In our department, we have various assigned jobs — someone oversees Comps, our capstone; someone organizes our colloquium series, CS Tea; someone is in charge of student course staff; etc. My current job is Grace Hopper / Tapia wrangler: organizing the logistics for students who want to attend the Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing and the Grace Hopper Celebration, both held in the fall.
Both conferences have been formative, and often transformative, experiences for our students. As a department, we believe in providing opportunities for students to see themselves represented as computer scientists and to find and develop communities of support, and we believe both of these venues play a strong role in that process.
This year, both conferences present me with ethical conundrums because of their locations: Texas, for Tapia, and Florida, for GHC. I’ll focus on GHC specifically in this post.
GHC is “the world’s largest gathering of women and non-binary technologists” and “brings the research and career interests of women in computing to the forefront”, according to their website. I know that AnitaB.org, the organization that puts on GHC, aspires to create inclusive communities broadly construed — inclusive of the LGBTQIA+ community, of racial and ethnic identities, etc. GHC supports academia via scholarships for students and faculty, the student poster session, and (at least historically) the doctoral consortium.
I fail to see how any of those missions are furthered by holding the conference in an actively hateful, actively harmful, anti-LGBTQIA+, anti-black, anti-education state. A state actively erasing the teaching of black and indigenous history, removing access to gender-affirming care, making it patently unsafe for trans people to exist, etc. A state actively encoding hate into its laws.
I understand that moving a conference, much less one as large as GHC, is not a trivial manner, and that contracts are signed years in advance, yadda yadda. I get that. So I was curious to see what AnitaB.org had to say on the matter. And in fact, they have put out a statement on this year’s conference, titled “Living our Mission”. That statement says, in part:
In 2023, the constant affront to human dignity in Florida (and many other states) continues. We vehemently oppose the efforts in the state to further erase the identities and dignities of people belonging to intentionally marginalized and excluded groups including Black, Brown, and Indigenous people. We will continue to engage with the local social justice leaders across the state and with more than a thousand members of AnitaB.org supported by our Florida Local Community network to monitor the situation. We are staying vigilant to the conditions on the ground and are dedicated to creating a safe space where ALL are welcome.
…In 2022, AnitaB.org worked with Equality Florida to raise visibility and awareness at a national and international level of what was happening in Florida. We also donated a portion of the proceeds from GHC 22 registrations to Zebra Coalition and Florida Access Network—two Florida-based non-profits doing exceptional work.
We have an incredible opportunity to build on that momentum as we head into a critical election year in 2024. We re-commit to contributing to local leaders and organizations working in Florida to create a safe, welcoming space…
It appears that AnitaB.org is taking a “social offset” approach to the matter, acknowledging harms and using donations and time as a mechanism to offset those harms in the long term through social justice action. Fair enough — I am glad to see that some good is coming out of this dumpster fire, and local organizations can definitely benefit from an influx of funding and exposure.
That said, people will still travel to Florida for the conference. They will spend money at the airport, at hotels, at local restaurants and bars, possibly at Disney. Florida still profits, very very nicely, from this influx of travel. (GHC is a very large conference, after all.) I have no idea what the size of AnitaB.org’s donations are to local organizations, but I’m guessing they are not as large as the money spent in Florida for this conference. Money that will continue to fund Florida’s ever-increasing hateful legislation and policies. Regardless of how much time and money AnitaB.org spends on local social justice issues, they still, in my opinion, tacitly condone Florida’s actions as long as they continue to host GHC in Florida.
While poking around on the AnitaB.org website, I also found this press release from 2022 on the passage of the “Don’t Say Gay, Don’t Say Trans” bill, which manages to make the situation even more anger-inducing. This says, in part (emphasis mine):
“AnitaB.org is scheduled to host our annual Grace Hopper Celebration in Orlando, Florida, in September 2022. Thousands from all over the world plan to attend this annual event–the world’s largest gathering of women and non-binary technologists. That is why we are so very committed to creating a safe space where ALL will be welcomed and which aligns with our values. While we have experienced a very positive working relationship with the people of Orlando, should this bill become law, we will have no choice but to reconsider Florida as our host state for our 2023 events and beyond. We believe in supporting the economy of a state that is deserving of this gathering, our time, talent, treasures, and dollars. Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay, Don’t Say Trans’ bill falls well below that standard.”
Well, that’s awkward. It’s 2023, and it looks like the conference is … still in Florida. Were these empty words? Is AnitaB.org doing the parental equivalent of counting to three before putting Florida in time out and never quite getting to three? “One. Two. Two and a half. Two and three quarters. Two and seven eighths — I MEAN IT THIS TIME, FLORIDA!” Why should I trust what AnitaB.org says about commitments when they’ve apparently not followed their own previous statements? The mind boggles.
I made a personal decision to not attend GHC this year. Ethically, I can’t square it with my own morals and beliefs. I continue to be extremely conflicted in my role as GHC wrangler. We have students who are super excited about attending in person. Many of these students will use GHC as an opportunity to learn about and interview for internships and jobs. Many will, for the first time, see their identities reflected in other computer scientists and technologists. All of those are completely valid reasons to send our students to GHC. But by sending our students (and our institution’s money) to this conference, what message are we sending to our trans students, our LGBTQIA+ students more generally, our Black students, etc. about their value as full humans? Are we, as I think we are, shooting ourselves in the foot?
At a time where we, institutionally and within our department, claim a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, how does supporting Florida’s agenda with our dollars square with that?