On the Doors

It has been a few months since I doorbelled for a candidate, but it was good to get back into it. I got soaked, I got lost, I got growled and yipped and whined at. I had a puppy climb my leg and a stormwater puddle fill my shoe. And I got to connect to voters, to people who were interested and engaged. I got to talk about what our city looks like now, things that are going well–growth and the opportunities that come with it–and that are going less well–growth, and the challenges that so often come with it.

I talked to people who answered the door and weren’t on my list, and got to “inaccessible” people on my list. I moved people from cautious to excited. I got told I was “doing God’s work.” I had my lit handed back to me in a huff. I let people know how the District system will work. I tried to make them feel like someone is listening, someone is hearing what hurts and what works in their community, and that someone is willing to act. I got to walk and talk in support of a friend’s candidacy, a first-time experience and one I hope to repeat often.

Walking the streets in a democracy, in service of our democracy, is an undeniable privilege. There are places in the world I couldn’t walk down a street by myself; these are often the same places where people cannot vote to change their government. There are places where people are trapped inside by war or custom, and where it takes insane bravery to step outside. I feel gratitude whenever I doorbell, gratitude that I live in a country where I can walk and knock on strangers’ doors and enlist them in changing our world. I feel so grateful that this public expression of privately-held belief is part of how our democracy happens, that this is something I am allowed to do in my community.

Afterwards, I got to hang-out and chat with some organizers, people of my people, those fast-talking, fact-spitting, often patient and always excitable people. We ate bar food, tried to decipher our rain-addled scribbles, and shared stories. This too is part of how democracy happens: the check-lists and clipboards, the public fellowship and quiet conversations about the race, the people who spend 5 hours on a Sunday walking fast and talking slow, making our democracy go.

Inspirational Quote:

“If you don’t imagine, nothing ever happens at all.” ― John Green, Paper Towns

Curb Cuts, On and Offline

This past weekend as part of my weekend program for progressive leaders I went to a talk from some of the people who run public transportation in Portland.

They spoke at the TriMet offices, which is the metropolitan transit authority for Portland and its surrounding communities. A friend and I showed up 20 minutes early because we were a bit behind on the changing text messaged locations of the group, so we had just went to the next place on the itinerary to wait for everyone to catch up.

When we walked into the lobby of TriMet, we saw an obstacle course. Here is a picture I took after everyone else showed up:

Tri-Met in Portland, disability testing center.
Ramps and pitfalls and gravel and uneven-plywood and a 12.5% grade ramp. A showcase of environments a person whose legs aren’t cooperating faces when getting around a city.

The three men who were presenters and worked at TriMet told us that was the exact purpose of this indoor playground: to help people using public transit evaluate whether they could walk to a bus, needed front-door pick-up, or something else entirely. The presenters said it has helped them decrease costs by tailoring alternative transportation options to the people who needed them.

I’ve been professionally interested in usability and universal access design in computers since I went to my first Hopper conference in 2007 when I wandered into a presentation from a woman with a macular degenerative disorder who worked on usability. I’ve personally interested since Peggy in my home church had her MS get so bad she had to move from a manual to an electric wheelchair. When that happened, my Mom took my brother and I to the Harley Davidson outlet and we bought her a fistful of flaming skull and screaming eagle stickers for her new ride. She laughed when she put them on her chair. She used to give my brother rides around the church courtyard on her chair; it was flat and smooth, regularly swept concrete with space for her broad-sided turns.

The three men in Portland shared my passion for accessibility, and like all nerds when gathered, we began to exchange acronyms and catch phrases related to our fandom. One man said he considered himself a “TAB,” that is, “Temporarily Able-Bodied.” I told him I tell people:

“We’ll all have a disability if we live long enough.”

He laughed, so I snatched my glasses off my face, waved them around and said:

“Just because these are a socially-accepted prosthetic, didn’t mean I am any less hindered without them attached to my face!”

