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Impact Starts with You

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Summary

Julia Nguyen delves into what they do at if-me.org to keep themselves accountable as an inclusive and beginner-friendly open source community. This accountability has taught her that the impact people have on themselves is just as powerful as the impact they have on others.

Bio

Julia Nguyen currently works at Mailchimp as a Senior Software Engineer. She is the founder of if-me.org, a free and open source mental health communication app. She created Southeast Asian Ladies in Tech. She is a speaker for Prompt, now part of Open Sourcing Mental Illness. She helped organize Write/Speak/Code San Francisco and the University of Waterloo Women in Computer Science.

About the conference

Software is changing the world. QCon empowers software development by facilitating the spread of knowledge and innovation in the developer community. A practitioner-driven conference, QCon is designed for technical team leads, architects, engineering directors, and project managers who influence innovation in their teams.

[Note: please be advised that this transcript contains strong language]

Transcript

Nguyen: Before I begin, I think it's really important to share content warning. These are all the topics I'll be mentioning and talking about through my talk. If any of this elicits any negative feelings or triggers you in any way, feel free to get up and leave. I won't be offended. I think boundaries are the most important things that we can set for ourselves, so I totally respect that.

I also want to say that I'll be speaking a lot about my own experiences with mental illness and talking about the mental health system. I am not a mental health professional. I only speak on behalf of my personal experiences, so FYI.

You

What's the first thing you ask someone when you meet them?

Participant 1: What do they do.

Participant 2: How are you?

Nguyen: I wish it was more of that, but you covered it. What do you do? I feel like, especially in this room, being folks in techs, being technologists, being engineers, designers, managers, etc., a lot of our identity is centered around what we do. I think overall we see this in society especially in the social media age where we're all brands, we're all thought leaders, we're all influencers online. I think about the Internet of the 2000s, and we were all aliases, we were all hiding around avatars. You could really be anyone who you wanted to be for better for worse.

Now you are your first and last name on the Internet. You are what you do, your job title, all of the side hustles that you do. Especially in tech, we have tech Twitter, and we're constantly feeling the pressure to advertise what we're doing and talking about all the side hustles we're doing, and it becomes a really exhausting pursuit to constantly try to one-up yourself ultimately and try to constantly put yourself out there and constantly project this idea that you are constantly making an impact.

Impact is a word I've been thinking a lot about lately. Interestingly enough, I came across this sign when I was walking to the conference this morning. I feel like impact is actually becoming this buzzword as well. It's becoming a commodity. The reason why I was really thinking about the word impact was that recently someone told me that there needed to be more evidence of my impact.

That put me into a pretty upsetting spiral, got into this whole existential crisis about why isn't my work appreciated, why am I not receiving the validation I deserve? I really took a step back and realize how unhealthy that was and how that feeds into this culture that we have online, especially in the tech industry, around being a thought leader or being an influencer. You can see a lot of cynical things about this, like we're all conceited, we're all self-absorbed, but I think at the end of the day, these are all things actually that make us human. We're all going to die, and that fucking sucks. The more that we can feel like we're permanent, the more that we can feel like we have an impact on the world, the more it'll make us feel better.

For me, the impact that I've really wanted to make in the past five years or so has been around my work doing a mental health activism. I've given a lot of talks about it. I do a lot of community organizing. I do a lot of advocacy work. I've been doing a lot of reflecting in the past five years around the work I've done, and I've come to realize more recently that a lot of the work that I've done around advocating for mental health and advocating for better treatment of mental illness has always been centered around productivity. It's always in the pursuit of being more productive in the workplace, being more productive at school ultimately being a more productive member of society. This talk will delve into that sort of why that's the case, and why we should detach ourselves from that, and just focus on mental health for the sake of us being human and us deserving to live our best lives.

This really started off in my undergrad education. I studied computer science. I struggled with mental illness my whole life. In university, that was no exception either. I magically somehow was – actually, not magically, but through a lot of hard work and perseverance – able to graduate with a CS degree, but dealt with a lot of difficulties throughout, failed a lot of courses, just dealt with a lot of issues when it came to accessing the mental health system at my university.

