On the afternoon of Memorial Day a small group of streets.mn writers met in a sunny Minneapolis backyard to explore our ideas and concerns surrounding diversity and representation on streets.mn. This holiday barbecue featured a great turnout of 10 writers, some loosely structured activities, and, of course, a veggie hot dog or two. Hot dog eaters were from a variety of locations (Minneapolis and St. Paul, some further suburbs, and Northfield), and we had a good balance of men and women.
I was originally prompted to organize the barbecue by a thread on the writers’ Google group. Writers shared some fantastic comments about their perceptions of the kinds of posts welcome on streets.mn, barriers to writing for women and minorities, and the general culture and feel of the site. Clearly we had a lot to talk about. A barbecue gave us a more personal, flexible forum than an online thread to share our ideas around these complex and often sensitive topics, and let us explore ideas originally aired in the thread in a more in depth and nuanced way.
We spent several hours getting to know one another and chatting in pairs and groups in an unstructured way, which resulted in some thought provoking discussions. I’ve tried to represent some of the ideas that were shared here, which are mixed up with my own ideas, biases, and commentary. I hope the content of this post sparks more discussion and can serve as a jumping off point for working toward solutions, and for figuring out what those solutions might be in the first place.
What’s the big deal?
Take a look at our list of contributors. At first it seems we have a decent gender balance of men and women, but number of posts associated with men and women show a very different picture.
Clearly the voice of streets.mn is predominately male. It’s also been noted (and has been a point of criticism) that those males tend to be white, young, urban, and middle class more often than not. This blog asserts that a “diverse group of contributors writes for streets.mn,” but I’m not convinced that’s based in any real assessment. Our About page refers to diversity in vague ways, but it doesn’t appear it’s explicitly been named as a value of the organization.
Our mission says that streets.mn strives to “expand and enhance the conversation about transportation and land use through research and informed commentary.” I would argue that it does so admirably through many well researched posts about the finer points of planning and transportation, debates about the pros and cons of existing and planned infrastructure, and reports on the process behind public land use projects. Those posts are one thing that makes streets.mn great, and should remain a cornerstone of “the conversation” we are trying to expand and enhance. That conversation shouldn’t only be about the planning process and technical specs, however. We should strive to include more posts about how these impact people’s lives on the ground, how women and minorities and immigrants and children use transportation and public spaces, how our transportation system does/doesn’t/could better empower people and foster better communities. Some of our content touches on these topics, but we could go a lot further. I think we’ve lost the opportunity to bring many people with diverse perspectives on as writers based on the perception that streets.mn is meant to be a wonky blog, or that a potential writer has to be somewhat authoritative on a technical topic to meaningfully contribute. Of course we want well researched and intelligent posts, but we also want posts that explore a diversity of opinions and backgrounds and discuss transportation and land use at many different levels.
Several writers have pointed out that, according to our About page, anyone can contribute to streets.mn. Technically true, yes. So why isn’t everybody and their mother flocking to share their ideas here? If the organization wants to reach a broader audience and continue to contribute meaningfully to our whole community, we have to call out statements like this. Writers need to explore what it really means to invite participation on streets.mn, how to make the call for contributors more inviting, how to meaningfully seek out individuals to contribute, how we can openly address our concerns, and what our roles as writers and board members should be in fostering diversity on this site.
After a lot of munching and free form discussion, we wrapped up the afternoon with an activity that utilized our trusty markers and index cards to crowdsource some steps for moving forward. We each wrote down an answer to the prompt, “If you were ten times bolder, what big idea would you recommend to foster diverse perspectives? What first step would you take to get started?” Cards were passed, discussed, and scored twice on a scale of one to five. We wound up with two rounds’ worth of cards and some great and not so great ideas (yes, one of mine was the lowest scored in the bunch). The scoring revealed some standouts:
“Turn commenters who point out missing perspectives into authors.” This was the only idea to score a perfect 10. Commenters are people who are already invested to some degree in streets.mn in that they’re already taking part in our conversations. streets.mn has Betsey Buckheit, who reviews comment threads when she compiles her Sunday Summary posts and could potentially give recommendations for recruiting new writers.
“Make the streets.mn hidden visible. Post on the hidden and ideas.” This idea is represented by this very post: taking the conversations that are currently happening in comment threads and behind the scenes and making them widely visible to the streets.mn audience. Opening up our hidden concerns has the potential to bring our whole community into the discussion and to improve the site.
“Demand diversity on the board. 10 2 people.” If we want to say that a diverse group of people writes for streets.mn, we should put our money where our mouth is. If we can explicitly commit to active recruitment of diversity on our governing board, we can better fulfill our mission of expanding and enhancing the conversation about transportation and land use. I don’t remember exactly what “10 2 people” referred to, so please chime in below if you know!
“Achieve gender balance in quantity of key writers. Get contacts and research female writers.” Andrea Steudel is especially passionate about working toward greater gender equity among regular contributors. Part of this push could be linked to our first goal of turning commenters into writers, and another part could be to identify women in the engineering, transportation, and planning worlds who would be interested in lending their voices to streets.mn.
“Get a non-white person to write about car-free living in Minnesota.” This conversation was initially sparked by discussion of gender representation, but clearly that is not the only aspect of diversity that needs improvement.We also raised issues of how to encourage minority representation without falling prey to tokenism or a quota mentality. Points about race and ethnicity sparked a lot of discussion among us, but resulting ideas seemed to be more nebulous and need a lot more thought.
Along with these top ideas, we touched on inclusion of writers of different economic and class backgrounds, recruiting more rural and outstate writers, recruitment of writers of diverse ages, and how to reach different immigrant communities in the Twin Cities.
So, when’s the next barbecue?
It’s clear that we still have a lot more to talk about. There are so many facets of diversity to explore, so there will be at least one more get-together like this one. Building a more diverse cohort of streets.mn writers will be most successful when it is a process we all take part in. I’m hoping that, by taking some of the small, more manageable steps generated in that Minneapolis backyard, we can begin to make meaningful progress toward addressing our concerns.