2 Minutes per Public Comment

At the mock city council meeting, I sat as an aide next to the town’s last undecided councilmember.  The choice before us: whether to build a lower-density, luxury housing development or higher-density, affordable housing development on the site of a former industrial warehouse and along side a neglected waterway.  The meeting had already begun by the time I arrived, and I felt under-prepared.  Perhaps no more under-prepared than an aide might realistically be who is carrying a full workload with competing priorities.

Community Advocates Leadership Academy

This mock city council meeting was the culmination of the 9-month, Community Advocates Leadership Academy (CALA) hosted by the Committee for Green Foothills.  The first Saturday of each month, we heard from the Bay Area’s leading advocates for bikeways, community housing, and labor rights, as well as from communication strategists, city planners and supervisors.  We met in regional parks, city halls, and the community rooms of new, affordable housing developments.  The goal of the program was to prepare citizens for fuller and more strategic participation in local government.

When I slipped into my seat at the Los Altos Hills City Council Chambers, the Mayor's aide was already collecting comment cards (and a lot of them) from the public.  Staff presented the problem space and what the city hoped to gain by developing this land.  After, the developers had a chance to frame and present their proposals.  Far from being out of touch and outlandish, the luxury housing developers grounded their presentation in an awareness of the complications and challenges involved in the project, and of the community culture and city goals.  They were prepared with proactive suggestions for relocating a homeless encampment along the river, and for restoring and protecting the waterway.  By contrast, the community housing developer made a personal and impassioned plea for the city to value affordable housing.


City Councilmember #2 Aide

Key staff to the city Councilmember #2.  Provides guidance on issues, speaks on behalf of the councilmember. Represents councilmember if she is not available. Resident of the city, needs a more affordable housing option in the city.

(Makes a statement in the beginning of the city council meeting before the meeting is called to order about the councilmember’s take on the project because the councilmember is stuck in traffic.)

We were given many details about the site and planned developments, as well as the twisted relationships and sources of potential influence among the players.  Our homework was to prepare questions we might want to ask, concerns we might have, and things we might want to say to sway the council’s final decision.  In our exercise, no decision was ultimately made.  And many of the participants wished we could do it again, so that their talking points could be more polished and to the point.  But I think the messiness and wide variance in the prep work people put into the project made it an incredibly educational experience.  In fact, the most impactful of the entire program.

As interest group after interest group stepped up to the mic and made impassioned pleas for the council members to care about native plants, the dignity and security of homeless members of the community, birds, open space, human powered transportation, less traffic, historical site preservation, schools, and local businesses, a light finally turned on in me.  Sitting on this side of the council table, these 2 minute statements were not helpful to me.  I wished they had instead used their love of plants, social justice, biodiversity, etc. to help us solve one of the many complex problems before the city.



NEW BUSINESS: The Willow Corner
4.1 Presentation from City Staff
4.2 Presentation from Developers
4.3 Public Comment (2 minute statement each)
4.4 City Council Discussion
4.5 Vote

Advocate as Problem Solver 

Before this exercise, I believed advocates were more effective if they could inspire interest in the causes they cared about.  And to be sure, inspiration is useful.  But after this exercise, it felt not quite as necessary nor sufficient as I had previously thought.  The councilwoman for whom I worked as an aide, leaned over during the proceedings and whispered, with one hand covering her mic, “I’m happy to care about all these things, but I can’t make a decision unless I can see how either project would help us meet the strategic goals we’ve set for our city.  Why don’t these groups use their familiarity with their area of concern to help us negotiate on the details of each proposal?”  She saw, in other words, the greater usefulness of advocates as problem solvers, not just champions.  And I think she was really right.

After two hours of back and forth, the development decision was finally tabled for a hypothetical future council session.  Megan Medeiros and Debbie Mytels, CALA leaders and masterminds behind the mock city council meeting, say no team in the program’s history has voted on one development over the other.  The decision always gets tabled for later.  In our debrief after the exercise, there was a lot of energy in the room.  Everyone was eager to share a moving takeaway.  And many of us shared the wish that we had prepared more.  But as it went down, the common pattern of advocacy that surfaced, ie. please care about my cause, and fact that it ultimately failed, pointed the way towards a new model of advocacy for me.  A slightly cooler one.  I'll still make an emotional and heartfelt case, but not without good reasons and solid problem solving suggestions.  The hope, right, is that a better researched, packaged, and presented solution to the stakeholder's particular problem makes my preferred solution an easier and more compelling option for them to adopt.

DrupalCon 2015 Event Reflection

Published in Women Who Code newsletter, 2015

Drupal is an open source, web development platform that my colleagues and I use to build cool and cost-efficient websites for nonprofits. Standing on the core code and borrowing from the universe of community-contributed modules makes it possible for our nonprofit clients to afford online class registration systems, community forums, libraries of educational resources--all with stylishly designed themes and well-organized content architecture.

But who are the organizations building these modules? What goals do the community and its leaders have in mind for the platform? And how can I help? These questions motivated me to apply to Women Who Code’s ticket giveaway and ultimately attend DrupalCon 2015 in Los Angeles.