It was a bit performative, and I was certainly preaching to my choir. But I needed something even nerdier to share. I asked if they’d heard about how web accessibility nerds talk about curb cuts. The three men shook their heads. The coinage of fandom is esoterica, and here I had brought them a gem.

Curb cuts are those little ramps on the corners of sidewalks. I told the assembled men how people who design websites think a lot about curb cuts. As I understand it, curb cuts became much more common after the Americans with Disabilities Act passed at the federal level with new standards for build environments and were originally designed to help people in wheelchairs get around.

But that’s not how they’re most commonly used today. Sure: they are vital for people who have trouble walking or cannot walk at all. But curb cuts also help delivery-people not trip on the sharp right-edges of sidewalks. They help Moms with strollers (“And Dads! Dads too! I walk my daughters all the time!” interjects the conscientious, bearded Portland man in the conversation). And, most importantly (to me at least), they enabled massive growth in the roller-bag industry.

This may be apocryphal, since a few minutes of furtive Googling did not rate me a definitive history of the roller-bag. But the story goes this way. Roller-bags were rare before curb cuts. They only worked for people with strong arms and who lived in smooth, flat, regularly swept places. Enter ADA sidewalk requirements, including curb cuts. Suddenly, all kinds of people can carry absurdly heavy roller-bags, because they never have to lift them.

(I once spent a June night hauling 2 50lb roller bags 1.5 miles from the T-station to my summer rental apartment in Somerville, MA alone at 9:30pm (with hundreds of leopard slugs baring my path, but that is a different story). I could not have rolled all of my clothes for an 8-week summer program at the Berkman Center without curb cuts.)

The three men of TriMet were suitably impressed and let me continue to play on the obstacle course as we waited for the rest of the group. Their actual talk had to do with how to use transit to encourage density, leave healthy neighborhoods, and undercut myopic reliance on cars. It was colorful and has made me think differently about the role of regional transportation districts in our states.

Our chat was also a chance for me to think about physical differences, rather than the invisible ones I spend more of my time thinking about. Invisible differences are a common topic in my online circles. My tumblr feed is rich with folks struggling and conquering and being kicked in the head by depression, bi-polar disorder, Autism spectrum issues, fibromyalgia, and all manner of differences that make accessing most of the world harder.

A citizen of my feed posted this quote and commentary, which rang in the back of my head through the curb cut conversation with the three men of TriMet. I’ve had it in a note on my desktop for a month so I could think about it, and it finally found the context it needed to be shared:

“Another myth that is firmly upheld is that disabled people are dependent and non-disabled people are independent. No one is actually independent. This is a myth perpetuated by disablism and driven by capitalism – we are all actually interdependent. Chances are, disabled or not, you don’t grow all of your food. Chances are, you didn’t build the car, bike, wheelchair, subway, shoes, or bus that transports you. Chances are you didn’t construct your home. Chances are you didn’t sew your clothing (or make the fabric and thread used to sew it).

The difference between the needs that many disabled people have and the needs of people who are not labelled as disabled is that non-disabled people have had their dependencies normalized. The world has been built to accommodate certain needs and call the people who need those things independent, while other needs are considered exceptional. Each of us relies on others every day. We all rely on one another for support, resources, and to meet our needs. We are all interdependent. This interdependence is not weakness; rather, it is a part of our humanity.”

– AJ Withers, Disability Politics and Theory (via thalensis)

[Comment from the poster] This reminds me super-a-lot of a section from Critic of the Dawn, published 11 years earlier by Cal Montgomery, so I’m gonna leave that here.

“But some rely on supports which are so common as to go unnoticed, while others use support that is atypical and therefore apparent. Some supports are provided by the community as a whole and go unnoticed, while others are borne — or not — by a small number of people whose lives are profoundly affected.” (via yesthattoo)

These quotes, the metaphor of the curb cuts, my wild gestures with my glasses–they all get to the same core argument of the accessibility fan. We’re trying to help people who don’t get it yet that universal accessibility matters using metaphors they live with every day. Accessibility matters because it’s just luck that my legs work for walking. Accessibility matters because curb cuts improve everyone’s lives. Accessibility matters because there are justice-reasons for making our built environment accessible to all, but practical ones as well, like that it makes it easier to get roller-bags around late at night in a Boston suburb.

