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Protecting a Hackerspace's Community

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Some of my friends know that I am starting a hackerspace in San Francisco. Most of my friends know that I was one of the guiding members of a hackerspace who went from 15 members to 70 in my time there.

Back in December of 2012 I and someone I care very deeply about were more or less driven out of that space due to interpersonal drama and a lack of infrastructure within the space to handle that in a proper manner.

Since then, I've drifted between a number of bay area hackerspaces, all in various states of disarray, in search for a community that was close to HeatSync's and have so far failed. I've also spent a lot of time thinking about how to fix hackerspaces so that no one ever has to go through the kinds of things my friend and I went through when we left HeatSync, and basically came to the conclusion that culturally none of the bay spaces would be able to handle the kind of things that caused that meltdown.

So, we started working with a group of like minded hackerspace alumni who wanted a safe space to hack on their projects, away from the political infighting, radical anarchism and bureaucratic processes that soured us from our previous spaces. And I set forth to find an answer to the lazy board problem.

The Lazy Board Problem is what happens when a hackerspace board exists in name only. The members of the board themselves are hardly lazy – indeed they're some of the most dedicated members of the community. The organization itself chooses to let the broad membership (including those board members, mind you) handle not only day to day issues of the space, but also overarching issues of politics and policies.

For 95% of problems, the membership can handle them and handle them well. However for the other five percent of issues, issues which aren't for the wider community, involve legal issues or interpersonal strife, the general membership list is hardly a safe venue to discuss these things. It comes up on the hackerspaces.org mailing list every so often, usually in the form of "How does our membership handle poisonous people?" Even if the board DOES agree that it is prudent to handle those 5% of things, they generally don't have the bandwidth or training to handle them well enough to guarantee that all parties will be treated fairly.

Having a lazy board can be a great thing. It empowers the membership to build a space that they want to be a part of, it encourages people who may not have the bandwidth for a full board position to step up and take charge of the community, and it makes everyone a leader. However, it can lead to a space that many may not feel safe in due to those very same reasons and a lack of checks and balances. Over the last few months, I've been turning an idea over in my head, an idea for a new piece of organizational infrastructure for hackerspace builders to use, an idea lifted from successful open source communities, the Community Working Group.

The idea is simple: Train a group of trusted members of the community to deal with interpersonal issues, poisonous people and drama, and offload that from the board to that group. They lead the creation of a community's Code of Conduct, a document which spells out acceptable (and unacceptable) behavior and culture in a space and what happens when members cross that line in the sand.

The implementation is obviously more complex. :) These people don't act as rulers, more as advisors to the board, who basically act as an ear for the community to talk to and air grievances safely and privately. The group would be responsible for meeting with people upon recording of an issue, and trying to find a middle ground to an issue and to report (anonymized) reports and recommendations to the board. The group would have limited powers of enforceability should the board choose not to act in good faith (i.e. a board member is involved in a CWG issue, etc).

I am working on building this at Norton Imperial Labs as an experiment to see what happens when people who actually care and can handle drama are put in a place to handle it. It's not an attempt to remove power from a Board, more to empower them to work on things that grow the space as a whole rather than attempting to deal with things they aren't trained to handle. It provides a safe space for members of the community to address issues which aren't appropriate for a public discussion. It shows that our space (and any space that adopts it) is a space that can be trusted to deal with the inevitable bullshit that will creep in to any sufficiently successful community.

I've got initial (strongly worded) documentation on what I want here and want to have a working draft for hackerspace working policies done this weekend. If you're in SF and want to build a safe space for all genders, races and creeds, come find us. I want to build out the infrastructure for my space and others, but I need help. I need to find mediation training resources, I need to find people who have done this in the past and I need to find people who are good at people. I've talked with some members of the KDE Community Working Group but I still need to work on a sample draft of a hackerspace code of conduct, a code of conduct that takes care of a community that exists mostly in meatspace rather than IPspace.

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Ryan Rix is a privacy rights advocate and net-art wannabe. Reach them on the Fediverse as @rrix@cybre.space, twitter as @rrrrrrrix, via email to ryan@whatthefuck.computer or on Facebook or on Matrix as @rrix:whatthefuck.computer.