If you see that some aspect of your society is bad, and you want to improve it, there is only one way to do so: you have to improve people. And in order to improve people, you begin with only one thing: you can become better yourself.
For a long time, ever since my failed attempt at becoming a programmer, I wanted to have a local tech community of women I could teach, learn from and ask for/give support. So, about two and a half years ago, I made one.
I had heard about an organization called Girl Develop It that had started six months earlier in New York. It offered beginner programming classes with the goal of creating a welcoming, low-pressure learning environment. I wanted to do that. I arranged a phone call with one of the founders, Sara Chipps, and asked if I could start a chapter in Columbus, Ohio.
I had no idea what I was doing. I had a bit of experience organizing community groups, but only informally. I was completely unprepared to run classes, arrange schedules, find teachers, and eventually teach myself, all while ensuring that our primary mission stayed intact.
But I did it anyway. I poured time and effort into building up the program. I somehow found the people I needed, the space I needed. I started partnerships with local companies and community centers to sponsor our classes and meetups. I supported professionals new to teaching so they could learn how to guide people new to their field. I learned how to teach. I brought my daughter to my classes when I couldn’t find sitters and I learned how to live the life of being a single mother with a career and causes. I kept believing in what I was doing when plans fell through, when people I relied on disappeared, when I fell short of my goals.
I made mistakes. Sweet mother of Jack Kerouac, did I make mistakes. Slowly, I got better. I learned how to delegate and how to ask for help. I learned how to be tough when our mission was at stake. I learned that communication and collaboration with a dedicated group of people was the only way to build something new.
Now, two years down the road, I’m moving away from Columbus. I’ve transferred leadership to someone else. There is an entire team of people organizing the chapter now, some of whom started out as our students. They put their own time and effort into making our organization better and growing us even larger and stronger.
After the last class I taught, one of the students told me, “I was so scared to do this before class started, and now I feel really relieved and excited to learn this.” That was it. That was what I wanted to do. It wasn’t about getting people new jobs. It wasn’t about just raising the numbers of women in tech. Although we’ve taken steps towards both. This was, and is, about unlocking human potential. That’s it. That’s the most important thing in the world to me.
We’ve changed things. We’ve created something positive where there used to be nothing. We’ve made a community of women pushing their own boundaries while helping others to do the same. This city is different now because this exists. We made it that way.
Tonight I attended my last GDI Columbus monthly Hack Night, an event I started over a year ago to build community outside of our classes. Sometimes, in the beginning, the only people there were two or three organizers. But, now, we’ve finally gained critical mass, and, for the past few months, our hack nights have been full and vibrant. Beginners bring their projects, ask questions and get help. The more experienced in the community come to share their knowledge and passion. There is so much discussion, so much interaction. This community is thriving, completely independent of me.
I felt a little like I did watching my daughter go to school for the first time. You’re a success as a parent if your child grows into a healthy person independent of you. You’re a success as a leader if the people you brought together to fulfill a mission can still fulfill that mission without you.
I’m so proud.
And the best part is I know it’s really just getting started.
One writes of scars healed, a loose parallel to the pathology of the skin, but there is no such thing in the life of an individual. There are open wounds, shrunk sometimes to the size of a pin-prick but wounds still. The marks of suffering are more comparable to the loss of a finger, or of the sight of an eye. We may not miss them, either, for one minute in a year, but if we should there is nothing to be done about it.
Yesterday, I wanted to suggest a few self-taught women programmers for an interview series (which someone else is conducting). However, I wasn’t sure how many of them had learned their craft via non-traditional methods, so, rather than contacting everyone individually, I put the word out on Twitter. I thought that a handful of the women I know follow me would respond if they were interested in participating and fit the bill.
But I keep forgetting I have a wider reach on the internet than I used to. As of now, that tweet has 335 retweets, 27 favorites and more responses than I can count.
This, of course, is awesome and I’m so grateful for and impressed by the interest. Unfortunately, I can’t accomodate all of the responses for this particular interview series. But I have another venue for you to tell your stories.
A while back, I made the High Visibility Project, to highlight the stories of women in technology. I haven’t had the bandwidth to keep up with it, though, and it’s been languishing on my list of things to redesign and reboot. But, well, why miss an opportunity like this to give more women a platform? Let’s start the reboot right now. If you were interested being interviewed, I would like to formally invite you to submit your story to the High Visibility Project and help us build a repository for women’s stories. You can submit no matter what your skill level or background is. Also, if you’re just starting out, watching the videos there is a great way to figure out your own path.
There’s suddenly quite a lot going on. I have to capture it all in writing or it might scamper away from me. Here’s what I’m up to in the near future.
I’ve idly wished for a personal assistant off and on for a long time, and it finally makes financial and professional sense to try it out. So I’m officially looking for one on a virtual basis.
Things with which I would like assistance:
All work can be done via email and/or phone, so it doesn’t matter exactly where you are physically - however, I’m currently in the US in the Eastern time zone and will be moving in two months to the Central time zone, so sticking close to that would probably help us both out.
I think, right now, the amount of work would average around five hours a week, possibly more. If it works out well, that would probably increase. If you’re located in Chicago and would be willing to help with in-person organization, it would definitely increase.
If you’re interested in learning more about web development, I’d also be more than happy to make this an opportunity to learn about working in the field and to connect with people I know. If you don’t already know me on the internets, swing through my website or my Twitter profile to get a sense of what I do.
If you’d like to chat about it, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to tell me about your experience and rates.
Because we are human, because we are bound by gravity and the limitations of our bodies, because we live in a world where the news is often bad and the prospects disturbing, there is a need for another world somewhere, a world where Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers live.
The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
Be disciplined. Work hard. Be prepared to hear ‘no’ a lot and don’t care. My dad taught me an important lesson, which is to look at why someone does something rather than what they actually do. A lot of artists are making art because they they want to be cool and they want people to like them. That’s the wrong reason to be making art. Be prepared to have a lot of people not enjoy your work and have it not bother you; you should do it because you want to do it.