julia ferraioli: Hi, everyone. My name is julia ferraioli. My pronouns are she/her. It is a wonderfully cool day in Seattle and it is currently, if I recall my dates correctly, the 25th of July. I’m here with Anita Ihuman for Open Source Stories. Anita, would you like to introduce yourself?
Anita Ihuman: Yeah. Thank you so much, Julia, and hi everyone. I am Anita Ihuman. I am a developer, advocate, a technical writer, a DEI advocate, and an open source huge fan. I do a lot of work in open source, which I’ll most likely be sharing. I’m really happy to be here today.
julia ferraioli: Thank you, Anita. Before we dig into the open source side of things, we tend to like to start with trying to get to know you a little bit better outside of tech. So what kind of music are you into these days?
Anita Ihuman: Okay. Well, I’m going to first of all pick Afrobeats ‘cause yes, it’s always the Afrobeats that comes first ‘cause that’s the first jam I’d go to. Beside Afrobeats, I do like R&B ‘cause it can be really relaxing, and very few times I just want to listen to melodies, maybe those kind of songs without lyrics.
julia ferraioli: Yes.
Anita Ihuman: I enjoy listening to those on maybe a rainy day with the raindrops on the roof and everybody’s just cozy. Yeah. [laughter]
julia ferraioli: You’re just describing one of my perfect days. I love when it’s drizzly out and just relaxing. [laughter]
Do you find that when you’re working there’s a particular type of music you listen to, or do you prefer silence when you’re working?
Anita Ihuman: No, it’s funny ‘cause I don’t listen to music when I’m working. I almost never listen to music ‘cause it feels like there’s lots of chaos in my head, the music makes it worse.
julia ferraioli: I totally get that. I had a time in my life where I would just require complete silence, and now it’s like I need some background distraction. I wonder what that says about getting older. We’ll find out.
Biology and Breaking In
julia ferraioli: Shifting back to the tech side of things, what first got you into technology and open source?
Anita Ihuman: Okay. Well, it’s funny ‘cause originally I’m a microbiology student and in my final year, I was at that stage where everyone asked this question, “What am I going to do if I leave this environment?” That was a really big question for me ‘cause I know I did dabble in a lot of things. I know how to do the crafting of handmade footwear. I got into doing a few trades here and there, and I wasn’t sure which would be a long-term career for me. Then, I had these classmates who were into tech and they really seemed cool. I mean, they had backpacks or laptops, always wearing cool shirts and I’m like, “I want to look like those kids, but I’m doing microbiology. I don’t have this background, so how do I do it?” I got closer and I asked a couple of questions, and it’s good ‘cause I realized that people are actually willing to help if you ask the right questions.
I got a bunch of resources. It was confusing and chaotic at first. With the help of my friends, always asking questions and getting the right answers, sharing necessary resources, I first got into tech as a frontend developer. I thought that was it for me ‘cause I’m like, “Okay, I’ll enjoy it here, so let’s go into it.” Six months in, I heard about open source after the first Open Source Community Africa (OSCA) conference. There was so much force about it and I was eager to know why there was so much force about this one conference. Then, I heard that you can make contributions to actual projects without getting employed, and you can add it as experience. I’m like, “Okay, this is a good opportunity.” I might just dig into this and pave my way around this tech stuff. I decided to give it a go. The first trial wasn’t so smooth ‘cause I was one of the silent people in the community who never said anything. Just come in and breeze out without making any contributions, and this went on for a couple of months. That was in the GNOME community.
Onboarding and One pull request
Anita Ihuman: I was part of the sustainable onboarding team. I barely even made a good number of contributions there, but I really enjoyed that the community was willing to put together a group focused on onboarding people, which was really helpful. Through that, I also got to know about a few open source programs led by She Code Africa. It was basically a hackathon where non-contributors get introduced to open source projects and start contributing. So I was like, “Okay, maybe this is another avenue to find a project that I like.” It was, actually, ‘cause I got in touch with the Layer5 community, where I attempted creating my first pull request. [laughter] I still say this every single time, but I spent over a week on one pull request because I had no idea of Git and GitHub.
For me, I was like, okay, maybe this is a sign that I should stop, ‘cause no one goes through one issue this long. Maybe this is a sign that I should stop and try other things, but the community was helpful and I did ask a couple of questions back and forth. I managed to get the pull requests merged. After that, I was like if I can do this, maybe I could give it another shot. Let me just try one smaller issue, and that was it. I just picked it up from there.
julia ferraioli: That’s quite the tale–from microbiology to Layer5. That’s a big journey that you’ve had.
Anita Ihuman: Yeah.
julia ferraioli: I’m still hoping we bring lab coats into open source somehow, but I understand the appeal of the open source dress code - or lack thereof. It seems as though you have been focused and enthusiastic about the onboarding experience, the new contributor experience to both projects and communities. I’m wondering what sort of lessons or insights have you seen through that work?
