On explicitly welcoming participants to your open source projects


This week at OSCON, Kirrily Robert, a/k/a Skud, gave a great keynote (slides, video) about women in open source, and how projects can improve by welcoming these potential contributors.

I loved it, and not just because of the importance of equality in society in general. From the sake of the quality of our projects, we need to keep the welcoming not only to women, but to everyone who might feel excluded from contributing. Contributing could mean anything from submitting code to answering mailing list questions to writing docs. Most specifically, it does not only mean writing code.

Skud worked on two projects that were specifically aimed at and populated predominantly women. She surveyed the project members, the comments she received from project members are telling, such as "I didn't feel like I was wanted" and "I never got the impression that outsiders were welcome."

I hope that I've never given anyone that impression on my projects. While I've always welcomed contributions from everyone, I've never explicitly stated it. I think it's time for that to change.

I've adapted part of the Dreamwidth diversity statement into what I'm calling, for now, a "welcoming statement." My plan is to put this on every module I maintain:

The (foo) project welcomes people of any ability level, age, social stratus, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, political opinion or physical aspect. The only requirements for participation in the project are basic civility and respect for others.

I also want to put that here on Perlbuzz as well, with additional wording about my editorial policies as far as what I'll run and won't.

I'm interested in suggestions you might have for improving my welcoming statement.


(Here via Skud's link)

One of the pitfalls Dreamwidth ran into with a similar wording for gender was transgendered and other people outside the binary male/female view of gender read it as "You can be male or female, we don't care which, but you have to be one of those." Feedback from that community was what led to the phrase "gender identity or expression" being worked in.

I'd change the order of the welcome statement - put civility and respect first :)

I like azurelunatic's suggestion. While the "world at large" may not be in tune with transgender/gender identity issues, I think our tech community has a relevant minority that will appreciate acknowledgment and can be strong allies when building diversity in communities.

<pedantry type='language/latin'>I think you want "stratum" rather than "stratus".</pedantry>

Without meaning to trample on anyone's sensibilities, I wonder if there's a point beyond which exhaustive lists of identity groups start to work against the goal of creating a welcoming atmosphere.

My impression is that lists like that derive from legalese; i.e., they usually appear, in job listings or on break-room walls, specifically as a CYA measure or to comply with legislation. Not the warmest or most personable of origins.

All it needs is an "including, but not limited to" prefix and it might as well be a standard clause in a 12-page ToS document that no one reads.

Maybe you could just say something like "Project [foo] welcomes all civil and respectful contributors."

This gets the point across without potentially offending anyone by omission.

I like the "civil and respectful contributors" line. The laundry list of unique characteristics bores me like boilerplate legalese. I know its intent and I agree with its intent, but I appreciate more the simplicity of the "Be nice to others" guideline.

Some of the laundry list needs to be there, most specifically "age" and "technical ability." Maybe I'll start with that, a few other pieces of laundry and leave it at that.

But Selena nailed it that respect for others has to be at the top.

The reason for adding the "laundry list" of explicit welcome is that the default in our society (not just open source, but everywhere) is assumed to be straight, white, able-bodied, middle-to-upper-class male. If you don't specify otherwise, your readers assume that's who you mean. (This is most tellingly illustrated in fiction: if an author doesn't describe his or her protagonist, readers will not read the protagonist as "just like them"; they will assume the protagonist is a straight white male, even if the reader isn't.)

By providing the list of characteristics you welcome explicitly, you are, in essence, saying "hey, I'm aware that these characteristics exist, that we are not all straight white men, and I/we are making the promise that we're going to be aware of and sensitive towards techniques and rhetorical devices historically used to suppress the contributions and value of the nonprivileged."

For people who are used to armoring themselves against a world that doesn't acknowledge they exist, an explicit welcome like that means a lot. Just seeing yourself reflected in print is a powerful moment.

@Denise, I'm wondering if your argument extends beyond an American context.

Do teenage girls in Japan, for example, imagine the protagonists of novels as straight white males? Or Indian ex-pats living in Abu Dhabi? (that's roughly the profile of a friend of mine)

Benjamin, while I can't specifically speak to your example of teenage girls in Japan, you might find this post I cam across a while back interesting:


@webmaven, thanks, that was very interesting. "I have half a tongue" was particularly poignant.

So it seems that for bookish upper-class Indians of a certain generation, at least, the Western outlook is inescapably imbued -- to some degree anyway.

I guess I mentioned teenage girls in Japan specifically because of what Denise said:

"the default in our society (not just open source, but everywhere) is assumed to be straight, white, able-bodied, middle-to-upper-class male."

And I got to wondering whether this statement of Denise's is itself basically "Euro/hetero-centric", if that's the appropriate term. What's "our society" anyway? In the context of open-source, the community is global, at least potentially.

So I continue to wonder whether statements like Denise's, and things like well-meaning laundry lists of identity groups, are potentially offensive, or at least baffling, to the several billion people on this planet who /weren't/ raised in a Western-European cultural milieu. Any one of whom is a potential contributor to an open-source project.

I just thought of something that *does* speak to Japanese teenage girls: Have you ever noticed that anime protagonists don't look Japanese, and are in fact almost invariably Caucasian (albeit frequently with technicolor hair and/or eyes)?

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