Sustain OSS 2020: quick rewind

Sustain OSS 2020: quick rewind

The 2020 Sustain Open Source Summit took place on Thursday, 30 January, 2020 in Brussels, Belgium:

Sustain Summit events are led by a facilitator. There are no keynotes, talks, or sponsor demos. Your undivided attention is required. Phones and laptops should not be used throughout the day and you will be asked to put devices away if they are a distraction to you or anyone else.

When we talk about sustainability, we are talking both and equally about the sustainability of resources and the sustainability of its people. We hope you can join us for the conversation.

This is my second time attending Sustain OSS (see my 2018 event report). I attended on behalf of RIT LibreCorps to represent the sustainability efforts at the RIT FOSS@MAGIC initiative, but also to represent myself as an individual and sustainer in the open source movement. For Sustain OSS 2020, I arrived hoping to learn more about community-first governance models. I left with a lot of notes and the first blueprints for Principles of Authentic Participation.

Event reports take many forms. Since Sustain is structured in a unique format, my event report is structured as follows:

  • At a glance: structure and key takeaways: High-level overview of what the conference is like and the biggest ideas on my mind at the end of the day
  • Community-first governance: I came ready to explore this idea, and had a unique conversation about citizen assemblies
  • Principles of Authentic Participation: Impromptu session I facilitated, and thus spent most of my time focused on

At a glance: structure and key takeaways

If you’re here for the quick overview, this is it.

I loved Sustain OSS 2020 because it is a unique collection of people from various backgrounds in the Free/Open Source movement. Both old and new folks, software engineers and designers, open source program office folks and the FOSS lawyers, all together in one room. Perhaps the best part for me is leaving with a sense of empowerment and connection to a bigger movement of people.

Speed breakout sessions

The first half of Sustain 2020 started with speed breakout sessions led by many facilitators. There were around twelve small discussion groups focused on specific topics. You could spend 4-5 minutes at six topic groups. Choosing was hard! These speed sessions are primers on what to spend the second half of the day focused on, in a more detailed discussion.

I attended these sessions:

  1. Diversity and inclusion
  2. Open source movement in Africa
  3. Minimum Viable Product: Good governance models
  4. Documentation
  5. 20 years of sustainability
  6. Models for corporate accountability as open source community members / what does it mean to be a corporate member of open source communities?

Key takeaways

I came up with four key takeaways from Sustain OSS 2020 as a whole (not including the detailed sections further below):

Inclusion is local

When reaching out to new areas and demographics, include local community leaders. This is to say, if you are organizing communities in Asia or Africa, the success of your outreach campaign depends on your ability to enable and include existing community leaders in these regions. Local perspective is required for authentic grassroots success.

Rules for revising rules

When defining community governance or policy, expect change. So, include ways to change the rules later when the world changes around your governance or policy.

Generalists transition to specialists

In the early phases of an organization or project, community members are often generalists. Fewer people wear many “hats.” But context-switching has a cost. As the organization/project grows, defined roles become more important. Defined roles avoid everyone doing everything.

Designers focus first on design. Developers focus first on code. By specializing, you maximize the potentialities of what your team brings to the table.

We got the power

There was a breakout group about ethics in Free Software. Two emerging themes were creating ethics review boards at organizations and the power of labor organizing. Some suggested normalizing ethics training in employee on-boarding.

Most notably, there was a highlighted need for safer spaces for labor organizing discussions. Labor organizing comes at a high personal cost for many.

Community-first governance models

I came to Sustain OSS 2020 ready to explore community-first governance models. In December, I published a blog post on why Free Software is still not on activists’ agendas. Free Software outreach often emphasizes technology, not people or ethics. We focus on technology so much, we forget why this movement began in the first place. So, in a world where corporate interests in a project often conflict with interests of grassroots communities, I wanted to know what “community-first governance” really means.

For context, I consult with humanitarian organizations and non-profits that want to build community around their open source projects. But from personal experience, I realize community stakeholders need input to decision-making if the community is going to stick around.

Citizen assemblies in open source?

While I didn’t explore this in a session, I did have an interesting conversation with Xavier about citizen assemblies and how open source communities might be modeled after them. Xavier explained citizen assemblies to me as a form of hyper-local representation in policy-making in regional governments. For example, U.S. citizens are obligated to serve on jury duty, or a jury with your peers on a court hearing. Similarly for citizen assemblies, individuals are selected at random based on different demographic factors. Those selected serve a period of time on a local legislative body.

In open source projects divided across different contexts, think about the demographics represented in our communities. What might the demographic factors look like?

  • In internationally-dispersed communities, it might be approximate region or nationality.
  • In corporate-focused projects, it might be diversity of employers.

Citizen assemblies in open source could mean a group of contributors are selected at random to serve on the executive decision-making body of a community. The decision to serve is always optional. If a selected person declines, another person is selected.

I think this is a crafty way to address a cultural divide often present in Global South communities. Many contributors subconsciously look for an invitation to contribute. Being explicit by selecting an eligible, qualified candidate actively includes perspectives not commonly represented. It could also be a way to get around imposter syndrome and self-(non)selection in communities that use committee governance models.

I am still sitting with this idea. But I think Xavier’s idea of applying citizen assemblies to open source communities is valid. I’m interested in exploring what this model could look like in practice when the opportunity for experimentation presents itself.

Principles of Authentic Participation

I attended a session about corporate accountability in open source contributions. It evolved into a longer discussion about Principles of Authentic Participation. This week, I launched a wider discussion about this on the Sustain OSS Discourse forums, so instead of repeating myself in this post, read the Discourse thread and leave your thoughts there.

However, for the reader’s convenience, the six principles we drafted are below:

Authentic Participation Starts Early.

This came out of discussions about organizations showing up with mature, fully-baked contributions over which the community had no input.

Authentic Participation Puts The Community First.

This reflected the general consensus that when an organization and the community want different things, the community needs to come first.

Authentic Participation Starts With Listening.

This was Duane’s reflection of some comments about folks showing up to projects with no historical context and telling them everything they were doing wrong.

Authentic Participation Has Transparent Motivations.

Without a shared understanding of the motivations, it’s impossible to resolve differences of opinion effectively. No hidden motives.

Authentic Participation Enforces Respectful Behavior.

This is about organizations taking responsibility for the behavior of their representatives.

Authentic Participation Ends Gracefully.

No sudden withdrawal of resources without notification and an exit plan. Clear documentation that would allow the community to pick up projects when a company decides to withdraw support.

Thanks folx!

To wrap up this Sustain OSS report, a few thank-yous are in order:

  • Stephen Jacobs: For always being supportive for yet another trip abroad and helping me push my career forward in a number of ways (and footing the bill!)
  • Mike Nolan: My co-conspirator, partner in FOSS, and comrade in arms
  • The Principles of Authentic Participation group: I didn’t plan to facilitate at Sustain and I was nervous about it, but you all were wonderful. We had a fruitful discussion and I’m looking forward to the follow-up.

Sustain OSS 2020 continues to give me a lot to think about and consider. I’m fortunate to have attended. I hope this event report gives additional visibility to some of the conversations held in Brussels this year.

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