Anita Ihuman: I think the reason why I’m interested in the first place was ‘cause of my experience getting involved. Now, knowing that I was from a non-technical background but I was curious enough to want to get involved, it was difficult to get in. Beside the fact that there were so many people to help, it was actually difficult. Every single time, I had to question whether I was in the right place and whether I actually belonged in this space. Why I have been championing topics around inclusion and onboarding is basically because I noticed that difficulty from my end. In every community where I find myself, I tried to see that any other person that comes in shouldn’t have to go through that hassle of breaking into an open source community if they want to contribute simply because they’re from either a non-technical background or they have very little knowledge about what they’re contributing to - so long as they’re eager to actually make efforts in that particular community. That has been the driving force for me.
Belonging and Being
julia ferraioli: I gotcha. I keyed in on a word that you said, which was belonging. It can be very difficult to feel as though you belong in an open source project or an open source community. What does belonging look like or feel like to you?
Anita Ihuman: For me, I wouldn’t say the word family, but it’s a place that you don’t have to be on your toes at every single time, whenever you want to either make a suggestion or feel threatened that your voice is not going to be heard. That feeling of belonging is basically being in a place where you feel welcome, where you feel at peace making your contributions, and where you don’t feel threatened by every other person’s feedback towards your contributions. When you make those contributions, you feel good about yourself, regardless of how minor the changes might be. You feel that peace within that particular space or environment.
julia ferraioli: I feel like you’ve hit the three states within a community. Feeling like you don’t have to be on guard so that you feel welcome in the first place. You feel empowered to make suggestions, to contribute your ideas. You feel safe and fulfilled in the work that you’re doing there. It seems so straightforward, but it’s actually so complex.
Anita Ihuman: Yeah.
julia ferraioli: You’ve been working in this space for quite some time now, and I know you wanted to talk about the community health aspect in your story today. What have you experienced and learned around community health when it comes to open source?
Anita Ihuman: I’ve been in the open source space - this is going to make it a third year - and I’m really happy that I’ve been consistent all through that. Something that I have come to notice is in a situation or when you find yourself in a community where the leaders are conscious of the topic of inclusion or are aware of the struggles of getting involved, you will see that they actually make efforts to get other persons not to experience those struggles or those challenges.
It’s not a common thing for most communities. You can only talk about a challenge when you’ve actually experienced it - either firsthand or third-hand, it doesn’t matter. When you’ve experienced it, then you can share about it. Now, it’s the same thing as finding solutions to that problem. You can only figure out the need to find a solution when you’ve actually seen that that is a problem.
Elephants and Effort
Anita Ihuman: For most communities that I have been a part of, I’ve seen that the leaders within this community actually have an idea that this problem exists. There’s an elephant in the room, and if I don’t address it, my community is going to suffer from this particular thing. So they go ahead to address it.
Then, there’s still some communities out there where this awareness is lacking. It makes it difficult for certain persons to break into these communities. Today, there’s so much talk about diversity and inclusion. There’s so much talk about community health and metrics and all of that. There are still communities where the awareness is not so much. Individuals still have to go through so much struggle when they want to break in. At the end of the day, it discourages them from actually making the effort.
Now, for instance, in my first time contributing to open source here, I had a very terrible experience considering that I was entering with fear or I was actually making efforts with fear and doubts. I feel that if I had a bad experience the first time trying, I would have never tried again. That experience for most people sticks in and keeps them out completely. For others it’s like a challenge to try harder, but not every single person is that - can resist that bad feeling - to try again.
julia ferraioli: I often think of that as the silent exits: the people who came, dipped their toes in, but silently left. They’re not gonna make an announcement. They’re just going to leave and you won’t know what caused them to discontinue engaging.
Anita Ihuman: I think silent quitting is a common thing for most people that do not have the willpower to address the problem. So you just never hear from them again.
julia ferraioli: I think it goes beyond willpower, necessarily, because it might just not be worth it for them to resist the unwelcome atmosphere. What efforts are there around improving community health that you’ve been involved in?
Anita Ihuman: On my end, I have been a part of a number of communities that talk about sustainability, community health. For instance, the CHAOSS community I’ve been involved in for a couple of months since I started contributing. Then, I got to know more about topics on community health. Originally, it was just something that I was curious about, but getting to communities like CHAOSS gave me insight to what this is all about. I see that, yes, there are solutions, there are existing solutions, but enforcement is a thing that is still lacking with these solutions that are available.
I’m still contributing to other communities like Sustain that also talks about sustainability of open source around this community health that we’re talking about. SDDI community by Linux Foundation talking about inclusion within the development space. Many others that you just dip your hands to know what’s going on, what are they talking about.
