Author: cdwan

Somerville’s Budget Problem

If Somerville’s city council tries to make moderate cuts to the police budget this year, the Mayor will respond by defunding the crossing guards. He’ll blame the council for making him do it. It’s classic bullying and budgetary hostage taking and it sucks.

In order to make any significant change to the police budget, the council will need to wield their power more like a chainsaw than a scalpel.

I think that they should blow it up. Here’s why.

Our Budget Process

In a normal year, the budget happens like this:

  • The Mayor proposes a budget in early June. It comes out as a glossy 200+ page PDF filled with flowery language and slick graphics. Our budget PDFs regularly win awards from something called the “Government Finance Officers Association.”
  • The budget package also includes a spreadsheet with organization codes, line items, and dollar amounts. That spreadsheet is the only thing that matters.
  • The city council spends 40+ hours in public meetings talking to department heads, trying to understand how the numbers in the spreadsheet match up to the stories in the PDF. Sometimes a bit of dirty laundry gets aired, but mostly it’s just excruciating.
  • The council can only cut funds from the spreadsheet. They cannot shift or allocate funds. They certainly cannot cause projects or initiatives to happen — they can only defund particular line items.
  • When they make a significant cut, the councilors hold forth at length about what they are trying to achieve by cutting and where the money might be better spent.
  • At this point, the Mayor has the option to respond to these pleas by issuing a revised budget increasing other line items. Usually, he does not. The money is simply lost, and property taxes increase a tiny, tiny bit less.
  • If the council fails to approve a budget by July 1, then we don’t have a budget. We don’t have funds to pay for stuff. Trash stops being collected. Librarians stop getting paid. At that point, the Mayor blames all of it on the city council for failing to get their job done.
  • After the budget is passed, the Mayor does whatever he wants in terms of projects and moves money around to make it happen. No matter how specifically we say that these cuts are supposed to apply to police overtime— the crossing guards wind up getting the axe.

In Somerville, the mayor also has the exclusive use of a communications (AKA public relations and propaganda) department with a budget of $1M per year to spin all of this and crank out those shiny PDFs. Boston, home to eight times more people than Somerville, spends 75% of what we do on comms.

The city council, by contrast, doesn’t even get clerical or legal support. Our city councilors don’t have city issued laptops, which is why two of them do not appear on video on our online meetings. Somehow, this sort of support just never shows up in the budget.

2020 is even worse

As I write these words, it is June 13th and we still do not have a budget proposal. To be fair, things are pretty screwed up right now. Between Covid-19 and mass protests over racial injustice and police violence, 2020 is a mess. Everything is harder than it should be, and everything is late.

While there is an option available to avoid chaos without passing a budget, the Mayor is having none of it. We could approve a 1-month continuing resolution (just like the big kids in Washington!). That would keep things running and give breathing room to sort out the details. The city council has repeatedly requested this option. They have been turned down with a story about how a 1-month budget would make it impossible for businesses to plan.

It’s pretty hard to plan anything with the world on fire, but whatever.

So it’s a high-stakes game of chicken this year. The opening moves are not promising.


From the “transparency portal” mentioned in the memo above, it looks like the Mayor is proposing a decrease of $200k in the PERSONAL SERVICES line of the police budget down to $15.9M from $16.1M last year — about 1%.

In the budget, POLICE PERSONAL SERVICES is an “organization code.” This is the practical level at which the city council can control Somerville’s budget. In last year’s budget there were 24 “object codes,” line-items, within this org code. There was $11.8M for salaries, $1.15M for overtime and $430k for crossing guards.

In my previous post, I wrote that transfers in and out of line items need to come before the city council for approval. It turns out that this is not strictly true. The Mayor and his department heads can shift money around within an org code without asking anybody. This makes it damn hard for the city council to exercise any sort of fine grained budgetary control.

The chart below shows what happened in FY19— we brought in $147,807 additional dollars for police overtime ($45k of it from civil asset forfeitures) and spent 99.5% of the total. The crossing guards, on the other hand were underspent by about 25%. We shifted $5,770 of those funds somewhere else.

