Sam Berman on This Year's #TechInclusion in New York
By Sam Berman
When I first read about the Tech Inclusion conference, I was thrilled to find an event devoted to so many things I feel deeply passionate about. I haven’t been to many tech conferences, so the fact that there weren’t many details available about who would be speaking only served to heighten the allure. My excitement was amplified a few days after that, when I found out Diversability would be providing my ticket for me. I didn’t know entirely what to expect, but what I experienced once I arrived at the Viacom office wasn’t entirely expected.
Over the course of the next 8 hours, we learned from a different presenter or group of panelists about every 10-20 minutes, with topics ranging from gifs to entrepreneurship. Even with that broad range of discussion topics, one common theme poked through the surface periodically, tying everything together like a needle and thread: Media and technology are deeply pervasive in society and have a profound impact not only on culture but on each other. It is essential to have diversity and inclusion in both of these fields because this creates better content, products, and services. It is important for people of varying races, sexes, gender identities and abilities to see other people like them already working in the industry because this is precisely what increases diversity and inclusion, not only in these industries, but in society as a whole. These notions seemed to be a driving force behind the conference as a whole.
I was still waking up and the first panel was already discussing the importance of diversity and inclusion in the media and tech industries. As this panel ended, the moderator of the second panel, Melissa Jun Rowley, was introduced and walked onto the stage. She introduced a group of 15 and 16 year-olds, who the audience would soon find out were already working either as developers or as program organizers for organizations such as Black Girls Code. Almost immediately, I was struck with how articulate Olivia Ross, Boubacar Diallo, and Ibrahim Diallo were. They responded to questions that I wasn't even sure how I would answer. I was particularly impressed with Olivia, who spoke about how she valued art as a mechanism for social change and described that she is "looking forward to becoming an expert in my field." Jasmyn Lawson of GIPHY delivered a short but entertaining and engaging presentation on the impact that gifs have on culture. I didn't realize just how pervasive gifs are as a form of media consumption, but with 100 million daily active users, over 1 billion gifs are viewed daily. It is one of the most popular forms of media consumption right now and as such it is incredibly important to portray equal representation of all people. The next panel consisted of five people, four of whom worked at some of Viacom's television networks plus one person from Twitter. This panel dug deeper into the intersection of media and tech, discussing the interconnectedness of these fields. The panelists described how creative professionals and technical professionals can benefit from each other. Their distinctive expertise can complement the other's. One of the panelists described an encounter he had with Ron Howard. Ron was discussing the opportunity he was given to direct an upcoming Star Wars movie, but was frustrated that the franchise wants him to use physical props in the filming process. Although physical props may be perceived as more authentic and true to the original films, they slow Ron's process down. Technology not only allows Ron Howard to work faster, but to more easily fine tune what's being filmed.
As the day rolled forward, panelists and presenters changed about every ten minutes. It was intense and deeply enlightening. Inevitably, some of the details have been lost to the passage of time. Jennifer Brown laid out some fascinating statistical nuggets she discovered during her research into how the tenets of diversity and inclusion play out in corporate workplaces. This was a great counter to a conversation that took place a little later between Liz Gray of The Female Quotient and Brooke Hinton of Refinery29, who discussed a research study Refinery29 had conducted, surveying a representative swath of the general public, comparing their stated beliefs regarding equality to their actions. The gist of this research is that a considerably larger number of people say that they believe in equality than actually act on those beliefs. Just before lunch, Wayne Sutton, co-founder of Change Catalyst took the stage to introduce New York Daily News’s Senior Justice Writer, Shaun King. This was one of the most highly anticipated discussions of the day. King has made a name for himself exposing arbiters of hate on the internet. True to form, they chatted about the role the internet plays in denouncing hate. Shaun described how he doesn’t necessarily like sharing the graphic images of people being violently attacked, but he does it because usually it’s the family of the victims that ask him to share the images and because sharing them is the most viable way to unite people against intolerance. This confrontation is a necessary form of “non-traditional justice,” which is essential when police and government officials aren’t doing their jobs. He continued to carefully distinguish that it’s the content of the images that’s offensive, not the photos and videos themselves. In an ideal world, he wouldn’t share them, but he does so to serve a larger cause. Attempting to bring evildoers to justice is a way of honoring the victims.
