Serene by Michael Coghlan

Hello everyone! I’ve helped run two Chicago Python Workshops in Chicago, and I wanted to explain how we handled a problem that started in the first workshop. Asheesh was a great mentor, and helped me handle a difficult situation, and it led to a new section in the OpenHatch wiki. This was the very first workshop I had given, and I was inspired to do so by the talk on the Boston Python Workshop. I had a lot of enthusiastic friends who let me know that they wanted to run a workshop, so all I had to do was find a place for it and kick it off.

At the first workshop, I had a negative impression of one of the attendees. It seemed to me that he attended the event to be able to network his consulting company rather than as someone who was there to learn programming in a beginner friendly environment, especially as he came with his fairly young daughter, and was supposedly her +1. Some of his mannerisms during and after the event seemed off to me. I had a bad first impression, and I figured that any future interactions with him could confirm or correct that and there was nothing that called for any action.

That would have been fine had nothing happened beyond that, but it turned out that he had been behaving inappropriately towards volunteers. This only came to light at a followup project night and office hours I invited workshop attendees to. The problematic attendee showed up to the space where the office hours are hosted, and behaved in a disruptive manner towards our group and towards people in our room in general. The event was held at a local hackerspace, and after that night, I sent email to some of the hackerspace board to let them know about the situation so that they could be aware of anything that occurred as a result.

I personally resolved to disengage from the person and decline with a minimum of explanation any investment offers, future events he wanted me to host, etc. But after the heads-up I sent, and after comparing notes with other volunteers, I discovered he had approached one of the volunteers and emailed and spoken to her in ways that made her feel unsafe. Based on this, I decided he had to be asked not to attend any future events.

There is where Asheesh’s mentorship really helped. It is a very tough decision to make, and I worked with him and the rest of the organizers to make sure I wasn’t making the wrong choices. It was important to me to make sure I handled things fairly and explained clearly to the attendee why he was being asked not to come back. You can see the results of that process on the women and their friends wiki page on kicking someone out of the group

This event also helped me realize that we need to have a code of conduct and incident handling guidelines for events. The Chicago Python Workshop Code of Conduct is the result. We based that on other codes we’ve seen. One of my favorite inspirations is the FreeGeekChicago code. I like how they explain that problematic behaviors go against the mission of their space. I think this is something you should highlight when working out a policy so that you understand that the goal of having a good policy is to enable people to participate in the mission of your space, whether it be learning or building things or helping recycle materials.

We also borrowed heavily from the PyCon Code of Conduct’s recommended procedure for handling incidents. They have instructions for attendees reporting incidents and how staff can handle them speedily and fairly.

Some lessons from all of this that I want to highlight

Asheesh and I worked together on a guide for running “Women and their friends” events, with tips to organizers. Since the goal is gender diversity, the guide emphasizes how to respectfully and effectively tell solo men they’re not welcome to attend, and what to do when people who seem male are not clear about whose guest they are. If I had asked this attendee for more details at the start, we might have avoided the situation entirely.

It’s important to have an incident handling policy so that you can compare notes. If I had not compared notes with my friends, I would not have known about the extent of the problem. And following on that, it’s important to be approachable and to make sure that volunteers and participants feel comfortable about talking to you. Otherwise you won’t have the information you need for becoming aware of a situation.

Since it is extremely difficult to approach a person who is causing a problem, particularly if you personally feel uncomfortable with the person, it is helpful to have a third party talk to the person about the situation if possible. Asheesh was extremely helpful in this regard. He offered to serve as a contact should the person have any questions about the situation. I was happy to discover that when we contacted the attendee to let him know about the problem, he immediately apologized profusely and accepted the request to come to no further events.

You are in charge of a workshop, but you also bear a responsibility towards attendees for events outside of the workshop you invite them to. I host a Python Office Hours night at Pumping Station One, and after I thought about this responsibility, I made sure that PSOne would be okay if I needed to kick anyone out of the office hours. And if I’m unable to host a Python Office Hours night, then I ask someone else to host them and let them know that they should be aware of the code of conduct so that they can be as responsible as I should be.

Conclusion

I wish I had the guidelines in place before the event so that I would have had some structure to help defuse drama. This was a big learning experience, and I worked through a lot of strong emotions. I’m grateful to my friends for being patient with me during this. I still feel pretty awkward. I’m also anxious about the future because it’s hard to act in a wise and just manner, and I’m afraid of mistakes. This fear is a recognition of the fact that difficult situations will come up, but it’s helpful to think about the good that embracing this fear and working on diversity outreach does. I found that being direct and informative with the person who was acting badly turned out fine, and will stick to that rather than trying to add humor or indirection.

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