Anyway, the above 1% cut to an unspecified part of the police budget was accompanied by a PR blast that declared police violence to be a “state of emergency” and committed to all sorts of action that — coincidentally — the city seems to already be taking.

When the city council met last Thursday, they asked the Mayor to attend and explain to the city what actions he was going to take under this new “emergency.” Neither the Mayor nor any senior members of his staff were available to take the question.

This is a pattern

Joe Curtatone has been Somerville’s Mayor for 20 years. We have plenty of examples of how he works. He knows what he’s doing here.

2019’s massive update to our city’s master plan, adorably named “SomerVision,” is not mentioned anywhere in the budget narrative for 2019. The 2020 budget proposal praises this un-budgeted boondoggle as accomplishments 1, 2, 3, and 4 for the planning department.

Last year, the city council tried to get rid of a particularly odious animal control officer who kept getting complaints for mistreatment of animals. On review, it turned out that this guy had been moved to animal control from parking enforcement after he punched a cyclist in the face while on the job.

The administration’s response to pressure to remove the guy was, in effect, “why are you hitting yourself?” Moves to reduce the animal control salary were specifically mocked for how they would lead to layoffs in unrelated job functions. My understanding is that the individual in question is still employed at city hall, though he was shuffled to a non-public-facing job.

The examples go on and on — the officer who was selling oxycodone on our streets. The officer who ought to be on the sex offender list for what he left on the school computer while pulling time and a half covering an elementary school sleepover. The woman in DPW whose supervisor’s response to a complaint was to move her office furniture into the restroom. The gay man who was driven out of the police force. The use of the reserve hiring list to guarantee jobs for relatives of the Mayor.

In every case, the city council has tried their best to work within the framework available to them — with limited success and sometimes at personal cost.

Blow it up

All of the above was an attempt to convince you that we’re dealing with a strongly entrenched administration who have massive structural advantage and experience in working this system. The city council can still seize the initiative here, but it will take bold action.

I think that we should defund the police.

In the business world we talk about “blowing up the negotiation.” When your counter-party is operating in bad faith, gaming the system, or just fucking with you — only a loser keeps trying to work from within that busted framework.

You get up and walk away. If you come back, and you don’t have to come back, you return to a different negotiation entirely.

If Somerville’s city council tries to treat the police budget with the nuance and introspection that it deserves, the Curtatone administration is going to run roughshod over them and take out any losses on the least powerful. This question of police and policing is an important conversation. We have desperately needed to have this talk for generations.

Curtatone is treating it as business as usual.

It was a big deal a couple of years back when we got -gloves- for the crossing guards. Some of our cops are making $300k per year from a cornucopia of overtime and “other” pay while city council has to log in to meetings from their phones.

We should, in the immortal words of Ripley, from the movie “Aliens”: Take off, and nuke it from orbit — it’s the only way to be sure. We should set the police budget to zero… or close enough to zero that the city would be forced to lay off officers and sell cruisers. That will force the Mayor back to the table with a one month budget and potentially an updated proposal that includes a bit of detail and starts the real negotiations.

Or else, you know, we would work out how to run the city without this heavily armed and basically unregulated $16M tax burden holding us hostage.

Anything else just costs us the crossing guards.

This is the second in a series of posts about the mechanisms of government in Somerville, MA – originally posted to Medium. The first one is called “The other in Somerville’s budget.” These thoughts started off as a twitter thread. The stuff about the animal control officer is detailed in another thread, as well as in this FOIA request.

Race Riots

My mother used to tell stories about the 1967 race riots in Detroit. She was 17 years old, living with her parents at 7 mile and Woodward. She told me how the National Guard rolled tanks down the street while her grandfather hid in the attic cradling an old army rifle.

Twenty five years later, in 1992, Los Angeles exploded in fury – triggered by the Rodney King verdict. I was 17 at the time, safely in a suburb on the other side of the country. She told all the old stories – pointed out the patterns.