I wrote a lot about it. I started reading about it then. Writing about it and advocating for myself ended up becoming activism work for me. I started to petition for better accommodations on campus, better policies around being diagnosed from mental illness and getting support in academia. When I ended up graduating and working for tech companies and organizations, that evolved into similar work in that space, advocating for better mental health, support in the workplace, better benefits. A lot of interactions with HR fighting for better benefits and better time off for people dealing with mental health issues.

All of this has been a really rewarding work. For anyone in this room that deals with mental illness a lot of treatment around mental illness, you always have to advocate for yourself, and it's a really exhausting pursuit on top of actually dealing with the issues that you deal with. To be honest, I've been really burnt out from all of this.

I've constantly, in the past few years, really been talking about this more and writing about it and also trying to set boundaries for myself and just really acknowledging that we are worth a lot more than all the side hustles we do and all the projects that we have and our titles and our salaries, the list goes on. This is really exhausting. Dealing with this pressure to constantly produce things is really killing us, and it's really bad for our mental health.

In doing this work, especially in the tech space, I've interacted with a lot of software engineers in particular who have advocated for better mental health as well and have opened up about their mental illness. I've heard the word "high-functioning" used a lot, particularly in the tech space where a lot of software engineers will talk about their experiences with mental illness and how they're high-functioning and able to produce and be productive and go to work and do all these things.

I think about this term and how not everyone gets to be called high-functioning when it comes to mental illness. You think about marginalized communities, you think of communities of color, black and brown, you think of queer and trans communities, not everyone gets this label. One example are communities of color. I think not a lot of people here would be surprised by communities of color, particularly black and brown communities, don't get access to the same mental health treatment as everyone else, particularly white communities or white-passing communities, communities that are able-bodied or cysts or hetero.

I think this is really important to talk about as well, and particularly in the mental health industry, there isn't diversity either. Up until last year, I did not have a therapist that looks like me. All of my therapist, psychiatrist, psychologist growing up had been white women or white men. I think this is a discussion that's really important to have. I could talk about this forever, but I should move on.

I grew up in a low-income, single-parent family. I'm originally from Toronto. My parents are Vietnamese refugees. I was raised by my single mom. Shout-out to single parents out there who raise kids on their own. It's hard work. My mom is my hero, shout-out to her.

I was diagnosed with mental illness at a pretty early age. I have OCD, anxiety, depression, and more recently have been diagnosed with PTSD. Over the many years with dealing with mental health system, I've deal with hospitalizations, I've fortunately survived suicide attempts, and have just dealt with a lot of trauma, and struggled a lot with accessing the mental healthcare system, especially coming from a low-income background.

Interestingly enough, I think when I talk about being Asian and coming from a refugee family, people immediately assume that my family wasn't supportive, like all they wanted me to do was get As in school. That wasn't necessarily the case. I was really lucky to have a mom that was really supportive and took me to therapy and really encouraged me to take medication and seek help with the mental health system.

My youngest brother actually has autism. He's on the severe end of the spectrum and is nonverbal. I grew up seeing my mom constantly advocating for me and my brother. From an early age, I really learn that when it comes to healthcare, you have to do a lot of self-advocacy, and that itself is labor. Interestingly enough, having a brother who has a developmental disability, I sort of noticed differences in how we were treated. My brother who has autism was treated as someone who was born this way, someone that we have to accept, someone that we can't change but we can work with to help them live a better life. For me dealing with mental illness, I was treated as if it was a behavioral issue. I chose to behave this way. This was just a phase and something I had to grow out of.

Being Asian, and being Southeast Asian in particular my communities faced a lot of intergenerational trauma when it comes to colonialism and wars. My family was no exception either. I really grew up with this mentality that I have to swallow my pain and try to force through things and just live a better life and uplift my family from poverty and other issues as well. My mom did the same for me, and so did my grandma. This is sort of the mentality I had growing up.

I think most people, when they think of Asian communities, they see us as a monolith, but there is diversity within Asian communities. We're not all East Asian. I think something called the model minority myth is often applied to Asian communities. I won't delve into a sociology lesson right now, but if you want to look it up, it's basically this idea that Asian people are the model minority. Really, it's a way to weaponized minorities against each other. It's a way to pit minorities against each other and perpetuate anti-blackness.

