18 Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Open Research and Education

Tara Robertson

Originally published on November 12, 2017
It was such an honor to be invited to speak on a panel at OpenCon with Denisse Albornoz, Thomas Mboa, and Siko Bouterse. Lorraine Chuendid an amazing job putting the panel together and moderating. Lorraine’s questions were:

  • How do the solutions put forth by the Open movements reinforce Western dominance, colonialism, as well as barriers on the basis of race, class, gender, ability, etc…?
  • How does exclusion and a lack of diversity impact their own Open advocacy work in their communities and/or institutions?
  • How might they begin to address this in their own communities?

This panel starts at 7h47m and here’s the group notes.


Here’s my slides and speaking notes.

Tara Robertson, Who is missing?Hello, my name is Tara Robertson. I am from Vancouver, Canada which is the unceded traditional territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations. Unceded means that the land was never sold, given, or released to any colonial government. In Canada we’re thinking a lot about relationships between settlers and First Nations in many areas of society, including education.

I am mixed race and queer, which means I’ve had a lot of life experiences where I don’t fit. Often being a misfit means that I’ve had a first hand personal view of power and group dynamics.

This month I changed careers and am part of the Diversity and Inclusion team at Mozilla, the organization that fights to keep the internet healthy, open, and accessible to all. Firefox Quantum launches on Tuesday, and if you’re not already using it as your web browser, you really should.

view from behind two people sitting at a board room table, across from 4 white people: 2 men and 2 women
Image credit: https://flic.kr/p/D1KCFw

In most social situations, I think it’s always interesting to observe:

  • Who is in the room?
  • Who is at the table?
  • Who speaks a lot?
  • Who has social capital?
  • Who feels welcome?
  • Whose ideas are respected and centered by default?

Who is missing?I think even more interesting is to note:

  • Who is missing?
  • Who isn’t even in the room?
  • Who doesn’t have a seat at the table?
  • Who is sitting on the margins?
  • Who doesn’t feel welcome?
  • Who has to fight to have their viewpoints respected?

I think this simple question is useful to keep in mind as we move into the do-a-thon tomorrow.

I’m going to share 2 short examples with you to illustrate this point.

Screenshot of http://opentextbc.ca/accessibilitytoolkit/The first example I want to talk about is how I got involved in open textbooks.

For the last 5 years I was the Accessibility Librarian for an organization that serves students with print disabilities at 20 colleges and universities. We digitized their print textbooks and learning materials into digital and accessible versions. In Canada, students with disabilities can register with their Disability Service Office at their university. Students need to provide medical documentation or a psycho-educational assessment. Then they meet with a disability counselor who looks at the documentation, the academic program objectives and the course syllabus and then figures out what barriers exist and what the necessary accommodations are. All of this takes time, and often students with print disabilities don’t have access to the course materials until a couple of weeks after their classmates.

When I heard about the British Columbia open textbook project I saw an opportunity for us to move from remediating things that were broken to inserting ourselves at the beginning of the publishing workflow to make things that were accessible to everyone from the start.

As part of this process we worked with BCcampus and a group of students with print disabilities to test some of the first open textbooks that had been produced in British Columbia. Working with a group of students who were visually impaired or blind highlighted some access issues that we weren’t aware of.

Including students with visual impairments also made us think about how we worked and we learned some unexpected things. For example, when we were co-presenting at a conference I learned a lot about the lack of accessible signage in our light rail stations and the extra prep work that blind and visually impaired people need to do to travel somewhere new.

By including students with disabilities in this process we came up with a better product and we learned a lot about how to work in ways that are inclusive to people who are blind. The students said they felt like they were improving things for other students with visual impairments. The students were also paid and co-presented with us at a few conferences, which was awesome. It’s way more impactful for faculty to hear directly from students with disabilities, than for them to hear from me.

Amanda Coolidge, from BCcampus, Sue Doner, from Camosun College and I cowrote The BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit as a resource for faculty writing open textbooks to help them understand why this is important, who might be in their classroom and what they need to do to ensure their content is accessible from the start. I’m really proud that we won The Open Education Consortium Creative Innovation award for this work. Josie Gray, who is here, is working on updating this tooklit and working on making sure all of the BC Open Textbooks are accessible. The Toolkit is CC-BY licensed and has been translated into French, so feel free to use, reuse or remix this content.