Now here we are – a generation later.

Decades from now, children will hear the lessons their parents learn this summer. Grandparents will nod and confirm. Perhaps a particularly lucid great grandparent will roll out a dusty story from that hot summer of 1967.

People don’t forget this stuff, nor should they.

Different stories get passed down over the generations in nonwhite families and in urban families. I know of at least one story we all have in common: It’s that nothing’s going to change.

America needs the kind of change that lasts for decades. We need new stories that can become as real and as trustworthy as the lessons our parents and grandparents taught us. We need new patterns. We are fighting hundreds of years of muscle memory.

The mostly-white, mostly-male, mostly-straight establishment needs to do way better than our parents and our grandparents did.

I do know that rolling tanks down the streets didn’t work. Hiding in the attics clutching our guns didn’t work. Moving to the suburbs and isolating ourselves didn’t work. Militarizing the police didn’t work. Criminalizing poverty and blackness and addiction certainly didn’t work. Exploiting labor so hard that people can’t even afford to live in the cities where they work didn’t work.

We need disproportionate reactions of virtue, rather than violence. We need to commit to listening and compassion and partnership and rebuilding and generosity all out of proportion to every crime and abuse and horror. The 1967 riots were -triggered- by a raid on an unlicensed bar, but they weren’t -about- that bar. The LA riots were triggered by Rodney King’s death, but not fundamentally -about- him.

That’s why, even though arresting and prosecuting the man who killed George Floyd is an absolutely essential step – it’s mistaken, shortsighted, and frankly disingenuous to think that his arrest – a tiny shred of justice – addresses the real problem.

It’s about our karma as a nation – the stories that we tell – not any particular crime.

This is the work of generations. We should commit to starting today.


Please remember, as you decide how to act in the coming days and weeks: We are not re-opening because we beat the virus.

There is not adequate testing. There is no vaccine. There is no demonstrated treatment or cure. From a medical perspective, we are -exactly- were we were in March.

My dad used to say that if you don’t use modern medicine, the disease has no way to tell that it’s not the dark ages. It’s still very easy to die of an infected wound – just fail to clean and treat it. Skip the antibiotic cream and the bandaid the next time you cut yourself if you want to see.

Instead, we are re-opening because we no longer have the will to fight using the limited tools of business closure and stay-at-home orders. The pressure of profit, business, and political appearances are too great.This will be spun as a victory. We will be told that we never needed to close at all. These are damnable lies.

And so we re-open.As always, the burden and most of the danger will fall disproportionately on the disempowered and the vulnerable. Service workers will be made to expose themselves to bored and potentially infectious shoppers for the same low wages that they made in February. Employees will be punished for “absenteeism” if they fail to show up under these conditions.

This is how our system worked before, and it continues unchanged.

Please be kind, be compassionate, and be sensitive. If you’re in a position to make a difference for someone less powerful than you, please do so.

Individual actions matter.

Indeed, given the failure of our so-called leaders – they’re all we have.

Not backward

I’ll be honest, I don’t want to go back to the “normal” we had in February.

I was killing myself with business travel. It was a slow sort of killing … but killing nonetheless. I was on a train most weeks and a plane most months. I was on track to hit lifetime platinum status with Marriott – more than 50 room nights a year for 10 years. A year and a half of my life in hotels.

For what?

Now I exercise almost every day, at least a little bit. I stock the fridge once a week, mostly with veggies and selected meats. Ordering delivery is a special treat.

My spouse and I have worked out patterns in our daily routines to let us be this close without killing each other. We’re going to keep many of those. We should have done that years ago.

I’ve re-connected with people and communities, and even made art. That was always available, I just didn’t make time for it.

Work meetings include space to check in with the other people in the room. We’re making accommodations for each other in ways that we never did before. Never ever. We know more about each other, and it’s okay.