All that being said, these were things that I didn't really think about and process as much until I went to university and really started confronting my mental illness. Working in Tech right now, being a software engineer, being in a really privileged position right now, and having experienced upward mobility where I'm able to support my loved ones, it's interesting to think about my life now versus in the past. I think about how the mental healthcare system was very inaccessible to me and my community and my family growing up. Now I can easily pay out of pocket.

Even though my life is better, I still feel like I'm ingrained with this refugee mentality where I have to uplift my community and my family. This is something I personally deal with. When I do social impact work, I often think about my community, where I come from. I think for a lot of people for marginalized communities or underrepresented groups, we have this pressure to uplift our community, and it's exhausting, and it's something that we can't necessarily stop doing.

I think in general social impact is something that's being talked about more and more in tech, especially this day and age where more of mainstream media is acknowledging the repercussions of bad algorithms and AI and all these buzzwords people like to use even though underrepresented people have been talking about it for years before, but that's another story.

I think in general we all have this desire, as humans, to make a good impact in the world, to make the world a better place. Often this Tech Forward, Tech for Good buzzword is thrown around. That was something that I really discovered in my second year of undergraduate, in university. I was interning for a company and was exposed for Tech for Good in the open-source space. I remember, it blew my mind, and I want to just start working on my projects.

That's how my project "if me" was born. It's a peer-to-peer community where people can share their mental health experiences with loved ones. It actually just started out as a tool that I use for myself. Back in 2014, I was starting to be more comfortable about talking about mental illness and how it affected me. I would actually use this tool that I made with Ruby on Rails at the time to share with my friends and my family things that I was going through.

Amazingly, this project has expanded and become an open-source project, but, generally speaking, it's like a blogging platform, but also a social network where you can share what you're going through within your allies, so your loved ones, your family, your friends, anyone in your life that you interact with on a daily basis. You can tag these moments with categories and moods, things that are relevant to you. You can also create strategies on how to tackle things, whether it's self-care, mental health treatment, etc. In addition, you can also keep track of your medications, which is really important for some folks. Then create support groups, where you can discuss certain topics and maybe meet up and talk about mental health experiences.

Community

I created this platform, and it ended up being a peer-to-peer community where people can support each other. It being an open-source project, I've also really learned the importance of also building that community internally as an open-source project. Amazingly, we've had over hundreds of contributors contribute from all over the world. They're not just developers. They're designers. There's testers. They're people who are interested in mental health and advocating for it. We also have a blog and have published a lot of articles and paid people to write articles. We've translated our site into 11 different languages, which is pretty amazing.

The most important thing I think about when it comes to maintaining my open-source project is actually documentation. I think it's the foundation for everything. I think it's the foundation for building a community internally as an open-source project, but also externally as a platform. I spent a lot of time working on this and also encouraging everyone who contributes to our project to give back to our docs especially with open-source, where all of this work is voluntary.

I remember when I first started making an open-source. We'd have all these amazing contributors come in and contribute amazing features and projects and ideas. Then they would leave. That made me feel really sad, because I was like, "Damn, we should retain them. What can we do to retain them?" I started to accept later on that this is the nature of open source. People come and go, and that's actually ok, especially when it comes to respecting our mission of thinking about and supporting mental health. It's ok to take breaks. It's ok to leave things. You're not tied to things forever.

Based on that idea of contributors coming and going, we try our best to find ways to value contributors, to value their impact in the short time that we have them contributing. Part of that is contributor appreciation, just finding creative ways to show appreciation and to give credit where it's due to people who contribute to our project.

One thing that we do every week or every two weeks is that we have weekly shout-outs. We actually use Slack. Slack is not the greatest tool for communication, especially if you're using their free tier, but in terms of including all types of contributors, not just developers, Slack is pretty accessible. We use Slack to post weekly updates and just give shout-outs to people who contribute and talk about what's going on. It's a really good way of giving credit to people but also connecting people to each other so that they can communicate to each other if they have ideas.

Another thing we do is we think about contributor well-being. As a mental health project, it would be pretty hypocritical if we didn't address mental health. We're pretty explicit about the importance of taking care of yourself. It's ok to leave the project. It's ok to take breaks. Communicating that is important, but you don't have to disclose everything. We really try to cultivate a culture of that and we also point people to resources that could help them if they're going through a difficult time.

