How has WordCamp US 2023 tackled DEIB and accessibility? Julia Golomb

WordCamp US lead organizer speaks about programming for this year’s event, why organizers chose to forgo a blind selection process, and how organizers have addressed criticism about the lack of accessibility at last year’s event.

Julia Golomb describes herself as passionate about promoting the open source values of transparency, collaboration, and inclusiveness in community engagement. For the past two years, she has been employed as a Community Steward at Automattic, sponsored to work full-time with the WordPress Community Team. This year, she has been mentoring the WCUS 2023 Programming team as part of her role as a lead organizer for next week’s flagship event.

We spoke with Julia about the Programming team’s very hands-on approach to selecting this year’s diverse speaker line-up and how WCUS has prioritised accessibility by creating a dedicated Accessibility team.

Question: What was the organizing team’s vision for programming, particularly as this year’s event is a return to a larger number of attendees?

Julia Golomb: I’ll start by saying that the three flagship WordCamps — WordCamp US, WordCamp Europe, and WordCamp Asia — are markedly different from other WordCamps. We hold a different standard for the programming of flagship events, in this case, WordCamp US. I don’t want to speak for the whole team, I can only speak from my perspective, but the vision for programming for this year’s event is to offer the highest quality, highest caliber programming that we can offer around cutting-edge topics in WordPress that appeal to professionals working in WordPress; programming that really draws people, draws interest, and make folks feel like they’re not there just for the hallway track, but they are there to really learn from the talks and the workshops, and think about things in a new way.

Q: In May, the Programming team announced it wanted to target seasoned, professional speakers who were not active members of the community. How did this approach go?

JG: I think it went really well. There are a couple of things there: One, the location of this particular WordCamp being held in Washington DC makes it really conducive to highlighting WordPress in the public sector. Many WordPress users — the vast majority of WordPress users, in fact — are not a part of the WordPress community. So by highlighting WordPress in the public sector through some of the talks we have on our program, like this year’s NASA keynote and last year’s talk, we’re able to draw interest from the public sector and from folks who might reside in the DC area, or work in the DC area, to come to their very first WordCamp, and that’s really exciting.

And two, the Programming team actively solicited ideas, putting out a call for suggestions, both for topics and for speakers, and then proactively reached out to folks to see if they were interested in applying to speak. That’s another way to bring in folks who wouldn’t necessarily subscribe to WordCamp updates.

Q: How many speaker applications were received?

JG: We received just under 30 submissions for suggested topics or speakers, and 295 speaker applications.

Q: What was the process for reviewing speaker applications and how were diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging considered as part of that process?

JG: We had a shared spreadsheet and our first review involved everyone on the Programming team reviewing the full list of speaker applications. We each had a column with our respective names and we ranked the talks on a scale of one to 10, and then we aggregated those ratings.

It wasn’t a blind selection process. This is something that some WordCamp organizers advocate for because they believe it gives the opportunity for new speakers to have more of an advantage because there’s not that same name recognition. For example, maybe somebody who’s considered a hotshot in WordPress might get picked time and time again. The [WordCamp US) organizing team’s perspective is that that’s not a super helpful approach. We want to know who is applying because then we know whether they’re a new WordCamp speaker, which is great if they are, or if they’ve been on every WordCamp stage for the past five years. So the process involved looking at the spreadsheet and really focusing on the talk itself. 

After ranking all the applications, we got together for a series of very long calls. We started at the top of the list with the talks rated the highest and talked through them—what perspective would they bring that is valuable to this WordCamp? What would they bring to the stage that would actually draw people? It was an intentional and nuanced process.

Then we revisited the talks that had been ranked lower, taking into consideration the variety of topics we had selected so far. We noticed that we were missing talks on particular topics. We were like, “Oh, this talk is on that topic and it actually looks good.” It’s just that none of us had thought to rate it highly in the initial round, but we actually did want it included on the program. So there was a lot of that, that human touch, not just leaving it to numbers. And this included thinking about representation on the stage, folks of different identities and perspectives, and having that as another criterion, not that it made us choose somebody or not choose somebody, but it would just give us an extra bump when we were thinking about what talks to select; the same for new speakers.

We reviewed applications for gender. We created a dashboard that showed us the gender breakdown of people who identified as male, female, or non-binary so we could gauge gender representation as we reviewed the talks. Similarly, we had a column where we marked if somebody’s underrepresented other than gender. And again, that has a lot of assumptions baked into it. So I don’t know that I would necessarily advocate for that, but I do advocate for seeking out that data in an opt-in kind of way, where speaker applicants are able to self-identify. But this did give us a sense of how we were doing around race, ethnicity, and other identities that tend to be underrepresented on WordCamp stages. 