Honestly, video hangout meals in the evenings with friends are -better- than physically getting together in many ways. Not least, the obligation to clean up the whole house, agree on food for everybody, and so on simply disappears. It’s all about showing up.

Seeing people in person is truly precious. We’ve gotten careful with each other’s space and vulnerability.

We all realize now, I hope, that the truly “essential” employees are the underpaid, ill treated, and all-too-frequently invisible laborers, drivers, cooks, and cleaners on whom we build our posh life. I hope we can go ahead and PAY them fairly rather than just blathering on about heroism.

I hope that as we re-open, for all the good reasons that we need to re-open, that we can keep some of what we’ve learned here.

I don’t want to go back to killing myself.


The thing that really frustrates me about the crises I’ve seen in my life is that, by and large, the financial devastation is 100% avoidable.

Absolutely, 100% avoidable.

Covid-19 has killed hundreds of thousands of people. That’s real and it’s not up for debate. I can’t language it away. You can’t un-dead the dead.

Money, finance, employment, bankruptcy, rent, and property ownership, by contrast, are human concepts. They are old, important concepts and I’m not suggesting that we do away with them generally … but with just a bit of flexibility during a crisis, we would have no need to fear economic ruin in addition to fearing disease and death.

With just a bit of a flex to money and property rules, the terror of economic devastation could be turned all the way down and we could let public health policy drive our response to a public health crisis.

Why, exactly, is the stock market still open while the economy is closed? That’s absolutely, on the face of it, going to lead to massive losses (on paper) while nobody can do anything about it.

Why, exactly, are we still insisting on super-strict rules of bankruptcy … so that the businesses who miss out on support by days or weeks wind up gone forever?

Why, exactly, do we have to unroll our financial problems in real-time, from home, while disease stalks the land? Why do we use the same merciless rules that govern our economy the rest of the time in times of crisis?

All the rules about money are choices, collectively made by humans.

We could make different choices, and it would be a lot better for everybody.

No magic bullet

Getting serious for a moment:

It’s time to stop pretending that, if we can only hold out long enough, everything is going to go back to exactly how it was before this pandemic.

It is not.

Please ignore what our so-called leaders are saying about miracle cures, quick fixes, and “just another couple weeks.” These are harmful lies, peddled by scared people who quite simply don’t know what to do.

I don’t know what to do either. Not exactly. It’s not drinking bleach, I’ll tell you that much.

Great leaders, coaches, and strategists acknowledge hard truths. They acknowledge a difficult or a changed situation and then make new plans.

This pandemic has wrought lasting changes on the world. We are only beginning to see the outlines of how it will be in these “after-times.”

Some things are gone forever, including far, far too many people. So we grieve, and then we heal, and eventually we thrive again.

Buddhists say that “attachment leads to suffering.” This is not a moral judgement – but a simple acknowledgement of a rather obvious truth.

Recovery programs say: “Let go or be dragged.” Same deal.

It’s time to start building for the new future, even while we grieve the lost past, and also before we know how everything is going to turn out.

I know this is hard. We’re going to figure it out – together.


The epidemic has really put a dent in my blogging.

I’m amazed at the people who have been able to maintain their usual steady, productive output. For my part, I feel like I’m running on about half my usual emotional / mental capacity. I make lists and set priorities early in the day, acknowledging that at some point in the afternoon I am likely to be left with all the motive power and creativity of a potato.

In terms of input, I’ve been following Emily Dresner for slice-of-life diaries and well-informed snark, Elizabeth Bear for sensible advice, context, and practical tips to make food go further, Amal El Motar because hearing a poet’s voice in a dark time is a godsend, and Gareth Powell for his tenacious commitment to helping creative people get through this together.

The only news outlet that I trust to not nuke my state of mind is Stat News. They focus on the biotech industry, and are subscription based, which keeps the screaming-terror alerts to a dull roar. Eric Topol aggregates high quality information on his twitter feed, including the sensible metrics on the spread and human toll of COVID-19. Beyond that, honestly, I treat the internet with caution.