Another thing we do is, on our actual site, we have a contributor page where we showcase everyone who contributes to the project. People get to write about what mental health means to them, why they're contributing, and other things that they think are meaningful. We also recognize that not everyone can come out and be like, "I'm working on this mental health project." We don't force people to write a contributor blurb. We also give people the option to just list their name.

Being an open-source project, where we're building something and constantly learning, we also acknowledge that we're all learning. We have a pool of resources on helpful things and helpful articles, courses that you can take, that will help you contribute to our project.

My favorite part of the contributor community really is a thought leadership that we cultivate. It's been really amazing over the years to see people write about contributing to the project, step up as leaders, and mentor other people, mentor the project during hackathons or events like Hacktoberfest. This gives me a lot of warm feels, and it's really nice, and just to see other people feel empowered to make something out of it is really magical to me.

I think the hardest part, though, of maintaining an open-source project is money. Open-source is susceptible to the plight of capitalism. We do need money to survive, and it's been really hard over the years to get money. Some of it has been imposter syndrome, feeling like my project isn't big enough or legitimate enough or popular enough or I'm not popular enough to be able to get money through crowdfunding.

The other side of it is that asking for money is a lot of work. We've been fortunate to get money through a couple of grants, but that required me to do a lot of grant writing. Asking for money, creating crowdfunding campaigns is all work. I guess this is a plug for my project. If you can, it would be great to get some money, but going back to this idea of impact, impact has been very much commodified. The fact that we have to constantly ask for money and put ourselves out there is a very exhausting pursuit. It would be nice if we didn't have to do that, especially in an open-source, where the only projects that get significant money are the web packs of the world, any type of technology framework basically gets lots of money. Everything else doesn't. Running "if me" really has felt like a non-profit.

Something else that's really important, though, when it comes to money and compensation is even though we can't pay everyone who contributes to our project, we actually make sure that we pay our writers. I personally believe that writing about your mental health and writing about vulnerable experiences is labor that deserves to be paid. We try to make sure we save money to pay our writers.

Also, when it comes to writing in our blog, we really encourage people to speak just from their personal experience. None of us are spokespersons for any groups or communities. I'm not a spokesperson for people with OCD. I'm not a spokesperson for Southeast Asian women. Just encouraging people to do that and only speak on behalf of themselves. On top of that, we also give people the option to submit anonymously as well, because we can't always come forward with our names when we talk about difficult things.

I think compensation is really important especially this day and age where there are a lot of projects that out there that are asking people to share their story and share really vulnerable experiences. There's this term called "trauma porn," where people from marginalized or underrepresented groups have to tell their life story, have to share all of these really difficult traumatic experiences in order to be heard. I think it's really important to acknowledge that, and if you can, pay people when they do share that.

Another thing that we've really enjoyed having is interns. We've participated with Rails Girls Summer of Code over the years for paid internships, going back to the whole compensation thing. It's been really awesome over the years to have amazing women from around the world contribute to our project and get paid for it. There are three-month internships where they actually get to work out of tech offices in their location. They get mentors on top of the mentors that we provide them. These interns that we've had have been amazing, and they've done really awesome things.

I think at the end of the day, when I talk about all of these wonderful things, it's really taught me that the most important thing that we can build is community.

Engineering

When it comes to being an open-source project that is a technical project, that is a software project, I think we can apply this idea of community building to engineering as well. You can't build an inclusive open-source project that deals with software without thinking about community.

Like our contributor side of our documentation, our developer side is also very community-focused. We try to think about inclusion as much as possible, especially when it comes to including new contributors to open source. One way that we do this for our developers is that we offer our dev environment in three different flavors. We try to make sure things work in Mac, Linux, and windows. I will admit, though, windows is pretty hard to get Ruby on Rails running, but we try our best.

Another thing that we do, though, is we encourage everyone to contribute to our docs, not just people who are senior engineers or developers. We encourage anyone who interacts with our docs, who thinks that it can improve, to feel empowered to change it.

We try to integrate this as well with our handling of GitHub issues. In terms of issue creation, we make sure we label all of our issues appropriately. We found that it really helps to label your issues with the technology that you're using. It makes searchability really easy, especially for new contributors who want to apply or learn specific skills. I think this has become more common practice now, but I'm creating a beginner-friendly tag, or a first-timers only tag is also really helpful, leveraging issue templates.

