Nick Sellen

My departure from the Trustroots team

15 July 2020

I originally wrote this and shared with the other contributors, but want to include it in my public writings now, I’ve removed the names of the people.

I’m always in many minds about whether to share my thoughts/feelings like this, but I wish everybody did it more, so here goes…

Back in 2018 I stepped back from the project for a few reasons, one of them was that someone in the slack chat had shitty sexist attitudes about abuse including stuff like: “It’s like when someone complains about attention received by certain people when actually, secretly, she/he is craving for that.” (don’t be fooled by the inclusion of “he”, this is a problem experienced almost exclusively by women, it’s called harassment or abuse).

There was a women in the chat who had experienced this kind of harassment in her life and was appalled by this attitude. It was challenged by me and her, but nobody else who was around. Someone who was a founder and board member was around at the time and in a later conversation said he considered the conversation like noise and wanted it to go away. I think most other people around at the time have since moved on.

It made me super uncomfortable to have that kind of attitude around and even more uncomfortable that nobody else addressed it. I can accept some people that wander in here have shitty attitudes, but I cannot accept when it’s left to fester.

That was back in 2018, but what happened a few weeks ago takes me uncomfortably back there. There were two conversations that really bothered me, about political correctness and about black lives matter. I felt very uncomfortable wondering what views were behind those comments were. My questions to find out went unanswered and the person who made the comments disappeared for a couple of weeks after that before returning. Like the time before, as if it’s just noise noise, waiting for it to go away.

The “noise” never went away in 2018, and it hasn’t gone away now. Over time I’ve become increasingly aware of all the shitty attitudes that fester in society, all the shitty power dynamics that emerge, all the shitty race and gender imbalances. Left-y kind of eco/alternative projects have a particular problem in this regard, caught in a bubble of believing ourselves to be “the good guys”, blind to much of it. These projects are very frequently dominated by arrogant white men, just like the rest of society.

Back in 2018 I toned my expression down into a polite and productive “farewell for now”, praising the team, and the project, and skipping most of the emotion. Well, fuck it, I’ve been here before; “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me”.

I want to bring out my anger here, it’s the authentic version of what I feel. I took a few weeks to think on it, and tried out 8 different drafts even. It’s not an impulsive rant.

A lot of what I’m feeling lately is in a wider context of privilege and what we’re doing here anyway. The ability to dumpster dive and hitchhike with little fear. The ability to build software platforms to make those things even easier. To freely vagabond around, knowing we can probably go back into the normal world of work if needed. I have almost all the privileges you could ask for and yet I use them to build things that might make my own life smoother.

I might fool myself that all this stuff is “free” so it’s therefore accessible to all. But I am blind. I only see what I know. Dumpster diving is not “free” if getting caught means you could be deported, hitchhiking is not “free” if nobody picks you up because you don’t look like the prototypical hitchhiker, open source software development is not “free” if you only encounter dominating men. None of these things are “free” if you’re struggling with crippling anxiety or poverty.

How do you want to use your privilege? I wanted to use mine to bring more people and voices of greater variety into the project and to support other people to build their ideas and initiatives. I would have liked this to enable trustroots to serve more people who experience life differently. Women designing and building features to support their own safety or people marginalised by society to create spaces where they feel important and safe. I no longer believe it’s sufficient to just be open to a wider set of people, but we need to be actively designing processes that support those goals.

There was very little activity in Trustroots when I rejoined last December or so, a small team keeping support going, one person active on coding, a few others contributing here and there, the main person around but not very active, and the board member I mentioned before apparently gone. Together with others, I put a significant amount of effort over the last 6 months to progressing this vision (which I expressed in more detail here).

I really enjoyed the more community-focused direction we were headed in with the user survey, the hackweek, and discussions of governance structures. I really enjoyed seeing the support team develop it’s own subteam with meetings. I loved seeing more people willing to step up and do facilitation/co-ordination tasks (which are, along with support, massively underappreciated roles). I was hopeful seeing one or two women join the sea of men. I was pleased that the tribes renaming topic was accepted without resistance (almost), and we were clear on our support for gender expression when the non-binary topic came up. I hope these things can continue. I hope me writing this might encourage other people to express their authentic voice too if there comes a point where that seems important.

Projects I work on are deeply personal to me and more like a relationship. And this has become a relationship that exhausts me and I’m not comfortable in. I’ve lost trust, and it’s hard to get that back. I’m tired of having the same debates about open source vs propriety services. I’m tired of thinking how to express potentially challenging thoughts neutrally/positively/constructively. I’m tired of thinking how to moderate arrogant voices. I’m tired of seeing people drop back from the project who could do with support but don’t get it. I maybe had just enough energy to progress those things, but perhaps the last straw is I’m tired of wondering if my co-volunteers have shitty racist/sexist attitudes (or are too unaware and let them fester).

So for all these reasons, I’m out.

With hindsight I would have liked to been a lot clearer on some of my priorities when I re-joined:

  • finding out how we can put care for each other’s well-being at the core (this is one of my biggest regrets for not focusing on it more, also in dev, both projects have a sea of frustrated/exhausted ex-volunteers)
  • improving our understanding of power and privilege and how we can incorporate critical feedback about that within the team
  • moving away from using proprietary surveillance capitalism services to organise the project (e.g. slack)
  • removing third party trackers from the site (Google Analytics is still on the site)
  • discussing and implement a more comprehensive and inclusive governance and decision making structure (I see do-ocracy + a board as quite problematic)
  • becoming more explicit about the values of the project
  • finding a way to process my uncomfortableness with the abuse conversation from 2018, and the possible return of the board member (I am uncomfortable with absent holders of power, I like Tony Benns 5 questions: “what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you?”)

(if you want to engage with any of these topics more with me you’re welcome to contact me on any of the methods listed on my home page).

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