Then the Programming team brought their proposed speakers to the WCUS Lead Team for another sounding board. The Lead Team shared feedback about what they’d like to see and provided advice for how to further refine the list; what topics were missing, who we know is a great speaker, etc. And that was the general sculpting process for creating the speaker lineup.

Q: You mentioned that WCUS didn’t do a blind selection process. Can you explain why?

JG: Jill Binder really advocates against that. The Programming team had thought about doing a blind selection process because they thought it would make for a fairer and more equitable selection process. And then I shared Jill’s recommendation. I didn’t share a specific resource. The speaker selection guide that Jill has since created was not ready in time. It’s brand new and wasn’t ready in time for this process. But I talked with Jill and shared with the team her recommendation that the blind selection process is actually not proven to be more equitable or to result in a more diverse speaker lineup. And then the team made the choice accordingly to not do a blind selection process.

Q: You mentioned Jill Binder. What other DEIB resources did the team draw on?

JG: The whole team came into this programming effort with the goal of having a truly diverse speaker lineup. It’s a value the team held dearly. There was no question about it within the team. It wasn’t like there was one person who disagreed with that as a value. It was shared, and I think that went a long way as a shared priority. 

This became a guiding principle throughout the whole process from the very beginning, from speaker outreach. And so the Programming team reached out to BlackPress to ask for speaker ideas, and shared the call for speakers in the #diverse-speaker-support channel on Making WordPress Slack, which is a way for folks who are underrepresented on WordPress stages to connect with WordCamps that are looking for speakers. 

Q: WCUS was criticized last year for its failings around accessibility, as highlighted by Michelle Frechette in 5 Days Without a Shower. How has accessibility been prioritized as part of this year’s event?

JG: WordCamp US has put incredible care into accessibility this year. We really wanted to make sure that accessibility was baked in from the outset. For the first time in WordCamp US organizing history, WordCamp US has an Accessibility team (which includes Michelle and WPCC Accessibility Fellow Alex Stine). This team works cross-functionally, and each of the other organizing teams has somebody who is the accessibility liaison. So the Attendee Experience team has an accessibility rep who works closely with the Accessibility team, and the PR/Communications team has an accessibility rep who works as the liaison with the Accessibility team, and so on. We’ve received really supportive feedback about this approach. It’s not that everybody does everything perfectly. We’re creating channels where feedback can happen and it can happen quickly, and we can learn and adjust throughout the organizing process. For example, if somebody makes a post and forgets to include ALT text, the Accessibility team quite quickly will provide that feedback and then we can course-correct. Having accessibility baked into the organizing process from the outset has been really, really valuable.

We’re not here with the expectation that everyone is perfect or knows exactly how to create a perfectly accessible event. We are learning together and different people are bringing different perspectives and sharing different resources. I highly recommend having an Accessibility team. There are so many different things going on throughout the WordCamp organizing process, and it can be easy to lose sight of something even so critically important as accessibility if we’re just focused on getting tasks done. So to have a team that is purely focused on accessibility means that it doesn’t get deprioritized.

Q: What advice do you have for event organizers in WordPress who are looking to increase their diversity?

JG: It’s important to think about what diversity means in your own community, your own region. I think it’s appropriate for WordCamp Europe to have a different type of diversity among their speaker lineup than WordCamp US, because diversity in Europe and diversity in the US mean different things; the demographics in Europe are different than the demographics in North America. My advice to local and regional WordCamps, as well as the flagship WordCamps, is to think about who is in your community, who is underrepresented on your WordCamp stage, and how can you make sure to uplift their voices in your events. I find that getting really clear on the demographics of an area is helpful when thinking about this, because then you have data rather than just assumptions.

It’s important to avoid tokenizing because it’s really easy to do when thinking about a diverse speaker lineup. I don’t think it feels good to anybody to think a person has been selected to be on stage because they are of a particular identity, and that is not what WordCamp US did. I’m advocating for people to organize events where everyone is meaningfully included.

I also encourage future WordCamps on their speaker application form to include an opt-in for folks to share their identity—their gender and anything else they want to share. Because otherwise the Programming team is left to make assumptions. I never want to assume somebody’s gender or somebody’s race or ethnicity.