In terms of picking issues, we really try to get people to think about their mental health here. Oftentimes we get a lot of contributors who are really excited to contribute, and they pick up a bunch of tickets, and we try to remind them, "You should pick up one issue at a time. Trust us." Picking up multiple issues at the time it's actually a lot of work. We encourage that, and we also encourage communication, where if you're unable to work on an issue for whatever reason, it's absolutely ok. Just unassign yourself, and someone else can pick it up.

On top of being an open-source project that is entirely remote, we really try to encourage people to collaborate when they can, whether it's on Slack, whether it's through video chat, whether it's through voice chat as well. For our developers, we really encourage pair programming, and we've provided resources and tools and guides on actually how to do this.

In terms of tooling for open source project, I think it's really important to recommend tools that everyone can use. Not everyone can afford to pay for software licenses, so recommending free choice tools is really helpful. On top of that, a lot of companies actually provide free licenses to tooling if you are an open-source project or nonprofit. We actually do that for JetBrains and also BrowserStack.

In terms of pull request practices, this is pretty standard fare. I think this aligns with standard best practices in software engineering. Make your PR small. On top of that, for people who've never contributed to open-source before, or even interacted with GitHub or software development, we have guides on our best practices for code quality in the front end and back end. We also really encourage people to run testing, to use our linting scripts, and not to just rely on continuous integration.

Our code review practices is pretty extensive, but overall, what I want to say here is that we really encourage everyone to participate, not just senior engineers. We provide a lot of mentoring and also learning resources on how to participate in code reviews.

We have this thing called code review commandments, which is inspired by Angie Jones The 10 Commandments of Navigating Code Reviews. For us, when it comes to code reviews, we really believe that collaboration is the most important thing. A lot of open-source products these days have code of conduct now, which is really awesome, and use the amazing Contributor Covenant, which Coraline Ada made. We really want to make sure that this code of conduct also extends to code reviews as well. The values of empathy, kindness, and inclusion should also extend to our interactions when we're reviewing each other's code. We provide a lot of training and mentorship around how to do this.

In terms of code quality, again, we really encourage people to think about best practices and to contribute to it and to also read up on it. We provide a lot of mentorship on this as well. Also, when it comes to doing code reviews, I feel like most people in this room can relate, oftentimes there can be really difficult and contentious conversations. We really recommend that if a conversation becomes too tense in GitHub to actually move that conversation to a different medium, maybe Slack, maybe a video chat, maybe a voice call.

Just in general, thinking about good practices and community building, and applying that to engineering practices actually goes a really long way. Sometimes I wish we could apply this more in the workplace, but I control my open-source project, and that's a nice thing I have.

Then the next part of doing code reviews and creating PRs is a review cycle. With open-source, it's not like the workplace where you get constant feedback from people; people work on their own schedules, people forget about things, and that's ok. We really encourage people to reach out on Slack when their primary reviewer isn't around.

We also have documentation on our deployments. I think that this is really important to outline, especially for people who are new to open source and just want to know what's going on. We also do monitoring as well with Sentry, which is really helpful. We use semantic versioning. semantic versioning or SemVer oftentimes comes across as a buzzword, so we actually explained in our docs what that means and how that's actually relevant to our project.

I'll be talking about two projects that have been really significant when it comes to the impact that we've had with "if me," the first one being internationalization. This project actually started two years ago when we translated our app to Spanish. I give all credit to this to Bee. Bee actually started our blog and also started our translations effort, and everyone else pictured here contributed and helped out as well.

The reason why we chose Spanish actually is because, besides English, it's the most spoken language in the U.S., and it covers so many different diverse communities. Just getting to know community organizers who are Latino or Latinx come to learn my own communities the Vietnamese community and other immigrant communities. The access to mental healthcare is even more difficult when you don't speak English as your first language. Even though our app doesn't fix all of mental health, the fact that we translate is really valuable, and it provides help to someone in some shape or form.

From that translation project, we've built extensive documentation on actually how to contribute to translations. Since then we've had 10 other languages translated, most recently Hindi. We've empowered other people in our project to actually build specific tooling to help out with the technical side of translations.

Going back to the importance of appreciating other people's impact, we interview all of our translators if they consent to on the project and what they've learned from it and why they're translating our app. It's a really kind way to show appreciation, but also highlight amazing work that people have done with translations. The I team project is really interesting because it puts together a developer and a translator. Thinking about open source projects and inclusion, it's really important to think about how developers and non-developers or non-technical folks interact with each other.