Accessibility matters because I bet the three men of TriMet have had a Peggy in their lives, and join me in wanting everywhere in the world to be as open and welcoming to them as our church courtyard was to my Peggy.

Inspirational Quote:

“I am a dependent person. I eat food whose final preparation I handle myself, but which has come to me across roads laid and maintained by other people from stores staffed by other people — and even those people didn’t grow or raise or harvest or slaughter any of it. I wear clothes made by other people from cloth woven by still others. I am human: I depend on others. And this is called independence.

I am a dependent person. I need human contact, most of which I receive through an Internet built and maintained by many other people. I do not know my neighbors, but even face-to-face interaction requires someone’s cooperation. I have learned from my time in isolation rooms that I can handle a while without human interaction, but that eventually it will become unbearable. I am human: I depend on others. And this is called independence.

I am a dependent person. The words I work with were taught to me by people who wrote and read them before I traced my first A. The language I work in is a living entity, shaped and grown over centuries by billions upon billions of speakers. The ideas I work on are part of a tradition nurtured by many thinkers. I am human: I depend on others. And this is called independence.” — Cal Montgomery, Critic of the Dawn

Cards Against Bigotry

Column1Imagine the old woman in your life. Maybe she lives in a cramped apartment like yours, or across your suburban fence, or on the other side of your county road. Imagine what she thinks about when you say “the Middle East.” As someone who loves and has lived in the region, when she hears that phrase I want her to think of brave people innovating, changing their nations and the world. But I do not believe that is what she will think of; I fear the old woman in your life will see an ISIS agent beheading an American citizen.

Now imagine what she sees when you say the word “Africa.” Though I have never been south of Cairo, I have friends sprinkled across a cross-section of the 47 countries on continent. I want her to think of the start-ups, the female heads of state, the diversity and the growth. But I fear when she hears the name of that continent, she sees the fly-specked eyes of a child she could “save” for only $.39 a day.

Now imagine what she thinks of when you say “geek.” Probably Steve Jobs or the kid from War Games. The geek in her mind is white, male, wealthy, from the West coast of the United States. As a woman in technology, I know and hate that this is the image that rises in the minds of most people when I say “geek.”

These images are clearly wrong. They are false. They are bad. But they are powerful. The old woman in your life didn’t imagine them in the dark cupboards of her mind. These images–the Middle Eastern terrorist, the starving African child, the always-male coder–are coined, honed, and constantly repeated in our media, our conversations, our politics. Unless we insist on better images, they smooth the way for policies that dismiss suffering outside our borders as inevitable. They scare investors away from smart, thriving countries. They discourage women from pursuing careers they might love dearly.

These bad images are strong. I believe truth is stronger, if we tell it right.

You know the images in people’s minds can change. The old woman in your life has lived to see an African American Professor become president. When she first fixed an image in her mind to the word “President,” it was probably someone who looked like Dwight Eisenhower.

The old woman in your life has lived to see female Secretaries of State. She has lived to see the information flowing over fiberoptic cables weave people together to build entirely new forms of identity. What did “Redditor” mean when she was a child? Googler? Blogger? Nothing. But these new words mean something now, describe communities that change the world.

I believe images in people’s minds change because their friends change them. Because people with relationships and bette knowledge share an alternate, true image of what is means to be from a nation in the Middle East, from a country in Africa. Because “geek” can come to mean a Palestinian woman who became the first female licensed ham radio operator in Gaza:

TechWomen Cards_H10

“Geek” can also refer to the founder of 2 companies in South Africa:

TechWomen Cards_C8

“Geek” could respectfully refer to any one of the 54 other examples Alumnae of the TechWomen program provide in the playing card deck TechWomen Emerging Leaders from Africa and the Middle East. So could the words “leader” or “technologist” or “professional.” Women in the deck have completed an internship in a top Silicon Valley company and received high-quality mentoring through the program, all compounding impressive resumes they built in their home countries.