That afternoon, a diverse group of business owners, entrepreneurs, designers, developers, educators, and government officials took turns describing how and why they were using their positions of power to implement strategies that promote diversity and inclusion. The first panel to take the stage after lunch consisted of two female and two male venture capitalists discussing the challenges faced by underrepresented entrepreneurs seeking funding for their young businesses. A group of software engineers and administrators from Viacom and Hustle took the stage next to discuss the importance of building a diverse workforce. Isis Anchalee, Tereza Shterenberg, Aurelie Gaudry, and Diego J. Medina described how building a diverse team ultimately allows a company to build better products and services. This was a great conversation, however, what was most notable to me about it was how disinterested the moderator seemed. Throughout the panel, they could be seen staring at their phone and when they did engage with the panelists, the remarks were passive and insubstantial. I found this incredibly distracting and unfortunate. The next panel, a group of investors and founders from different organizations based in Harlem, outlined why Harlem makes a great home for young tech businesses. It was extremely engaging and uplifting to hear people from my own city passionately and proudly talking about the work they do to stimulate the economy of this historically African-American community. A group of government representatives on the local and federal levels followed, chatting about the role that government has in empowering individual representation and how leveraging technology has a dramatic positive impact in doing so.
There were a number of other powerful conversations and presentations that took place on the stage that day, but calling out every single one would make for a long and boring post. I would rather dive into my commentary and ultimately, my takeaways from the event. One group of people notably underrepresented at Tech Inclusion were people with disabilities. This exemplifies to me a larger systemic problem in that so frequently when conversations turn to diversity and inclusion, the focus is on gender and racial equality. If the disabilities community gets any attention in these conversations, it’s an afterthought, and even then it’s usually the person with a disability calling attention to that in the conversation. One audience member with a disability raised this concern to one group of panelists, critiquing “[The phrase] should be diversity and accessibility, not diversity and inclusion.” The implication being that inclusion is a theoretical concept, whereas accessibility connotes actions being taken. Of the 8 hours of presentations, there were only two 10-minute talks geared towards people with disabilities. Thomas Logan described the importance of making virtual reality experiences accessible and Xian Horn shared how her father’s portrayals of persistence and resilience helped her overcome adversity. It was also interesting to see that although the event organizers asked someone with a mobility impairment to speak, they didn’t provide a ramp to the stage. While this was the case, the subject matter discussed over the course of the day was broad-ranging and presented by a largely diverse group of people. Additionally, almost everyone was genuinely interested in having an open and honest dialogue about diversity and inclusion. This was typified when an audience member asked one group of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists what they are doing to be more inclusive to business owners and aspiring business owners with disabilities. The response from one of these panelists was along the lines of “Not enough. I work with a lot of veterans who have disabilities, but I haven’t thought about the disabilities community more broadly.” That type of honesty is both underappreciated and undervalued.
One speaker offered a criticism that is worth mentioning because not only was it a little offbeat, but it made me think about the diversity issue from a different perspective. Bryson Gordon stated, “There aren’t enough straight, white men in the audience.” He didn’t say this to perpetuate the struggles women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and people with disabilities have historically faced, he said it to point out the fact that as important as it is for for these marginalized communities to gather and speak out, it’s just as important to engage those people who have historically held power because involving these people allows for making these positive changes we talk about easier and farther reaching. This remark was also intriguing to me because it spoke to the nuances of identity. I am a straight, white male, but I am also disabled, jewish, and a feminist. There isn’t one identity that supersedes the rest, and the fact that I have light skin doesn’t make my beliefs and opinions any less valuable or worth contributing. There was one person who spoke on 2 different panels and would frequently ask questions from the audience, who seemed very quick to dismiss ideas shared by white men and women. This attitude is just as problematic as the historical discrimination faced by women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and people with disabilities. If we want to solve this problem, we have to truly treat everyone equally and not act as if singular white men represent all white men.
At the end of the day, the Change Catalyst co-founders, Melinda Briana Epler and Wayne Sutton, got onstage, asking everyone to take a moment to think about what they heard and saw that day and how they we would act on it. The idea being that it doesn’t do enough good to get together for the day and talk about diversity and inclusion (and accessibility!), we have to take action. At some point during the subsequent happy hour, Melinda Briana Epler walked right up to me and said “hello.” We spent the next 15 or so minutes talking about writing. One of my biggest takeaways was that, no matter how insecure I may feel about myself and my story, I have to continue sharing more aspects of it, and share more frequently. The talks at Tech Inclusion were deeply thought provoking and enlightening. Hearing people speak so passionately and confidently about diversity, inclusion, and accessibility makes me feel so optimistic for a future in which these ideas are mainstream. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to attend and am already looking forward to next year’s conference.