has focused on the needs and culture of a single community. Sometimes we spend years learning how to navigate this community and its culture, however the process can be made easier. Sarah Sharp in a blog post talks about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in “in what makes a good tech community” .

In conclusion, when a community actively supports and encourages its underrepresented members it’s the type of inclusion that benefits everyone involved.