William Gibson said “the future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.” Likewise that the past is still alive today. I deeply appreciate people who tell their own stories, so that I may understand, like Hamden Rice’s story of his father who grew up in the south. I don’t have relatives who experienced what it was like to be black in America before Martin Luther King. I have a different family history that I see in reflected in events from the past year.

A Story from the Past

“You must go visit your great aunt Miri” said my grandmother, telling me of her cousin for the very first time. I had planned a trip to Spain and Miri lived in Portugal. I was 17 when I learned that my Unitarian grandmother’s Christian Scientist parents, had converted from Judiasm. The second World War that I learned about in history class was about to feel eerily close. I had learned German on a whim, wanting to acquire a third language, never realizing that it might connect me to my heritage.

So I found myself, walking the streets of Lisbon, chatting in German, learning about my not-so-distant relatives. There had been three brothers — my great-great-grandfather travelled to America long before the troubles started, Miri’s father had married a Catholic and was able to be anglicized. Uncle Kurt had been handsome, never married, and had not left soon enough. He was taken to Auschwitz and never seen again. Miri had fled Germany during the war. She travelled through eastern Europe meeting André, who had been raised to be a Hungarian count, both fleeing for the lives, eventually finding their way to Portugal.

I asked my grandmother later if there was something they could have done. She told me that the brothers in Germany wrote letters asking to send money so that they could travel to America. Her father refused, with fresh memories of the Great Depression and his own wife and daughters to care for. He didn’t believing that they could really be in such danger, until it was too late to get anyone out.

Sitting on Miri’s back porch, sipping gin and tonics, Miri said “We would never have named our daughter Sarah.” She had been telling me about settling in Lisbon and raising her own family. She went on to tell me something I’ve never heard before or since, perhaps too every-day an occurrence to record in our history books. She said that all of the women had to sign their name with Sarah before their actual name, and for the men it was David. So at the bank, and anyone you did business with, could easily identify you as Jewish. Slowly, bit by bit, the state took away their identities, their heritage as Germans, and made them strangers to their neighbors and friends.

Creating the Future

I don’t know what it’s like to be black in America today, any more than I know what it was like to be Jewish in the 1940s. I do know that if I do nothing, the world could easily slip into a reality where I don’t want to live. Now and then, I can do things that make a difference. I believe the small things that each of us do every day change our reality. By deciding what small actions we take or ignore, we create the future.

Yesterday, instead of posting this story, I first spent time to write a few small things that I think we can do to be allies to our friends and colleagues who experience the terror of being black in America today.

“Through our scientific genius we have made this world a neighborhood; now through our moral and spiritual development, we must make of it a brotherhood. In a real sense, we must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools. ”
— Martin Luther King, Jr., Lincoln University 1961

I am a child of privilege. Pale skin, rosy cheeks and a wide smile can smooth the way to a comfortable place. I was never hungry, always had books to read when I was little, and later computers and then laptops. Nevertheless, fear and suffering has touched my life in a way that motivates me to do what I can to act as an ally and bring to light injustice when I see it.

It’s much easier to make big, bold gestures than it is to do the right thing at the right moment. I don’t always know what to do, but I thought I would write down some ideas of how we might go about being better allies. I’d love to hear ideas from other people too.

  • Name your heroes — seriously make a list of your top ten. If they are mostly one race, class or gender, find some more heroes.
  • If you can’t quickly think of three black people in your profession who you admire, think about making some new friends, and in the meantime, find them in the press. (Hint: you might actually have to look hard, but it’s not that they aren’t there, they’re just less written about)
  • If someone tells you that something you said sounded racist, apologize and thank them for telling you. (Don’t get defensive. Don’t tell them they took it the wrong way. If you didn’t mean to be racist, think about how you could say it differently next time so there would be no shadow of a doubt.)
  • If you hear something that sounds racist, call them out on it. Don’t wait for the black person in the room to say something, or ask them if it offended them. You can be offended all by yourself.
  • When you are asked who should be invited to a meeting, think about inviting someone who is black, latino, and whatever other races or cultures are under-represented.
  • If you work in a homogeneous environment, recruit for diversity. If your company can’t or won’t recruit diverse talent, think about working somewhere else.
  • If someone invites you to speak at an event and there are no people of color on the speaker list, suggest someone else. (If you can’t think of a black person who would be a great speaker in your stead, do some research and find a few.)
  • Don’t assume you understand someone else’s experience. No matter what color you think they are. Don’t assume race or culture, based on skin color.

I had a great design session last week with Chacha Sikes who volunteered to help with Midas, an open source project that I’m working on for the US Government. I love open source development — with an influx of new colleagues at unexpected times, I’m always learning new things.

We decided to focus on the challenge of designing the new opportunity workflow — this was identified as a significant usability issue at our last open source hack night and we’ve also heard consistent feedback from people who are actively using the product that this key part of the experience needs improvement.

We started with the most basic, simple, yet challenging questions:

  • What is success?
  • Help someone imagine what this looks like when done.
  • What needs to be done?
  • Why is this important?
  • Why should you care?
  • How has the world changed? (for the better)
  • Who does this benefit?

These were questions that we specifically brainstormed around the definition of an “opportunity” or a task in this micro-tasking framework. What questions do task creators need to answer in order to motivate potential collaborators?

It struck me on reflection that these are the same questions we should ask ourselves when designing software. Too often we focus so much on building the software, that we miss what happens after someone is done. I like to think about how these tools positively affect someone’s life later, outside of the software, when they have successfully accomplished whatever it is we helped them make happen.