The next project and last project we'll talk about is our app redesign project. Our app is Ruby on Rails, and for a while, we weren't using a front-end framework. We were just using the Rails asset pipeline with good old jQuery. It worked out for us for a number of years, but it was really hard to build new features and iterate on it and test on it, so we decided to move to a front-end framework, namely React. Originally, we wanted to move to a single-page application, but we decided that it was a lot of work to do at once, so we've been doing that incrementally, thanks to this awesome library called React on Rails.

Rewriting our front-end codebase, to React also gave us the opportunity to actually redesign the app. Thanks to Nishiki Liu, who's our awesome developer designer extraordinaire, we have our current app redesign. Doing design work and open source isn't a very common thing. Coming across designers open-source is pretty rare, so appreciate them when you have them. It's been really awesome to be able to use Figma, actually, as a tool. It's a really great tool. I think their free tier could be a little better, but it's been a really awesome way to share designs and collaborate remotely.

Our redesign project actually prompted a really good opportunity for developers. We ended up building a UI library, a component library, with all of our new components, and we made individual tickets out of them. This ended up being a really good opportunity for developers of different skill sets to contribute. Developers could focus on a specific component, think about ways to write good code, test it properly, and ultimately build something that had pretty high impact on our project. I talked more about this in detail in my talk Navigating Front-End Architecture Like a Neopian. Neopian team is great, but I'll stop there.

Takeaways

Like I said, I keep repeating this over and over again, I really think community is the most important thing we can build. As technologists at a tech conference, we should always think about this and hold ourselves accountable. It's important to also build a community that's sustainable where you can retain people and also appreciate people for their impact.

As most of you in this room know hopefully, open-source is more than just coding. Documentation is the foundation of community and open-source. It's really important to hold ourselves accountable constantly and think about how we can be more empathetic, more inclusive, and more transparent about the work that we're doing. With open-source, especially, this is all volunteer work that often goes unpaid, but there are things that you can do to compensate people for their labor and show appreciation. Being in the open-source space that does social impact work, I constantly have to think about practicing what we're preaching and holding myself accountable to that.

When I started off this project in 2014 I was an undergrad student, pretty naive, and just saw the world from a very different lens, and wanted my project to be this amazing thing that saves the world and made a huge impact in the mental health space. That hasn't happened in the ways that I've wanted to, and it's ok. Something that I've really learned is that the impact that you have doesn't necessarily pan out in the way that you want to.

In general, impact is something that shouldn't be commodified. In the Bay Area in Silicon Valley, it's the opposite. Ideas are money. Ideas are patents. Ideas are startups. Ideas are the next big thing. I really like the open-source model of ideas being open and ideas worth sharing and collaborating on. I think it's really important, especially in my space, to amplify other people who are doing meaningful work with mental health.

Our resources page, for instance, outlines a whole bunch of resources that are useful online and offline when it comes to mental health. Not only is it a way to showcase all the amazing stuff that exists out there, too, but it's also a nice resource page. If you're looking for specific things, my project doesn't solve all mental health problems, so I think it's important to acknowledge that.

On top of that, in our blog, we interview community organizers, activists, and advocates who do mental health work. I've been really grateful to connect with all of these amazing people, people like Davia and Paul, they're doing work on the ground, they're doing work without technology, or without creating an app, and it's really got me thinking about how it's important to reach out to the community around you. Yes, it's like wearing a bubble sometimes, especially as tech workers, but the world exists all the time around us, and it's easily accessible if you actually put the effort into it.

Over the years I've really really been into this whole social impact, a mission-driven thing. I've worked for a lot of companies that have done this work. I've volunteered for a lot of organizations that have done this work. I've been burned by a lot of it. I think a lot of it is symptomatic to capitalism. Any time you put money in front of anything, things get ugly and complicated. I think it's really important to constantly hold ourselves accountable to that and question these mission-driven organizations. Just because you have an awesome mission that saves the world or does great, brave things, it doesn't mean internally your organization is healthy and strong. It's important to build a community inside like you are on the outside. If you don't, things get really bad. Things get ugly. I've unfortunately had really bad experiences working for some mission-driven organization and dealt with harassment, dealt with burnout, dealt with really awful things. This is what happens when you don't hold yourself accountable.