I helped the alumnae of TechWomen design a deck to showcase the achievements of some of their many alumnae not only because I have been involved with the program since Katy Dickinson (my Mom) signed-on as process architect at the beginning. I spent evenings and weekends after my day-job working for the chair of the Washington state house Budget committee designing, managing production of, and explaining this cool deck.

I designed this deck because I cannot stand the false images the old woman in my life has of the people who live in the Middle East and Africa. I am so tired of how narrowly defined “geek” or “technologist” or “leader” are in her mind. And because I believe we can change people’s stereotypes, unknit their (often unintentional) bigotry, by sharing better images and stories.

This is not the first playing card deck showcasing inspiring women in technology, or even the first such deck I worked on with my Mom. Last fall we worked with a friend at Duke University, running a Kickstarter that raised over 500% of its goal for a deck of cards showing off the faces and achievements of Notable Women in Computing. We sent that deck to eager educators in nearly 100 classrooms around the world and recently saw it covered in Business Insider. We’re seeing it change minds, just like the TechWomen Emerging Leaders in the Middle East and Africa deck will. One educator we gave a deck to said:

“So with the semester having started, I finally was able to hand out the first donated deck to one of my star students. Picture is attached. I teach at Kentucky State University, which is an HBCU, so I was looking through the deck for african-american women to shuffle to the front (hard to see in the picture). Turns out I never knew about the awesome story of Katherine Johnson. One more role model to add to my class pep talks! Thanks again for the donation. I have a couple of more students that are very deserving recipients for these and I’ll hand them out as the semester progresses.”

That educator now has a broader series of images when he thinks about what it means to be a geek (Katherine Johnson is pretty amazing).

The TechWomen Emerging Leaders in Africa and the Middle East is to my knowledge the first card deck in the world to honor technical women in the Middle East and Africa. Like in the images above, it includes 54 examples of living, exciting, inspiring women from countries the old women in our lives perhaps do not associate with technical innovation. It showcases women who rightly should be the first images that come to mind when someone says “Middle East” or “Africa” or “geek.”

To ensure the people represented in the deck approved of it, Mom carried 50 posters and 30 decks of cards with her on last month’s TechWomen delegation to South Africa. The reception was intense–and positive:

Katy Dickinson presenting a "TechWomen Emerging Leaders in Africa and the Middle East" poster to Dep. Minister Dept. Telecommunications and Postal Services, Cape Town, South Africa.

Katy Dickinson presenting a “TechWomen Emerging Leaders in Africa and the Middle East” poster to Dep. Minister Dept. Telecommunications and Postal Services, Cape Town, South Africa.


A teacher in South Africa holding a deck of the cards and a copy of the poster.

A teacher in South Africa holding a deck of the cards and a copy of the poster.

Zimkhita Buwa holding her card, the 7 of diamonds.

Zimkhita Buwa holding her card, the 7 of diamonds.

Government officials and teachers and women in the deck were intrigued and excited and honored by the deck when Katy and others presented the cards and posters to them. They said they could think of immediate uses for the deck, both to teach sorting functions and the reality that women–South African women, Lebanese women, Rwandan women, Yemeni women, all nationalities and specialties of women–have always been important to the development of technology.

Though we only printed 30 decks for that trip to South Africa, we’ve since printed 125 more and have them to sell. You’re welcome to print a copy of the deck or poster yourself (everything is Creative Commons-licensed), or to buy one at cost here. We want these decks to travel far and further.

The TechWomen Emerging Leaders from Africa and the Middle East Deck is a part of my contribution to the work of ending bigotry. The deck showcases technical women from Africa and the Middle East because they deserve better than the ugly images in the old woman in your life’s head. We used a deck of cards because social justice can go down like candy and not just like kale. It is free to download because the old woman in your life is probably on a fixed income.