Whose voices are missing? Students with disabilitiesWhen working at the university, are you ensuring that things are accessible to students with disabilities from the start? What does it say about who belongs when we don’t design for inclusion?

Most universities in North America have a Disability Resource Centre. You can reach out and recruit students to help you user test for accessibility. It’s important that students with disabilities are paid for this work as they are experts in accessibility and often face economic exclusion as many student jobs aren’t accessible to them. Also, as most of us are paid for our work, it’s important to pay people who are co-designing with us.

Open Access logo

The second example is about open access.

I think that we would all agree that open access to information is a good thing. This is definitely one of my core values as a librarian. However, over the last couple of years I’ve come to realize that this isn’t an absolute and that there are some times where it’s not appropriate or ethical for information to be open to all.

Last spring I learned that Reveal Digital, a nonprofit that works with libraries, digitized On Our Backs, a lesbian porn magazine that ran from 1984-2004. It had actually been online for several years before I learned about it. For a brief moment I was really excited — porn that was nostalgic for me was online! Then I quickly thought about friends who appeared in this magazine before the internet existed. I was worried that this kind of exposure could be personally or professionally harmful for them. There are ethical issues with digitizing collections like this. Consenting to a porn shoot that would be in a queer print magazine with a limited run is a different thing to consenting to have your porn shoot be available online.

Over the last year I’ve been researching this topic—I visited Cornell University’s Rare Book and Manuscripts Collection and found the contributor contracts, learned a lot more about US copyright law, and most importantly I talked to queer women who modeled for On Our Backs about their thoughts and feelings about this.

"When I heard all the issues of the magazine are being digitized, my heart sank. I meant this work to be for my community and now I am being objectified in a way that I have no control over. People can cut up my body and make it a collage. My professional and public life can be high jacked. These are uses I never intended and I still don’t want."

When Reveal Digital digitized this collection, the content was licensed under a Creative Commons CC-BY license. This license allows feminist porn to be remixed in ways that could appropriate the content and demean women. This license allows for this content to be repackaged, in any format, and sold, as long as credit is given and a link to the license is provided.

This is a quote from one of the models from an email to me in July 2016. She writes: “People can cut up my body and make a collage. My professional and personal life can be highjacked. These are uses I never intended and still don’t want.”Whose voices are missing? Marginalized communities

This research project has also been very personal and transformative for me.

In the past year, in my professional life I’ve come out as a former sex worker. I know what it’s like to have content about myself online that I didn’t consent to. In my case, it’s a newspaper article that appeared in a major newspaper that identifies me as a sex worker and a librarian. Throughout my career I’ve been terrified that my employer or my colleagues would find this out. We live in a judgmental society where there are many negative stereotypes about sex workers. I was worried that this would undermine my professional reputation.

Coming out as a former sex worker is one of the scariest things I’ve done in my career and thankfully I’ve only experienced support from colleagues. By coming out I made this potentially theoretical conversation about ethics an honest and messy conversation and named my stake in the broader conversation about The Right To Be Forgotten.

This conversation is about how we do good work in and with our communities. Being both a librarian and someone with sex work experience I have the privilege to speak from within our institutions. I choose to use that privilege to engage other librarians to consider the lives and perspectives of other queer sex workers.

Whose voice is missing? And how do we include these voices?So, I offer you these questions for tomorrow and for your work after OpenCon.

Whose voice is missing? Whose voice are we leaving out? And how to we change how we work to really include diverse voices?

About the Author

Tara Robertson is an intersectional feminist who uses data and research to advocate for equality and inclusion. Currently working as the Diversity & Inclusion Lead for Mozilla, she has more than 10 years experience making open source and tech communities more diverse and welcoming.

http://tararobertson.ca or https://twitter.com/tararobertson



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Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Open Research and Education Copyright © 2020 by Tara Robertson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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