Thomas Pueyo put a post on Medium back on March 10 that is, for my money, still the best entry-level explanation of the challenges in measuring and reporting on the spread and impact of the disease. If you only have mental energy for one mid-length article, read that one. It’ll inoculate you against the major sorts of misunderstanding and disinformation that we’re being peddled these days.

Speaking of which, I’ve muted the president and his cronies on social media, and I won’t read so much as a summary of his news conferences. The office of the president, shamefully enough, is nothing more than a fountain of disinformation, grandstanding, ego, and bullying. That was painful and damaging before the epidemic hit – and now it’s going to get tens to hundreds of thousands of us killed.

Through it all, there are bright spots:

I attended the very first virtual meeting of my city council, and even thought there were rough spots with the technology – it gave me hope. If you work with local politics at any level, you quickly become aware of the challenges in providing access to, and soliciting input from, the entire community. There are so many barriers, and they all point in the same direction. Political access is inequitably allocated to able bodied people who speak english fluently, have the time and energy to attend meetings, are in “good standing” with the law, and so on. In this virtual meeting, I saw the glimmerings of a possible future where things could be substantially more accessible, open, and fair.

Along the same lines, I think that we can all see that internet connectivity is at least as much of a life-essential utility as a twisted-pair phone line … and perhaps even on the order of gas, electricity, and water. The outpouring of offers of aid on my various neighborhood groups and lists has been incredibly heartening. My various social groups, after taking a bit of a pause, have self-organized around virtual coffees and happy hours.

I’m also super glad to see some shred of dawning recognition that the (traditionally) low-prestige jobs like driving trucks, preparing and delivering food, keeping spaces clean, and so on are actually incredibly critical to keeping our society running.

I hope we get to keep that.

Stay safe and well out there, everybody.

The Ben Franklin Awards

Once a year, gives the “Benjamin Franklin” award to a person whose practice has “advanced open access in data and methods for life sciences.” There’s no cash prize, and the recipient doesn’t even get to give a talk. It usually gets presented in the 15 minutes before the (already early) 8:00am morning keynote sessions at the Bio-IT World conference. I’ve missed more of the awards ceremonies than I’ve attended because of the early hour.

I became a member of back in 2002 – the first year of the award. If I remember right, I signed up after meeting the founder, Jeff Bizzaro at some now-defunct conference. It might have been one of the O’Reilly Bioinformatics junkets, or maybe one of the IDG ones … perhaps ClusterWorld. Jeff was doing the legwork of building an organization, convinced me the award was a good idea, and got me signed up with a free membership.

Last Friday, Andrew Su (@andrewsu) pointed out on Twitter that 17 out of 18 of the Franklin awards have gone to men. He called on the prior recipients to “do something.”

Jonathan Eisen (@phylogenomics), who received the award in 2011, reminded us that he had come to the same realization half a year [edit: actually quite a while] earlier. Eisen took the award off his wall and memorialized the deed on Twitter with a blank-spot-on-the-wall selfie back in May.

Michael Eisen (@mbeisen – the 2002 recipient, not to be confused with Jonathan, above) went further and used some pretty strong language to demand that the award be closed down as a bit of accountability for the “injustice reflected in [its] history.”

My opinions on this are below, but first I want to share a couple of stories from a parallel universe – the world of awards given to science fiction authors.

Sad Puppies

Until late last year, the “John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer” was an annual thing. Then the 1999 winner, Jeannette Ng, pointed out in her acceptance speech that John Campbell was a noted fascist and a truly odious human being by modern standards.

In the space of about two weeks, the sci-fi community basically said “huh, about that, oh wow, um, yeah – good point, –awkward-, how about if we change the name?” Thus was born the “Astounding” award for best new writer, after the grand old “Astounding Science Fiction” magazine.

Speaking up makes a difference. Jeannette Ng did a good thing.