Think back to the old woman in your life one last time. Think about sitting down to a game of Hearts with her. Think about her holding up her hand–careful, where you cannot glimpse it–and seeing woman after woman after woman who are emerging technical leaders in the Middle East and Africa. Think about sharing some of their stories. Think about her seeing Queens and Kings and Aces and deuces and threes, all technical women, all from the Middle East and Africa. Think about the next time she hears the phrase “the Middle East” or the word “Africa” or “geek” and how she’ll think of Mai or Nomso or Zimkhita, rather than those ugly slanders.

The old woman in your life can play with these cards and learn. The women and girls in your life looking for inspiration to consider or continue a career in technology may find it in this deck. And the urgent truth that women have always been important globally is written on every card in this deck. Check out the deck, let us know if you have questions, and remember: mind change, but only when we change them. This deck can help.

PS: This deck would not have been possible without the enthusiastic support of all of the women pictured in it, as well as the committee that ensured it came to life:

Thank you.

Inspirational Quote:
“A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are for. Sail out to sea and do new things.”
— Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, the U.S. Navy’s oldest active-duty officer at the time of her retirement, developer of the first compiler for a computer programming language, developer of UNIVAC I and COBOL, and coiner of the terms “computer bug” and “debugging.”

For going out, we found, was really going in

Like all proper geeks, Matthew and I think a good Saturday is spent in front of screens–together, in separate corners, with breaks to cook for each other and talk through the small missed moments of our weeks.

But growing up, I spent many Saturdays on a train. From Palo Alto to Mountain View to explore their superior multi-story library. From San Jose to San Francisco to see my grandparents. From Palo Alto to Menlo Park, again for their library, this one a single story but with a fanciful stained glass mural with a unicorn over the entrance.

In college, it was the same way. I would get on a train every other weekend to go and see Matthew. Those trips–whether 26 minutes or 8 hours–were a special recharging time for me. I felt like they were my chance to get outside of myself, to get past swimming through the week’s lapping waves and onto a spit of beach, to see further and more broadly into my life.

In DC, I had to use planes to see Matthew, which have never provided me the same freedom as cars. That was probably because each plane trip starts with an invasion of privacy from the Transportation Security Administration and includes such layers of dehumanizing bureaucracy that nearly all joy has left flight, making it hard to recharge once I emerged from the tunnel of security theater. I seeing the world from up-high, but the emotional price to get there is too much today when I could climb a mountain instead.

To enable me to have my new job in Olympia, Matthew and I bought a car last month. She’s a bright yellow Honda Fit named Éowyn. I’ve put 1500 miles on her since we bought her. Some of those are my weekly commute, some are travel as part of my membership in a weekend leadership institute for progressive politicos, the Institute for a Democratic Future.

But several hundred of those miles are from what we’re calling our Monthly Adventures. The last weekend of every month, we go somewhere new. They’re to keep me from hopping a train on the weekends to somewhere far of, turning that urge to travel into another way we can explore our current state together. We’ve driven far to the north twice, once a month ago and once this weekend.

The last two Monthly Adventures we were trying to make it to the Boulder Falls trail, one of the more popular day-hikes if the line of cars told the truth when we saw when we arrived yesterday after bumping down 2 miles of gravel road. On last month’s adventure, we didn’t quite make it to the trail, instead enjoying the northern town of Arlington, particularly the bar-cum-club-cum-restaurant Mirkwood and Shire. The same building houses the Mordor Tattoo Parlor on its second story. Last month we were late out the door, so we enjoyed driving through the more rural areas, and getting a feeling for what Washington state is without Seattle in the background, and some hobbit-themed decor.

