A Club is Not a Movement

26 Oct 2021

The free software movement aims to make technology for everyone, but its growth has been impeded by systemic harassment and gatekeeping – problems that don’t have technical solutions. Deb Nicholson, former Membership Coordinator and union co-steward at the Free Software Foundation, did her best to help the nonprofit serve the movement. But even with a strong union contract, toxic masculinity and elitism persisted, resulting in a space that often felt exclusive and uninviting to outsiders. That might be fine for a club, but a movement that is hostile to newcomers is limited in what it can achieve. Deb argues that troubleshooting these issues through ongoing organizing is necessary to liberate the free software movement from the people who are content with it remaining a small, secret club.

Photo of two empty chairs in the snow

A very small, uninviting club in Harvard yard / Source

The Worker’s Perspective

by Deb Nicholson

My introduction to free software was unusual. I come from a more traditional community organizing background, and the free speech movement. I also went to school for painting and sculpture, and in the art world, you don’t have to wear shoes, so I used to joke that I’d already sold out because I wear shoes in the nonprofit world.

In 2006, I left my job at the peace and social justice nonprofit Citizens for Participation in Political Action to start working at the Free Software Foundation, the FSF. I worked as an office manager, a database admin, and a little bit of everything. And because I had just come from a struggling nonprofit, I asked the people interviewing me a lot of questions about their finances and revenue streams. The FSF staff were like, “Whoa, we usually get people who say ‘RMS is so inspiring, can I just sit in the office?’ — but you actually know about how nonprofits work!” So they hired me, and I kept finding all of these things to improve upon, like processing incoming donations, recruiting new members, and proposing ideas for growing our outreach and volunteer base. I also quickly learned that RMS had an extremely pervasive presence in the free software movement, and at FSF.

The stated goal of the free software movement is to make it possible for everyone to participate in its creation, use, and maintenance. The reality is wildly different, because of two things that are incompatible. First, people expect the entire movement to work on volunteerism: having everyone do everything for free or 80 hours a week for crap pay. Hours and pay can be fixed with a union. And second, there’s a mess of toxic masculinity, sexism, harassment, and gatekeeping. Solidarity can’t fix any of that when it’s unevenly distributed. The FSF formed a union to protect employees against pressure to work long hours, take calls on their days off and skip holidays and vacation. But a union can only do so much.

RMS: Chief “GNUisance”

RMS, AKA Richard M. Stallman, has been a vocal supporter of free software since he coined the term in the 1980s and launched GNU, an operating system that is entirely free software. For many people, “free software” and RMS are synonymous. But the movement for software freedom is larger than just one man. It’s about a community of activists, thousands of technologists, and organizations like the FSF.

Like me, RMS voiced support for peace and social justice movements, so I didn’t think he was detrimental at first. He reminded me of a lot of the quirky older men I’d encountered in my previous work. He always said, “I’m open to listening.” It took me a while to realize that he was really saying, “Can I just do what I want without you people bugging me?”

Former staff told me that RMS was the reason the FSF union existed. When we hired someone who volunteered with her church on the side, I told her, “Look, unless you want to have a ridiculously uncomfortable conversation with RMS about faith, don’t mention it.” He had lots of taboo topics like that. He never wanted to hear about babies or children. He would call people late at night and even on Christmas if you gave him your personal number. He would manipulate them to stay on the phone to help him fix things, or hang out with him. There were no boundaries with him.

People at FSF attempted to manage RMS’s behavior. I was told that the board had set up a staff director, aka the Executive Director, as a buffer. He would come directly from the airport to FSF and he would open his luggage, leave his stuff all over the lobby, and look for people who hadn’t promptly replied to his emails, standing over their desks. Because he was blunt, other people could say to him, “I can’t do my work while you’re standing there, please leave now,” and he would. But that’s a level of bluntness that not everyone can deliver.

LibrePlanet, the annual conference hosted by FSF, has a “safe space” policy. RMS broke it by interrupting people and yelling during their talks without facing consequences. Organizers would say, “The session is over, it’s time to go,” but RMS would come in at the end saying, “I have a question, and this is MY conference,” implying that everyone had to stay until he was done. So later the organizers emphasized that the safe space policy also applied to board members and staff.

Growing FSF

We don’t talk enough about why free software is great. We say, “Well, it’s not proprietary!” But what’s really great about free software is that it asks questions like, What if you wanted to have a screen reader that could seamlessly go back and forth between the browser and the command line? Would a proprietary browser ask that? No, but a free software alternative absolutely would. And that comes from bringing in people who don’t only care about free software.

So, despite outright opposition within the office, we formed the women’s caucus to help grow LibrePlanet — both the conference and the movement. Overtly and repeatedly saying “everyone is welcome” worked. The number of women who presented went up and up and held at about a third of the participants. We worked to include diverse people beyond the usual suspects: people from around the world, often from Spanish-speaking countries, and people with kids.