The sci-fi community has done a lot of this sort of work in recent years. In 2015 through 2017, a right-wing, anti-diversity group, organized under the name “Sad Puppies” saturated the nominations for another venerable award (the Hugos). Fortunately, the community came together and a majority of voters chose “no award” rather than support the puppy’s biased agenda.

Neither of these situations is a great model for what’s going on with the Ben Franklin award. The name isn’t the problem – Franklin was a noted curmudgeon and was certainly a product of his era, but his name and writings are not generally associated with oppression and inequity. Similarly, I’m not aware of any puppy-orthologs who are suborning or manipulating the nominations.

Don’t Blame the Mirror

I have huge respect for both Michael and Jonathan’s scientific and public advocacy work, and I hesitate to second guess either of them – let alone both at the same time. Still, I can’t get around the fact that if we don’t like what we see when we look in the mirror, taking the mirror down is not going to improve the situation.

I think that throwing the Ben Franklin award under the bus as if it had actively perpetuated bias and sexism misses a subtle point. This was a sin of omission, of failing to compensate effectively, rather than a sin of commission. This is a common story – people and systems that fail to take pre-existing bias into account wind up perpetuating it. It is, in fact, the mechanism by which good and decent people become complicit in woefully biased organizations.

My experience is that this sort of public punishment of sins of omission tends to drive decent people away from advocacy. This acts to push the community in the wrong direction, away from engagement rather than towards it.

I’ve written about why men hesitate to speak up, and it’s nasty stuff. I also spoke at a recent meeting of the Rosalind Franklin Society about my own challenges in engaging with my well-intentioned but bias-perpetuating colleagues without simply losing friends and cutting myself out of the conversation.

What Should We Do Instead?

We’ve got a ways to go before we’re anywhere close to the high bar set by the community of science fiction authors and fans, but we can take steps. I think that we should modify the award rather than nuking it and shaming the organizers.

My vote is for to carry on with the Franklin award, but to modernize the selection process to prevent it from merely continuing to reinforce and amplify bias. The necessary changes from my perspective are (a) insist on a credibly diverse pool of nominees before allowing a vote (which Jeff B. and Bio-IT World should perhaps have been doing all along) and (b) include the possibility of a “no award” vote as a fail safe against a sad-puppies style vocal minority messing things up. Coupled with advocacy and engagement from senior members of the community to nominate and sponsor worthy people who might not yet be household names, we might see the numbers start to change in a relatively short time.

At the same time, yes, let’s create new awards. Let a thousand flowers bloom, and let them be named for Dayhoff and other frequently overlooked pioneers. Let’s just not miss the opportunity to take a clear-eyed look at what drove these biased results, and think about how we can steer the community so that we’re not having the same conversation 20 years from now.


Okay, so the trip is real. Tickets have been purchased. I’m totally confident that I can work the clutch and the brakes on this machine until about noon on Saturday. That’s a good 36 hours about which I have confidence. Better than usual.

On Friday we take a plane from Boston to Santo Domingo in the DR. We’re staying at a Quality Inn near the airport overnight – meeting the rest of the team there. 15 of us. 5 physicians, 2 nurses, and the rest of us. Most have been to Haiti before. In the morning, we’re hiring a driver (or two …) to get us from Santo Domingo to the Jimani (pronounced “Jimminy”) border crossing.

That that point we hit one of the truly major make or break points on the trip: We expect that the Family Health Ministries van will meet us at the border crossing. They’re also bringing a truck for the supplies – as well as guards. Okay, they’re probably just bringing guys we know. That’s better than nothing.

I fully expect that we’ll get to sit and stare at the border crossing for a couple of hours, hoping that our transport shows up. It’s gonna be an awesome period during which I learn a lot about the moral constitution of my teammates.

Nervous? Me? Nah.

Assuming that the truck shows, we’re planning to arrive in Blanchard (AKA Terre Noir), just North West of the Port Au Prince airport on Saturday evening. We’ll go to church on Sunday. Yes yes, I know. I’m an atheist. However, perhaps (in the words of the New York Times) “a God who never answers is better than nothing.” Also, the faith of the people I’ve met in Haiti is real, applied, and useful to them. Better than most anything I saw growing up in the suburbs.

