In July of 2016, events transpired at HackLab.TO, Canada’s oldest makerspace, that are revealing about the political state of the maker community. It is my hope that this personal reflection, detailing the events that I was personally implicated in, will offer insight for those within and new to the maker community so that we can learn and do better. I will elaborate on this post at the kick-off for the lunch series colloquium at the Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship on October 27th from noon to 1 PM. This talk will offer a synopsis of the events that transpired in July, as well as a justice-oriented analysis of these events. I hope that those who are able will attend and provide feedback on this post and the talk that can enrich my thinking for a future publication around gendered oppression within the maker movement.
July 2016 was my final month as a member at HackLab.TO. I’ve been involved in the lab for a couple of years, and I joined as a member around the time that I got involved in the Sherman Centre (spring of 2015), as an outsider to the world of making. Over my months as a member, I became the lead event organizer for the organization, raising several hundred dollars in donations; helped to run and fund the non-profit darkroom; overhauled the organization wiki; managed the social media accounts; and ran a workshop of my own during the recent Month of Making, organized by the Toronto Maker Festival in July 2016.
As a social worker and activist, as well as someone who identifies as queer and non-binary, I brought with me a critical, radical, anti-oppressive lens, and a background in community organizing. During my time at the lab, I advocated to have members’ pronouns added to their online profiles and to the memberization process; to begin having members-only nights in the space to facilitate community bonding and cohesion; I pushed for transparency in board decision-making processes, and, following events surrounding Jacob Appelbaum’s sexual misconduct in maker communities in California, I shared a blog post from HackLab.TO co-founder Leigh Honeywell, in the hopes of beginning a conversation about preventing abusive behaviour within our space.
And then, I decided to run for a position on the HackLab.TO board.
On September 27, 2014, HackLab.TO moved from its original home on Baldwin Street in Kensington Market to 1266 Queen Street West. The lab space in Kensington was about 500 square feet, and 1266 Queen was a whopping 2700. Given this massive material growth, there was huge pressure within the organization to grow its membership – roughly 35 people – to survive financially. This resulted in a necessary, and supposedly temporary, shift in organizational priorities to a focus on expansion and financial success. Growth was rapid and, from my perspective as someone with nearly a decade’s experience in community organizing, new members were not adequately oriented to the existing (community-oriented, collaborative, learning, inclusive, do-ocracy culture of the space. The membership at HackLab.TO in July was just over 100 people, and still growing. New members far outnumber those who experienced the old lab. Furthermore, the membership’s diversity has suffered in the move, and lab success continues to be measured by number of members and dollars in the bank account, although the necessity of this mentality has all but dissipated over time.
With this rapid expansion, the five-member volunteer board of the lab seemed to be struggling to stay on top of its responsibilities. Minutes from the open board meetings over the past year reflect that many board projects were making slow, if any, progress. Furthermore, situations were arising that were new territory for the membership and the board, and knowing how to navigate them seemed to be challenging. One example of this that I was directly implicated in unfolded during a music event that I organized during an Open House in early May, when two visitors to the lab verbally harassed a member who had been invited to perform. This was brought to the board as a complaint under the lab’s Anti-Harassment Policy (AHP).
When the board announced to the membership of the lab that a warning issued would be the only consequence faced by these two visitors, and offered no explanation of their decision-making process, I expressed both in person and on the mailing list that I felt that this was inadequate, that some members would continue to feel unsafe in the space, and that the board needed to offer a more detailed explanation of why they came to the decision that they did. Eventually, a more detailed email was released by the president of the lab explaining the decision-making process, but no further consequences were issued.
This incident was one thing among many that motivated me to run for the board. I felt like my experience working in non-profit organizations could be valuable in healing some of the community cohesion issues that had arisen since the move to 1266, and I wanted to help rewrite some of the lab’s policies to make them more effective for creating safer spaces for myself and some of the other members of the lab who were struggling to feel safe in the space.
The HackLab board election was announced at 23:54 on July 4th. One of my opponents was the property manager of the building that houses the HackLab. He had been vocal about supporting the growth-and-success focus of the lab.
At 11:15 on July 5th, a long email was sent in response to the election announcement that stated that I was not fit for a board position because of my “politicization”, and urging lab members not to vote for me. While there is no formal connection between the events of my personal life and what happened at the lab, I think it is unlikely that the two are not connected. I was not surprised to see that this email was from someone in my one of my ex partners’ social circle.