Awareness and Adoption
Anita Ihuman: One common thing that I have seen is these communities collectively are striving towards one thing: to see that the general environment, not just that community, feels or gets impacted by some of these methods that they’re proposing. A common challenge is the adoption and the spread of these particular topics. You see that yes, there’s actually a lot of work being done within these communities if you get involved. I never knew how much on the topic of metrics they had to do [laughter] in terms of community health until I got into CHAOSS. Metrics do go a long way.
Recently, I also got to find out about the NumFOCUS DEI community that also develops measures around open source events and conferences. If the adoption was much wider, then the reports on some of these challenges that people experience within open source conferences will be reduced. These things have been existing for long, but like the widespread adoption of it seems to be a struggle even today. I’m still yet to figure out why, but I really hope that someday I’m able to use my efforts to make an impact on a wider spread of topics around community health.
julia ferraioli: Oh, that’s awesome. I didn’t know about some of these efforts. I did know about the CHAOSS side of things, but the NumFOCUS one is new to me. I’m gonna check that out.
With the various approaches that you’ve seen, what has been the most effective, in your opinion, to improving community health and diversity & inclusion?
Anita Ihuman: Well, I would think that it’s easier to approach a problem if you are aware of the problem. For most communities, the topics on welcoming or belonging, it’s really strange. It is not like people come up to say, “Okay, I don’t want you here.” We experience it in microaggression and these micro-biases, which is a result of not being aware or not being knowledgeable of what you are doing: how wrong it is for you to address people in certain ways, talk to people in certain ways, or deprive people of things because of how you feel or past experiences. Some people are not knowledgeable of this and it’s a factor that is still existing out there. The fact that the knowledge is not there is still a struggle.
How do I think this can be addressed? Getting to know communities like CHAOSS and understanding that these metrics can actually be used. If people are knowledgeable of, “Oh, this metric exists, why does it exist?” This is why it exists, and this is the problem it addresses - if people are knowledgeable of just that simple thing. Then, if at that point, some persons still go as far as making a place uncomfortable for other people, they know that they’re doing it intentionally to make the other person [uncomfortable]. It’s like they’re doing it consciously, not because they’re unaware at this point. These metrics that exist can do a lot: the measures from, let’s say the NumFOCUS community can do a lot, the CHAOSS best practices can also do a lot. The general public knowledge of these things is still very limited, which makes how people react to things on community health still a shaky topic, I would say.
julia ferraioli: Absolutely. The awareness in and of itself can be a challenge. It’s like if you already know it’s a problem, you’re going to work to improve it, hopefully.
Anita Ihuman: Yeah.
Denial and Data
julia ferraioli: There are certain projects out there that seem to be steadfastly in denial that they have a problem in the first place.
Anita Ihuman: Oh yeah. I think that is another angle that I still haven’t figured out how this can be tackled. ‘Cause there are communities that exist that are aware of topics on community health generally, not just diversity and inclusion but general community health. It’s not their main priority, ‘cause to them they’re selling a product. They’re not selling people’s wellbeing; they’re selling a product. So long as the product is being bought or accepted by people, they’re completely fine. Every other thing can just wait or hang around.
julia ferraioli: I’ve definitely seen that as well. Yeah. [laughter] Well, we’re quickly running out of time though I imagine we could keep talking for quite some time on this topic. In closing, what advice do you have for projects who maybe want to proactively look at their community health?
Anita Ihuman: In my opinion, I would say pointing out the existing challenges would be a good place to start. So many communities do not take topics on yet. We’re talking about numbers - and the numbers might not really mean much - but looking at the data does help a lot. Every once in a while, I think it’s fair that a community should try adopting surveys or just studying how the community feels about their current status in terms of health and belonging. How does the community feel about this? Is there a way that we can improve other areas we are doing poorly that we could work on?
Then, going out there to look for existing solutions to these problems that your community has pointed [out]. Now, there are so many solutions that exist. Because it’s not a topic that people prioritize, they don’t bother to look for the solutions to the problem. When you find out the problems through your surveys or through studying your community, you can go out to find solutions either by metrics, best practices, or setting a team that can actually look at this and address all of these challenges for you. I think that’s a good place to start. There’s so much that can be done, but that’s a good starting point.
julia ferraioli: That’s a great suggestion. Data can be so powerful, but data combined with stories or even short answer surveys really drives the point home. So I really love that you mentioned surveys in there as well.
Anita Ihuman: Yeah. Thank you.
julia ferraioli: Thank you so much Anita for joining us on Open Source Stories today. We’re just delighted to have you here.
Anita Ihuman: Thank you so much, Julia. This was great. I’m glad I could share the story.
The story was facilated by julia ferraioli
and edited by Claire Moss.