Who are the organizations building these modules?

The Drupal community in attendance included both multinational corporations like Time Inc. and Pfizer as well as tiny, ten-person Drupal shops like mine, Giant Rabbit LLC. And the conference schedule featured sessions by marketers, academics, and activists. To anyone unfamiliar with the platform, this might have seemed like a strange mix.

The organizational diversity represented at DrupalCon might be key to the platform’s success. If Cartier and Krispy Kreme hadn’t invested in Drupal Commerce, would the module and its associated tutorials have been polished and useful enough--not to mention affordable enough--for Giant Rabbit’s clients too? Because whether you’re selling $10,000 watches or a $10 cooking class, site visitors need pretty much the same things: they want to search and browse their options, they need to pay, and they probably want a receipt. And if we fix a bug in one commonly used receipt module, we’re happy to see other companies of any size benefit from it too!

Subject area expertise was another type of community diversity I came to appreciate at the conference (and let’s hear it for gender diversity, 7 out of the 13 speakers I heard were women). One presenter, Garrett Voorhees of Chapter 3, gave a historical overview and analysis of Typography, complete with a Helvetica vs. Arial quiz. Another panel of presenters from Pac 12-Networks showed how they are
coordinating college sport broadcasts and providing real-time game score updates with a complex combination of open source projects, which includes Drupal.

And perhaps more valuable than the expertise on show were the sessions by people who claimed to be enthusiastic about--but far from experts in--tangential topics like psychology and new theories of service experience design. They shared what they had found interesting and helpful to their own practice as web designers and developers. As someone new to web development, I found these talks particularly inspiring. There does appear to be space in the community and on stage for new people who have a bit of tenacity, curiosity, and desire to learn new things.

What goals do the community and its leaders have in mind for the platform?

In terms of goals for the platform, Drupal founder Dries Buytaert made it clear in his keynote that personalizing web experiences is an important priority for him. If I visit the homepage of an airline after stepping off the flight, I am invited to book another. What if it showed me the number I need to call because my luggage is lost or offered to call a cab? Because it would know that I had just arrived, that my luggage was lost, and probably need to get somewhere else in the city. The promise of these personalized web experiences is better service and less searching, and the peril is greater loss of privacy. The truth is we love these kinds of features and I have no doubt company websites are moving in that direction. My hope, however, is that web designers and developers will continue to build engaging online experiences and provide useful information to people who would prefer to protect their privacy, browse sites anonymously, and leave satisfied without having created an account.

In his keynote, the founder Dries Buytaert emphasized that the history of Drupal has been a history of incorporating wide ranges of ideas and different types of contributions. The conference agenda reflected this value. From what I could see at the conference, we have good reasons to think that the Drupal community will continue to move the platform going forward along many different fronts, be they speed, user experience, customizability, etc.

And how can I help?

I wanted to attend DrupalCon to find out how I could contribute, specifically to Drupal.org, the community site for Drupal, and the Drupal ecosystem. Drupal.org is a mostly chaotic, rarely organized collection of issue queues, blog posts, tutorials, and contributed modules produced by a distributed community of members from all around the world with varying degrees of time to commit to the platform (think Eric Raymond’s bazaar). Without Drupal.org and the discussions captured there, it would have been impossible for me to start working with Drupal. The presentations by Drupal Association staff (who manage Drupal.org) and community contributions were grounded in community values like diverse governance, explicit decision-making processes, inviting feedback, and reflecting and recognizing contributions to encourage more of them. Along with providing clear inroads for new contributors, presentations by the Drupal Association also provided good models for community development, generally.

Attending the conference gave me a better understanding of the kinds of contributions appreciated by the community, the guidelines and procedures that would make it easier for them to incorporate contributions, as well as the groundwork required to sustain a community of Drupal’s size and diversity. All of which, in summary, takes a lot of time. As much as I would love to dive in and start tackling tickets in one of Drupal.org’s many issue queues, the reality is that I need to spend the majority of my time on billable work. Combined with the fact that my relationship with Drupal is primarily a professional one, I see my contributions most likely continuing to come from work specifically requested by clients on contributed modules. Recent changes to the site, suggest that I am not alone. Users and developers can now tag companies and clients in comments and commit messages; a very welcome addition by conference attendees.

Drupal core members and Association staff are keenly aware that contributions from the community most often require the kind of sustained commitment that comes with professional support. Cathy Theys from BlackMesh, a full-time contributor to the platform, recommended companies allow one or two employees to work full-time on Drupal core or Drupal.org for several month stretches, instead of encouraging all employees to work on it a few hours here and there throughout the year. Her recommendation makes a lot of sense, but also means, benefiting the platform, not just benefiting from it, will have to remain a tricky balancing act for a lot of us without several months to spare. My hope in the coming year is that I make more of an effort to participate in comment threads directly related to my work, and keep an eye out for opportunities to participate on a larger scale. And in these ways help Drupal continue to be a viable web development platform for organizations of all sizes, so long as they are also trying through their work to make the world a better place.