If you’ve known me for any length of time, you know I don’t do any one thing for very long in my life. I think that is both my strength, and my weakness. I don’t know if most polymaths are like this, but at least I am. I’ve been a scientist, a teacher and academic, a business owner, a theology student, and a science fiction author (and a few other things, too.) But the one thing I’ve done the longest of anything is a technologist and developer for the nonprofit sector.
I discovered my love and fascination with computers and code in the late 1970s in college, and it has been a pretty consistent thread (and will continue to be) in my life. But I have been “doing stuff” for nonprofit organizations around technology issues, primarily having to do with internet technology and web development, since 1994-5, and full time (with a break in 2005-6 to study theology) since 1999. I’ve been meaning to leave it now for a while, and after almost 20 years, it’s finally time to bid all of it adieu.
I’m in my last weeks of working with the fabulous team at DevCollaborative, and if you want some ace people to build your nonprofit Drupal website, they’ll do it with integrity and great skill. I’m happy to have helped build the collaborative, and sad to be leaving them. I look forward to watching them grow and develop as individuals and as a team.
I felt drawn to write some reflections about my time doing the work I’ve been doing, and how I feel now, nearly 20 years down the pike. The first thing to reflect on is nonprofit technology. As a board member of a bunch nonprofit and religious organizations since the mid-80s, I have been committed to the care and feeding of those specific nonprofits, and the sector as a whole. Helping nonprofits use technology wisely felt like a good choice – it felt like I got to have my cake and eat it too, in a way – indulge my love of technology and help change the world in the process.
Twenty years of that has poured some cold water on that nice idea. First, my love of technology meant that I wasn’t always the best arbiter of what a nonprofit should do. I know that there were times our judgments as nonprofit technologists have been clouded by shiny (love of bleeding-edge tech.) And on the other hand, I was advocating strategies for the development and use of open source software that would free organizations from proprietary products, some of which were crappy, obscenely expensive, promoted lock-in, and made by publicly-traded for-profit companies. I got a lot of bored yawns for those ideas, for years.
Am I glad that nonprofits have the benefit of technology that everyone else does, and lots of help and support? Of course. I’m glad that there are great people and companies and organizations doing this work, and I’m happy for my part in it. And I’m glad that at least for some things like servers and websites (oh, and phones!), open source software has indeed won the day. But I’ve come to feel that none of that is going to change the world. The world needs way, way more than technologically well-equipped nonprofit organizations to save it. (Actually, it needs way, way less of everything, but that’s a post for another day.)
The second set of reflections is about being one of a few among many. I’ve been one of not so many African-American women in nonprofit technology, and one of a very few African American women contributors to open source projects. The space of developers of open source projects and even nonprofit developers is still very white, very straight, and still largely male. I didn’t realize for a long time that this loneliness was wearing, but it has been. As I’ve watched the growth of younger women and women of color developers, it’s made me happy, but has not made me feel less lonely, because the space, even as it gets more diverse, is still also pretty young. There aren’t all that many developers my age (I’ll be 55 in August), let alone women my age, let alone queer people of color my age. I hadn’t let myself really feel how tiring that loneliness was until a year or so ago.
I am happy, though, to have been a little part, and a witness to the growth of two communities (and the places those overlap.) In 1994, a student and I installed Linux, which then came on a big pile of floppies, on a server in my office at Hampshire College, for a local nonprofit organization, so they could have email and a website. That’s how I learned about open source software. In 2000ish, I got hooked up with these people who called themselves “Circuit Riders.” The ride on both the open source and nonprofit tech trains has been interesting and full of great characters. I’ve made friends, contributed what I could, and it’s been a nice trip, with no regrets.
What’s next, you ask? Most importantly, my long Buddhist practice, seminary training, and life experience is helping me in an endeavor I’m doing with my partner, Ruth. We’re working on creating tools and resources to help the relationships of women who love women happier, healthier and more conscious. We’ve started Conscious Girlfriend, which is an exciting and completely new chapter in my work life. It’s using different parts of my brain and gets me back into teaching and writing, both of which I really enjoy. I’m still writing science fiction, and I also hope to start to be much more deliberate about getting the word out about my work. If you want to learn more about that, definitely read my author blog. (hint: podcasts and audio versions!)