We also saw a lot of new GNU projects that focused on growth, and we asked users what they wanted to see, how they wanted the software to work. That led to software not just for ourselves but for people like painters and artists. Most of those maintainers have been chased off, but for a while it was really good. It was great to see free software projects modeling how to talk with users. How do you get them using your software, not because it’s cheap or the right thing to do, but because it works?

A Club is Not a Movement

Some people in free software feel like, “We have a super fun secret club and it’d be nice if it were a little bit bigger.” Other people are trying to build a movement. Building a movement requires constant checks on gatekeeping, which is a muscle and a mindset you need to build because it’s not intuitive.

If you look at corporate software events, it’s easy to see how they grow. Sure, they don’t run out of water or coffee by 11am and their hotel rooms are nicer, but what many do really well is proactively bring in students, women, and people of color by having a solid code of conduct, being super positive – and not acting as gatekeepers. We might not be able to afford endless espresso and sushi, but it doesn’t cost anything to be nice.

Like in other nerdy pursuits, the norms and behaviors you set up are what matter. In a club, it’s not obvious that it’s better to listen to newcomers rather than make fun of them or say “Ugh [sigh], I’ll just do it for you.” If you want people to behave in a certain way, you need to model it in your own event, project, or nonprofit organization.

Contracts Can’t Fix Everything

Our union was UAW, United Auto Workers. My understanding is that it was the most progressive one at the time. We were categorized as technical and office professional staff (TOPS.) As a union co-steward, I went to regional meetings. We heard stories of managers standing over you, trying to get you to mess up so they could write you up and discipline you. By contrast, the FSF management didn’t have any exposure to unions, so we won an off-the-rack, best-in-class contract. Management didn’t originally have any idea that they should push back on the contract, so we received 4 weeks of vacation, 18 holidays, 3 days of bereavement leave, compensatory time, and after another negotiation the ability to work from home 1-2 days a week.

Yet even with a strong contract, there were still systemic problems. They kept giving the campaign organizing position to a technical person, instead of someone with a community organizing background. I applied for that role at least twice. The first time they just said no. The second time they gave me this bizarre test, “What’s the fight with Debian Non-free? Describe that.” Another test question was “If you were going to copy a file from one machine to another, what’s the exact command you’d write?” It was technically allowable by union rules, but it was just gatekeeping.

Events where the technical and the organizing worlds collided would result in the biggest clashes. One year, we said we wanted to make LibrePlanet bigger, with a day for women and with more of a focus on diversity. Responses ranged from “Wow, I never thought about why there were no women here” to someone else making a physical threat to an audience member during a session. We had a women’s welcome dinner and someone on the GNU maintainer list asked, “Why do they have this sexist women’s dinner?” Rather than explaining its value in building community, RMS replied, “It’s been explained to me why they do this, so let’s let them do it.”

Sexual harassment also pushed women out of the organization. Admin work is paid less, so it’s mostly been younger women in those roles, and men have more pay and power. I saw a lot of unwelcome advances. One colleague even wore a fake wedding ring to our public events to keep the dudes from talking to her. A volunteer kept asking me on dates even though we’d never had a conversation about anything except stuffing envelopes in the office. FSF never had any policy about workplace harassment, so it’s all gone largely unreported. I’ve tried to ask if I could make a complaint without all of the details, which would almost certainly lead to blowback, but that was not well received.

Eventually I worked my way up until they made a new role for me called “Membership Coordinator.” The FSF board and management were hoping that I would magically double our revenue, but then there was an economic downturn, and they eliminated my position. They said that if I wanted, I could go back to sitting at the front desk – and then the person doing that job would have to leave instead. That’s how the union works: union members in higher up positions are given precedence over those in “lower” positions, which meant I could bump someone else out of a job. I chose not to. I told them, “You’ve got the front desk person in charge of accounting, you should pay them more.” Even though I was leaving, I wanted to improve things for the bargaining unit. The union helped us make some things better, but it couldn’t help us fix the systemic sexism in the office or the movement.

Troubleshooting for the Movement

It’s fair to say that if you’ve heard about “free software” or “free/libre software,” or if you’ve heard criticism of closed-source or corporate open source software, it’s probably partly because of RMS and his decades-long advocacy mission. But the free software movement is larger than one man.

While I worked at the Free Software Foundation, I saw our union protect against his systematic abuse while trying to advance the movement – like it was intended to. If FSF is trying to set the tone for the movement, let alone grow it beyond a small club, it needs to do some troubleshooting. If you have a worker exploitation problem and a toxic masculinity problem, the first step is realizing you have two separate problems — and you have to deal with both of those problems. I hope the wider free software community will choose to build an inclusive, diverse movement free of gatekeeping and toxicity.

This piece was a conversation and collaboration with Tamara K, Danny S, Wendy L, Kaylen S, and Vikram R. Deb Nicholson can be found on Twitter or you can find her at SeaGL, an annual free software event dedicated to surfacing new voices and providing a bridge into the free software community.