How to make your speaker line up more diverse

An organiser of the London Node User Group requested feedback on how to get more members of minorities to speak at their event. This is my contribution … which happens to possibly apply to any other event who wants to get a bit more diverse:

Hi!

Excuse me for crashing into the discussion, but as someone who’s a “minority” and has also been invited to many conferences on the basis of “being a minority”, I feel like I know a bit or two about this 🙂

(Disclaimer: I’ve been a couple times to LNUG so it’s not a total kool-aid-man convo-crash, ok?)

If you want to get people from minorities to speak on your event, you’ll have to do outreach. It’s as simple as that. Putting an ad that says “hey, minorities welcome” on your site is nice to start with, but having the most previous speakers being white guys will send a message of “oh, yeah, we have a problem, but we’d like you, member of a minority, to fix this for us”. So yes, you need to be encouraging, but you also need to do the hard work.

What this means is that you’re going to have to cultivate your networks and include more members of minorities on them so your network grows. You’re going to put a lot of energy on this. You’re also going to be amazed when this works. And surprised and confused when people tell you to f*ck off—specially if you just approach them because they’re a minority.

Why? Because you really need to learn about them, not take the laziest approach. What are they doing in their professional life? Why should they be speakers? What is it they work on that could provide a unique insight to the meetup? And no, the answer is not that they are a member of a minority.

This is going to take an awful amount of time. But it’s the right thing to do. So—kudos to you for realising you have a problem! Well done! 🙌

And now you need to start the work. Thankfully, the Internet exists and it can help you grow your network and educate yourself:

  • If you don’t know members of minorities, look at the websites of existing conferences or meetups. Look for minorities. See if any of them are in your area. Maybe they are going to speak at a local meetup? Then attend it. Watch their talk. If not, watch their talks online. See if they would be a good match for your meetup. If so, make a note.
  • While you’re on that, also follow them on their blog/twitter/facebook/wherever it is they put their online presence. See what they talk about when they’re not giving a talk. See who they talk to. Minorities tend to talk to minorities (although in their context, they might be the majorities). Learn. Don’t interrupt. Listen an awful lot. Learn more. Maybe the thing they talked about in a meetup isn’t even remotely as interesting as the other things they talk about normally with their friends. You’ll find lots of things you don’t understand if you are not friends with minorities already, so use your favourite search engine to find info about things that puzzle you. Don’t ask minorities to educate you. Do your homework.
  • If you don’t know where to start, there are people on twitter compiling lists like “women in tech”, “poc in tech”, “lgbt in tech”, and so on. Follow a list and also maybe thank the creator because they’ve done an amazing lot of work for you already.
  • Once you know what these new interesting people do, it’s the time to invite them!
  • When you invite people don’t tell them things like the following because you’ll look so freakingly lazy that it’ll be a miracle you get an answer:
    • “hi you’re an awesome female/POC/minority developer can you give a talk at our meetup?”
    • “hi I saw you do node, can you talk about it in our meetup?”
    • etc
  • Instead, tell them what you saw they talked/wrote about and why you’re interested in hearing about it in your meetup. E.g.:
    • “hi, I saw your talk on doing art with node.js and I thought this could be a really interesting topic for our local node.js meetup”
    • “hi, we’ve been running a series of talks on modular frameworks and I thought your talk about frameworks could be a good conclusion to wrap the series”
    • etc…
  • Don’t be fixated on the topic. Make it clear that this is a suggestion, not a requirement. Sometimes people have ideas for a new talk and would love to try them out in a local meetup before submitting to a conference. Tell them you’d be open about this, it makes things more interesting and welcoming!
  • If they say no, don’t be offended. Members of minorities are also at a disadvantage when it comes to things such as free time, so attending a meetup to talk for free is a precious extravaganza few can afford. Some people can barely afford tube tickets!
  • Also, don’t ask them to get you in touch with more people of minorities, because they have better things to do than your own outreach work. If they do offer to do that spontaneously, thank them! Because that is a very nice and expensive gesture on their part.

The above is about people who already have spoken or have put their thoughts online and maybe have got the attention somehow. But you might also want to use your meetup to discover and catapult (not literally!) new speakers. One way to do this is to talk to people of minorities in the meetup, and get to know what they do. Oftentimes you’ll realise that you have amazingly skilled attendees, but you never paid attention to them because your biases were blinding you. That woman sitting quietly in a corner? Not a recruiter–actually the head of development at an agency doing amazing 3D stuff on the browser. The POC nodding as the speaker’s laptop crashes? Lead developer at a company that specialises in aggregating crash data. And so on.

Speaking to people of minorities at meetups without appearing like a total weirdo is quite hard, it turns out. But you could start by bias-checking yourself, and doing simple things such as welcoming visitors if it’s the first time they join you, introducing yourself, asking them “what do you do?” instead of starting with a bias-loaded question like “so, are you a designer?”. And then make a mental note of that, don’t force the conversation too much, and try to remember next time you see them. And build a network gradually. You don’t want to freak people by interrogating them the first time you meet them, or they’ll never go back.

The more varied and diverse your meetup is, the more attractive it will be for people from minorities.

Jed also wrote a very interesting guide about how they have grown their meetup to be welcoming and inclusive: https://github.com/jed/building-brooklynjs

Phew! This is a lot of text already and I have barely started. I hope it gives you some ideas. Also hope to be able to join the meetups some time this year! I’ll be observing to see if you’re putting this in practice 😉

2 Replies to “How to make your speaker line up more diverse”

  1. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this.

    It’s a very generous, kind-hearted, and clear-sighted “getting started” primer for diversifying an individual or professional social network.

    I’ve met a number of well-intentioned individuals–particularly, white heterosexual cis men–who know they’re involved in organizations that are painfully and unhelpfully homogenous, but they genuinely have no idea how to begin pragmatically addressing the issue.

    These people are fully capable of doing research and problem-solving in general, but sometimes these very first few steps toward increasing diversity are difficult to conceptualize.

    When the images of white male coders and white male leadership are so deeply embedded in the public consciousness as “default settings,” it can be quite difficult for individuals who have never known otherwise to recognize the pervasive way in which a “default setting” unconsciously guides their every day choices.

    In any case, I’ve already shared this post with a few people that previously asked me for advice about this topic. Thanks again!

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