Working with Open Badges has drawn me into the Mozilla orbit regularly over the last year, even though I am not an employee of Mozilla the Company or Foundation. Going to the Mozilla Summit in October was really interesting, particularly because I got to see how this big crazy community works ( and it is a community more than a company, I think). Staff, even those who work on the same team, are distributed all over the globe, and yet they have a strong commitment to being together as community. A major part of that commitment is to be inclusive, as reflected in the Community Participation Guidelines, which many Mozilla employees take very seriously.
The Mozilla community is a really positive place to work (and participate as a volunteer like me), partly because of how strongly people try to ensure that it is an inclusive space, for employees of many identities, and also for outside community members like myself. My experiences in spaces curated by Mozilla, including the badges community, Summit, and MozFest, have brought me into contact with a diverse group of people, and it has been a real pleasure to work with them all.
Mozilla chose a new CEO this week, co-founder Brendan Eich, and some internal controversy developed because in 2008, he made a donation to support Prop 8 in California, which banned gay marriage until it was overturned by the Supreme Court. Some Mozilla employees are calling for him to step down, (I think) because they feel his donation undermines Mozilla’s culture and outside perception as an inclusive space. I haven’t met Brendan, and I have no reason to doubt his day-to-day commitment to working respectfully with his diverse coworkers, including LGBTQ Mozillians. However, some people feel that financial support of the gay marriage ban is an attempt to deny civil rights that goes beyond a disagreement of private opinions to undermine the company’s commitment to creating an inclusive space for all.
Because it’s Mozilla, much more of this conversation has been in the open than if the same person were appointed CEO at a more traditional company. Mozilla has offered the following statement from Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation.
“Our culture of openness extends to letting our staff and community be candid about their views on Mozilla’s direction. We’re proud of that inclusiveness and how it distinguishes Mozilla from most organizations. We expect and encourage Mozillians to speak up when they disagree with management decisions, and carefully weigh all input to ensure our actions are advancing the project’s mission.”
In the past few days, several very thoughtful blog posts have come from Mozilla employees.
- Matt Thompson (openmatt)
- Ben Werdmüller
- Christie Koehler (subfictional)
- Matthew Riley MacPherson (tofumatt)
- Chris McAvoy
- Mitchell Baker (Chair of the Mozilla Foundation)
- Brendan Eich’s own comments, expressing sorrow at having caused pain
The issue of how to engage Prop 8 supporters to help them evolve their understanding of marriage as a civil right will be on display here, much of it on the open web. I am heartened to see Mozilla employees, whom I know personally and professionally, stand up for their beliefs on protecting the inclusiveness of their community. I am also concerned that the conversation, if it continues to be confrontational will undermine the opportunity to improve anyone’s understanding of same sex marriage and why denying undermines people’s ability to be included in many levels of society. As people who understand marriage as a civil right, we have made some amazing progress since 2008 in the number of voices and communities who have accepted gay marriage and lives as a normal part of human society. I too believe we should demand that gay marriage be allowed as a civil right, and I think the path to get there comes from open dialogue, with empathy for those who don’t see it the same way. This is an issue that naturally divides people, and in this case, the CEO’s personal beliefs and the causes he chooses to support does affect how the company is perceived by the public. I’ll be watching how my friends at Mozilla move forward and make sure they maintain their company’s valuable open culture.
I expect to hear more from all these voices over the coming week.
Update 12 April 2014:
Brendan Eich resigned as CEO and left the company as the controversy grew in the days after I posted this. The board and company made it clear that he was not pushed out, but he chose to leave, partly to protect the company, and I imagine also to try to escape the intense pressure. As I wrote in my thesis, Internet-based shaming can be a powerful force, often intensifying even beyond the intent of those who start it off. This episode in Mozilla’s history reflects some interesting dynamics for people who want the tech industry to be a welcoming place for people across many axes of diversity. I feel that individual’s thoughts on the issue of same sex marriage is shaped by their background and the metaphors they use to structure their understanding of the world around them, and though I see those metaphors as internally inconsistent and damaging, I recognize that they form an important part of the identity of people I disagree with on same sex marriage. And I know that cultural forces in the communities that share these views act strongly to enforce their metaphors as the base of their community’s understanding, just as we who believe in same sex marriage as a civil right insist that is the proper way to understand it.
Mozilla’s public controversy got me thinking about how I position myself in communities, what my actions are, and how I broadcast the values I want to represent. Inclusiveness is part of the foundation of these values, but I also try to be open to other viewpoints and forgiving of past hurts caused by failures to understand what was hurtful. I am between wanting to feel empathy for those whose worldview leads them to try to deny civil rights to others and the need to ensure that these core civil rights are protected. I am willing to work and do business civilly with Prop 8 supporters, and those who supported the similar Measure 34 in Oregon, but I am uncomfortable with anything I might do to support putting them in positions of power, because it is important to break down the cultural power of noninclusive viewpoints. One of the worst regrets is knowing there were things you could have done to remove your (even tacit) support of oppressive power structures that you failed to do. It is hard to be an ally, and sometimes you miss a moment where you should have said something. It hurts to know you have contributed to the continued existence of oppressive and unwelcoming culture. I have a lot of empathy for others who have failed at times to stand up against oppressive culture, but my empathy is having more and more trouble extending to the people who seem unwilling to to acknowledge their complicity in exclusion and hurt (This refers to people I know personally, not necessarily Brendan Eich).
The recent Shop Talk Show interview with Julie Ann Horvath was another touchpoint this week on how we in tech can build or damage an inclusive culture. The conversation delved into her traumatic experience escaping unchecked harassment at GitHub. It got me questioning the value of the “culture fit” hiring criteria, because it can tend to prevent diversity and lead cultures to hire employees that won’t rock the boat. Whereas Julie said she thinks employees should want to rock the boat, but to do it thoughtfully.
I think what we saw this past month at Mozilla is a culture where employees understand the importance of being able to rock the boat sometime, where they take seriously their responsibility to rock it thoughtfully. There are some concerns bouncing around the Internet after Eich’s departure about how the protest was an example of intolerance and how people who share Eich’s apparent opposition to gay marriage will feel increasingly shut out of Silicon Valley. Building culture is hard. Critiquing power structures at the times when it really matters is even harder. There are human consequences when you tear down oppression, often falling on people who didn’t think they were part of a hurtful structure. May we do it thoughtfully, with both resoluteness and compassion. Let us make sure we frequently evaluate ourselves and how well we are building what we want.