#AlterConf Detroit Recap

Last weekend I got to attend AlterConf Detroit, a one-day conference dedicated to diversity in the tech & gaming industries. I’d been looking forward to it for ages, since coming across AlterConf on Twitter and seeing the quality of speakers they hire and the importance of the topics they address. The first-ever AlterConf Detroit didn’t let me down! Below, a few highlights & thoughts.

AlterConf’s commitment to accessibility was visible and inspiring.

Not only was the venue wheelchair-accessible, but the conference provided sign language interpretation and live captioning of all spoken content. I’d never seen live captioning before and it ruled. Even as a hearing person, I benefitted greatly from it. It was useful to be able to look up at a screen to read something that had been inaudible to me, plus my brain often absorbs information more readily via reading than hearing, especially with more complex ideas.

Many other accommodations & considerations were made, too. Food was clearly labeled for those with dietary restrictions. All attendees were asked to include their preferred pronouns on their nametags, to avoid misgendering. The usually single-sex restrooms were prominently labeled as gender-neutral:

I’d love to see this kind of thoughtfulness become the norm for conferences & events, though I feel we are sadly a long way off from that happening. As an event organizer myself, I wouldn’t be sure how to manage it (especially how to afford the services of talented translators and captioners), but I’m open to suggestions!

My favorite talk: Tiffani Ashley Bell of the Detroit Water Project

As a Detroit resident I’ve been very aware of the water crisis in our city and somewhat aware of some of the efforts to fight it. So the Detroit Water Project was on my radar to some extent, but I didn’t really know what they did and was very excited to learn from the founder & executive director herself.

Tiffani Bell is absolutely a developer inspiration! She was on a Code for America fellowship when she heard about Detroit’s water situation on Twitter. Four hours later, she’d built the beginnings of a system donors could use to pay water bills on behalf of struggling Detroiters. Today her organization has helped over 900 families keep their water on. That’s a huge deal not only for the obvious reasons of public health and sanitation, but because having your water shut off can lead to losing your home and custody of your children, too.

The Detroit Water Project isn’t content with just paying folks’ bills, though. They’ve found ways to use customer data to figure out who is likely to fall behind on a water bill, and intervene before it gets to that point. They also aim to create fundamental, lasting change by helping pass legislation guaranteeing water as a basic human right. As they work toward that long-term goal, they’ll continue assisting with utility payments for people in need in Detroit and other cities. They’re looking for development help (both volunteer and paid), too!

Other favorites:

  • Eva Gantz introduced us to Stellar and the ways it’s being used to increase access to credit for unbanked women around the world.  
  • Elizabeth Mitchell talked about building healthy, anti-oppression workplaces. She shared some stories about what it feels like to work in inclusive environments vs. exclusive ones. She did a great job of engaging attendees by asking us to remember times we felt like we were able to be ourselves vs. times we felt we had to wear masks. A major takeaway: remote work allows employees to contribute meaningfully even when they may not be able to sustain in a traditional office environment.  
  • Laura Jane Watkins shared the story of the #ILookLikeAnEngineer movement: how it got started, why the organizers decided to make it known offline as well as on social media, questions & conversations around what it means, and what’s next.

And an honorable mention: the food was out-of-this-world good!

For a fairly comprehensive review of the day, check out this Storify. There will also be video, transcript, and more posted on each talk’s page on AlterConf, though they don’t appear to be there just yet. Anyway, if you like what you see, definitely check to see if AlterConf is coming to a city near you!