This initial email, which used an incorrect spelling of my name and misgendered me, can be summarized by the following excerpt:
My concern is a greater shift in the motives and intentions of Hacklab members, personified by Emmy’s nomination for a board position. Where a shift in motives and mob mentality to quickly jump on someone have made people afraid, when all they want to do are cool things and build projects. My fear is that a Hacklab board with Emmy would only accelerate such a movement.
The announcement thread alone had 64 direct responses. All of the negative messages directed at me or anyone who supported me were sent by three lab members, who were all within the same social circle. It was difficult for me to see how the personal and political could be easily separated in what seemed to be a classic example of trolling.
In the messages sent in this thread, I was accused of oppression of dissenting opinions, of harassing other members, of wanting to make the lab a place where free speech would be limited, of using the lab’s social media accounts as my own political platforms, of wanting to limit lab membership through “diversity quotas”, of engaging in identity politics, and I was casually referred to as a “fucking SJW”. Other members who came to my defence had their concerns minimized (“I would much prefer to have the discussion focus on the real concerns…”, “…this is exactly the right context to debate the merrits [sic] of someone running…”). I only responded to the messages in the public thread twice – once was to send out a more detailed version of my election platform, and in my other reply, I went through and publicly detailed the 90+ emails that I had sent to mailing list over the course of my time as a member to parse out exactly what I had been political about as a member of the organization (all of which I’ve already outlined in this post). I held back from responding otherwise. In response to my silence, I was privately contacted by a cis-male HackLab board member with concerns about a statement that I had made, in which I had voiced my hope that the lab would not become a cis-male-dominated co-working space over time. He privately threatened me, saying that I needed to make another statement by the end of the week to retract what I had previously written. I opted not to respond, and that board member ended up filing an AHP complaint against me, accusing me of discrimination against cisgendered, white men.
As time went on, the public message thread was derailed when messages were sent that had transphobic content, in an attempt to support the idea of gender diversity on the HackLab board. The painful discussion that took place in this message thread was eventually labelled as silliness and “BS” by members attempting to stifle it, and over time, the thread devolved into a conversation about the utility of mailing lists as a communication channel, as though the medium was the root of the problem that the lab was experiencing.
Between July 4th and July 31st, more than double the amount of email passed through the membership listserv than had ever passed through in a single month in the history of the lab (4.2mb, versus the previous high of 2.1mb). Seven people dememberized, not including the person referenced in the previous paragraph, whose membership was cancelled by the board. She was ultimately banned from the lab space until July 2017, despite that this was outside the purview of the board’s power. The longest-serving member of the board also stepped down, and announced that ze would be leaving the lab in the near future. In zir resignation email, this member detailed behavior on the part of other board members that was reprehensible:
Members of the board have been threatening other members, deciding to do nothing as members get repeatedly publicly attacked, acting alone on behalf of the board without consulting other board members (or the rest of the membership), being argumentative at meetings and not getting the work done between meetings…
I was told that the board had decided it would be best for me and for the lab if I was temporarily banned from the space and from all communication channels, for a period of 30 days. When I was asked if I would agree to this decision, I decided instead to cancel my membership. Before I had sent in the official email to confirm this, the board sent an exaggerated and dishonest message to the entire membership announcing my departure, which read:
The wide-reaching negative impact of emmy’s recent words and actions have been detrimental to the culture of the lab. There have also been additional complaints from members who have been discriminated against, by emmy, on the basis of their sex, race, and gender. Despite repeated attempts to reach common ground, emmy has continued to bully and harass individuals, both on and off the mailing list. This has continued to occur after emmy was asked to cease communications.
The only complaint lodged against me in my time at the lab was the AHP complaint by the board member that I described above, accusing me of discrimination against cis white men. While this complaint technically did accuse me of discrimination based on sex, race, and gender, the phrasing in the email was inflammatory. Further, there was at no point an attempt made by any member who had engaged me on the mailing list to reach common ground, and while there were two members who requested that I no longer reach out to communicate with them (my aforementioned ex, and the member who had sent the original message to the mailing list following the election announcement), I had made no further attempts to communicate with them. No other request was ever made of me to cease any form of communication with lab members or to cease using lab communication channels.
What happened during the month of July, while intensely personal for me, reflects a larger cultural problem, both at the HackLab.TO, and in maker and tech-focused spaces as a whole. There are some shocking similarities between what happened at the lab, and what has happened in other online and technology-focused spaces, where isolated incidents of bullying that happen in cultural contexts ripe for conflict have escalated out of control. #GamerGate is a classic example. Much like the swarming that happened to Zoë Quinn during #GG, the commenters in this case felt like there was some sort of justice to be gained in attacking me: a symbol of a type of progressive politics that challenges the status quo in cis male dominated, normative leisure spaces.