Either Sunday afternoon or Monday morning we’ll start seeing patients. At that point, things go totally off the map. I received a forwarded email (via my dad) from a man who was in country last week. Here’s a representative chunk:

spent the bulk of last week working in an orphanage that we turned into a hospital down the road from the real hospital where the surgeons did non stop surgery. lots of ortho trauma, neuro and spine trauma, open wounds, burns, blunt and open trauma to chest, abdomen, pelvis and extremities, crush injuries to just about every part of the body,despair of families split apart searching among the wounded for each other etc…..we put in 12-14 hr days and shifts. teams from all over the world converged at our clinic and hospital which was right on the border of haiti and the dom rep.

He continues, after a bit more detail:

these beautiful people are truly amazing despite the devastation of their country and have a silent dignity that i can not do justice to by trying to describe with mere words. the survivors were mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters, etc and from all walks of life from carpenters and ship captains to lawyers, doctors, poets, authors, masons, bussiness owners all left with nothing at home but complete devastation.

He was at the border. We’re headed for the core. On the other hand, we’re a week later. We may well be able to run an ambulatory care clinic and refer off to the hospital ship. Who knows? I just really hope to not have to do amputations with no sedation. Hell, I would really like to maintain my lifetime record of “zero” instances where I had to take a knife to human flesh.

Nervous? Me? Nah.

What I do know is that we’re packing food for a week, clothing for 90 degree weather, and all the supplies we can fit into our two x fifty pound checked luggages. I’m treating this as a BYO medical practice. It’s gonna be awesome. In addition to bandages, splints, pain meds, and so on – I’m adding things like knives, basic sets of tools, tarps, and so on.

We’ll work as long as we can, through Friday, and then make our way back to the part that I’m actually the most nervous about: Getting from the border back to Santo Domingo.

I’m looking for a Satellite Internet connection. Seems to be a mere matter of about $100 bucks to rent the gear for two weeks, and then something like $8 per MB. Yikes. Still, I would very much like to be able to post while I’m out there.

I’m also looking for ideas. If you have ideas on topics ranging from personal security, to useful tools to bring, to how to best help these people: I would love to hear them.

Men silencing men

People sometimes ask what motivates me to speak out publicly as an advocate and an ally to women and other underrepresented groups. Sometimes these questions are sincere. Mostly they are not.

As I have found my voice on this topic, I have become aware of a pattern of discouragement, insinuation, insincere questions, and intimidation from some of my male peers. This pressure, and my fear of it, turns out to have been part of why I hesitated for so long before engaging publicly.

My hope is that naming this phenomenon will diffuse its power, both for me and hopefully for other men too. Speaking only for me, I can assure everybody that there is a much better and more enlightened adulthood once you get past the schoolyard bullies.

Anybody who has dealt with bullies knows that it’s a mistake to engage with the details of any particular taunt. A bully’s taunt is a front. It’s the convenience store that’s open until 2am but never seems to sell anything. You have to ask yourself what’s really going on there.

Let’s go ahead and unpack a few of those:

Taunt #1: Virtue Signaling

Let’s start with the idea that advocacy is “just virtue signaling.” It’s supposedly a hypocritical, self reinforcing in-group activity. The particular words carry no more meaning than the back-and-forth honking of geese.

Wikipedia describes virtue signaling as a “pejorative neologism,” in which one “signals support for a cause without actually acting to support the cause in question.” The call-out example is a picture of a man doing the “ice bucket challenge” that was all the rage back in 2014 to raise funds for ALS research.

The example is misleading. That particular campaign raised more than $100M, which transformed and radically accelerated ALS research. Apparently the participants inspired action with their chilly signals.

Bullies don’t get hung up on details.

I am, in fact, trying to signal a directional change here. Honk, honk guys, we’re off course. Let’s steer away from systemic bias and towards equity. Don’t worry about what the haters say.