Having a culture of feedback is really important. Being able to transparently talk about how you can improve is really important. Even though things aren't perfect with my own project, it's something that we try to do. We try to create channels for both non-anonymous and anonymous feedback.

On top of that, going back to this whole idea of money and commodifying all things that are good, I think it's also important to think about how systemic forms of oppression play into all of this. Most mission-driven companies out there that have got lots of money are funded by white people, so it's always important to recognize that and ask ourselves, how are marginalized groups being treated, how are queer and trans people of color, especially black and brown folks, being treated. Are they being compensated for their labor? Are they being exploited? Instead of just supporting our usual well-funded mission-driven companies that are run by white people, how can we support companies that are actually run by marginalized leaders?

In the mental health space, we're increasingly seeing things being coming commodified the self-care movement is a whole huge thing now. Self-care started off as this idea of self-preservation, this idea of recharging and taking care of yourself. Now it's a commodity. Now you have to subscribe to meditation services. Now you have to subscribe to blogs, books, and articles in order to achieve self-care, and that's really messed up, especially in the context of mental healthcare and how it's inaccessible to certain communities and marginalized communities.

I think it's really important here to question that as well. A lot of self-care is often equated with meditation and mindfulness, and those are really great practices that come from beautiful, rich cultures, but oftentimes exploited and commodified for money. I think it's important to question that and think about how we can actually support meditation practices or mindfulness practices from people who actually represent these cultures.

The last thing I do want to say about self-care is that self-care is often equated with mental health treatment. I think it's really important to acknowledge that it's not mental health treatment. I think there's a lot of opinions on what mental health treatment is, but I think it's really a holistic thing. I think equating self-care with something that is clinical can be a little dangerous, so also important to think about that as well.

Having done activism work for the past five years, I've gotten really burnt out, and I've come to recognize that I don't have to suffer in order to care. I don't have to suffer in order to further my cause. When I started out doing this work, I often came up on stage and told my story and shared a lot of trauma about my experiences, and I got really burnt out from that, and I got really uncomfortable. Throughout the years, I've felt that I have to share more and more in order to further my cause, in order to be like, "Look, I'm a legitimate activist." I think it's important to set boundaries. You don't have to suffer in order to further your cause.

On top of that, you can't help other people if you can't help yourself first. For folks who don't do activism work, I think in general you don't have to bring yourself out to show that you care, especially in the tech industry where it feels like your job consumes your life, and it's your identity. It's advertised all over your social media profiles. I think it's important to set boundaries and recognize that there's more to life than that, and that sometimes it's ok for a tech job to be a job for a paycheck. Companies don't give a shit about you, and that's ok.

I've been reflecting a lot on all of this. The biggest lesson I've really learned is the importance of loving yourself and knowing yourself worth and not relying on other people for validation, especially in this industry where everything is commodified. Companies don't care about you. They care about selling stuff. The more that we acknowledge that, the more we'll feel less personally affected by things.

Doing activism work, I mentioned earlier that it often feels like I have to constantly overshare. I've learned in the past few years that boundaries are extremely important. For me, they're like my best friend. It's important to set these boundaries, and you don't have to share everything in order to get your point across. As companies and organizations and communities become increasingly aware of the importance of treating mental health and addressing it, I think we can create these communities without having to make people share their trauma in order to be believed.

At the end of the day the people who are near and dear to you matters the most. Not everyone on social media is your friend. Not everyone at work, not everyone in this industry is your cheerleader, or they're not there to validate you all the time, and that's ok. That's part of life. It's really important to build a network of people that care about you regardless of what your impact is.

Taking care of yourself matters the most. Emotional labor is real. Trauma is real. Burnout is real. Take the time and space that you need to recharge. For folks in this room, we're all pretty privileged to be here. We should make the most of that privilege and make sure that we take care of ourselves especially before taking care of other people.

Before I end my talk, I want to say that it's really important to remind yourself every day that you are worth so much more than your impact. You're worth so much more than your social media profile, than your salary, than your title, than anything that you feel like makes you worth something. You're worth it because you're human, and you deserve love, and you deserve that space to find that.

 

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Recorded at:

Mar 10, 2020

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