This month we got a early enough start we were able to hike the trail. It was beautiful:

Boulder Falls Trail, WA

About a mile along the trail, we saw the river:

Boulder Falls Trail, WA

It was a weird, milky-blue. My guess is the snow melt is bringing a rush of grey-silt down from higher up on the mountain. It was not any less milky close-up:


Boulder Falls Trail, WA

I had scrambled down some boulders along a side-path to get to touch the water. I am not unfamiliar with the power of mountain rivers after more than 2 decades of summers spent in the high Sierras. But there were funny new formations here I haven’t seen in my home-mountains:

Boulder Falls Trail, WA

It looks crinkled like aluminum foil, but it was soft like a dolphin’s skin. I’m not sure if that trip down to touch the water was part of the park-sanctioned path. Here’s what the return trip up the hillside looked like:

Boulder Falls Trail, WA

But that lack of permission made it even more special, more real to experience. Somewhere sliding down boulders and batting whippy spring shoots away from our faces, I unhinged my tightly-managed emotional box from my week and started filling out the space around me. There’s more space to be big under the great trees.

We didn’t make it to the end of the trail, leaving that journey for another weekend. But we did see a tree that would be welcome in Fangorn:

Boulder Falls Trail, WA

With branches that looked like this:

Boulder Falls Trail, WA

We did find a small waterfall:

Boulder Falls Trail, WA


And a larger one:

We saw some very tall trees:
Boulder Falls Trail, WA

It was the kind of hike to inspire poetry, particularly when we came upon a stand of birches, the kind Robert Frost might have rode:

Boulder Falls Trail, WA

It is also a walk for John Muir quotes, like the one referenced in the title. It took me a many years of walking on dirt-and-rock paths with clean air in my lungs to get what he was going for when he said:

“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” ― John Muir

But I think it was the same thing I find when I am on a train: travel gives me a clearer vantage point for my introversion. Walking down a wooded path, I find myself able to see many more of my internal justifications and systems, and to reengineer them to fit inside myself more easily.

Matthew and I didn’t find any big decisions in the woods, but that quiet and space meant something bigger. It was a place to water our roots, to unfurl our leaves, and to just breathe freely.

Next month I think we’re going to visit one of the islands in the Sound, to see what it feels like to be surrounded by water and still on land. I’ll report back.

Inspirational Quote:

“So was I once myself a swinger of birches;
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.” — Robert Frost

If you wanted to buy a deck and hadn’t gotten the chance…

I just finished a new site where you can buy more copies of the Notable Women in Computing Card Deck, for the same prices you paid through the Kickstarter.

Through that site you can also pre-order the first completed daughter project of this Kickstarter, a deck of cards showcasing inspiring technical women who are emerging leaders in the Middle East and Africa. Everyone in the deck is included by her request.


The women in this new deck and poster are beyond inspiring and cool and provide a different way to look at the future of technology in our world. You might recognize 2 of them as recipients of the free decks you all contributed to ($10, production + shipping = 6 weeks or more):


Here’s what the poster for the TechWomen Emerging Leaders from Africa and the Middle East looks like ($25):

It is important to note that the TechWomen Emerging Leaders from Africa and the Middle East cards are available to pre-order and it may take 6 weeks or longer to produce them and get them to you. That’s faster than this Kickstarter because we’ve worked out some of the kinks, but slower than most of us Prime members are used to. It’s a chance to support a new project, and if you chose to do so, it will allow us to send these diverse decks to educators who cannot afford them.

You can still download the decks and posters and print them yourselves, with all of the files here. It may be more expensive to do that than ordering, but it might be cheaper and faster if you have access to a plotter. Everything on the site is Creative Commons licensed, and that has allowed several other daughter projects to get started, which is beyond exciting.

I am so glad we were able to share these decks with you and am excited to see who else likes and uses them. I will keep sharing photos of your donated decks in use and amazing tweets like this:

I’m also going to share more details about how we are able to share decks through the new website, some of which I go into here. I want your feedback and input, so if anything goes wrong, tell me. For now, I am celebrating having the new website built and beta tested and ready for orders. And I am hopeful that the dozen-or-so of you who have emailed me asking how to buy more decks will be able to do so now.

Thank you again for your support and please let me know if you have any comments or concerns.

Inspirational Quote:

“The rarest thing in the world is a woman who is pleased with photographs of herself.”–Elizabeth Metcalf