Taunt #2: Points with the Ladies

I’ve also been told that my advocacy is just a hustle aimed at scoring points with women. Sometimes it’s specific: “Bro, she’s not gonna sleep with you.” Other people seem to posit a sort of gender-wide currency, redeemable with any woman, worldwide.

I’m disturbed that some of my peers still seem to subscribe to the toxic and juvenile model of woman as vending machine. Offer enough tokens and a prize emerges. Most of us got over that idea sometime during or shortly after high school. Bro, you know that’s not how it works – right?

More succinctly: Women don’t owe me (or you) shit.

What I’m being told is that I’m embarrassing myself. I should stop. I look pathetic. They seem to be saying that everybody can see that I’m desperate and lonely. They say that I’m doing it wrong.

They’re saying that speaking up for women is performing manhood incorrectly.

Nasty stuff, right?

Taunt #3: We don’t talk about it

Then there’s the idea that it’s inappropriate and crass to talk about your advocacy. I’ve been told by more than a few peers that they do way more to help women than I will ever know. They just do it so subtly that nobody can detect their good works.

While this is theoretically possible, I think it’s unlikely. The things they are so proud of likely amount to the bare minimum required by law. Failure to abuse women doesn’t count as advocacy. Hiring the occasional woman and paying her equal to her male counterparts is the baseline, not some laudable crime-fighting secret identity. Treating daughters and female spouses with respect and dignity is basic human decency.

The idea that a privileged person should not have to be bothered to even hear about bias is, in fact, part of the structural problem. The freedom to not have to talk or think about equity is the very definition of privilege. This is the domain of the “gender-blind,” or the “color-blind,” with an emphasis on “blind.”

Perhaps the real problem here is that I’m messing with that privilege.

The point: Shut Up

If you keep speaking up for long enough, the threats emerge.

I’ve been told that having a reputation for public advocacy will hurt my career. This hasn’t been my experience, in fact I’m hard pressed to think of a way that my career could be going better. Of course, there’s bias and privilege at work there too. I started from a good place and I got loud only after I was well established. I do suggest that early career folks, to quote a speaker at a recent RFS event, “secure your own oxygen mask before attempting to assist others.”

That’s because vulnerable people do suffer consequences when they speak out. The people who most need advocacy and sponsorship put themselves at substantial risk of reprisal, quiet and loud, when they advocate for themselves. That’s why it is so patently unfair to push the work of advocacy off on members of underrepresented groups.

Bringing it full circle, that’s why I speak up. If I don’t, the burden falls to folks who are much more likely to suffer career consequences for it.

It’s all in your head

Anybody who started off as a child (everybody) has these patterns baked into them. We impose social judgements on ourselves without requiring external censors or gatekeepers. The only bully needed is the one inside my own head. I’m honestly a bit grateful to my peers for giving voice to those quiet thoughts and allowing me see them clearly.

A few years ago, a young colleague approached me, worried that people might think he was “creepy” if he offered to help with the women’s advocacy group at work. I asked, “well, are you doing it for creepy reasons?” After a bit of conversation, we convinced ourselves that his intentions were not creepy. I encouraged him to go for it. It’s good to get a sanity check on these things, and it’s a shame that worry held him back.

Talking about it helps.

How to shut me up

That said, I actually am talking more than I would like here.

There is limited space in any conversation. Attention paid to one voice comes at the cost of others who deserve to be heard. A really important and challenging aspect of advocacy is the art of holding space so that underrepresented voices can be heard. It’s about knowing when to speak up and knowing when to shut up. A recent New York Times opinion piece implored men to “lean out” instead of merely telling women to “lean in.”

But how to lean out without simply maintaining the status quo?

To the bullies and the haters, here’s my commitment: I will quiet down and stop making such an unseemly fuss when our whole conversation is so rich, diverse, and safe for everybody that I feel obliged to back off.

Until then, get used to it.