Jess White 2020 Q&A: OTW Multiculturalism and Growth

[Note: In total, there will be 6 Q&A posts to cover all of the topics brought up during the user-submitted Q&A period. The candidates were limited to 300 words to answer each question, but they were allowed to rearrange and combine questions within a single post to more clearly express their thoughts. Candidate answers represent only the views of the individual candidate and are not endorsed by the OTW.

Due to a high volume of similar questions this year, many questions were merged and duplicate questions were left out. Other than this, questions appear in the form they were submitted. Questions represent only the views of the individual questioner and are not endorsed by the OTW.]

How would you deal with potential culture clashes as there are more and more fans from different cultural background? And how would you address the issues outside US?

(The question didn’t specify, so for this question I will discuss internal culture clash in the OTW.)

To protect its volunteers, the OTW does not require us to provide identifying information. This means that volunteers do not always know each other’s cultural backgrounds, and some would prefer to keep that information quiet. There can be issues where volunteers don’t always realize how internationally diverse the organization is, or aren’t well-versed in interacting with people from a diverse range of cultural backgrounds, and so misunderstandings can arise.

On a personal level, and as a member of the Board, if I were aware of such culture clashes – say between two volunteers, and if it fell within my purview to mediate between the two, I would request a discussion between the involved parties. There should be a clear understanding that if they are having issues communicating, they need to know why. Is it malicious behavior or teachable ignorance? Is it misinformation? Are people using slang or terms that don’t translate well? If this is a repeated pattern, I would ask for input from other Board members or the volunteers’ Chairs where applicable to see where and why this communication breakdown is happening, then work with all parties to resolve it. I think it’s important to note, however, that unless asked by the Committee Chair(s), the Board does not step in to inter-personnel matters.

The OTW is a large multicultural organisation, and there is always a chance that misunderstandings will occur. How would you work to prevent them, and what would you do if a volunteer disclosed that you offended them/made them feel uncomfortable?

To prevent cultural misunderstandings, I would work with the Board to ensure that all volunteers are aware of the potential for cultural conflicts, and support their Chairs in resolving any issues that arise. When situations like this arise in my classroom, I often find myself acting as a mediator between students whose cultures are vastly different, and have rarely had an issue helping to resolve the conflict. However, if a misunderstanding occurred between me and another volunteer, and the volunteer disclosed that I had offended them, or made them feel uncomfortable, I would immediately apologize for my ignorance. If they said I made them uncomfortable, and if I couldn’t understand why, I would ask for a third party to help me to understand how I could educate myself and avoid instances in the future. I would want to make sure they, as the wronged party, felt we could still work together, but if I am the problem, that might need to come from a third party so that the volunteer I offended doesn’t feel badgered. With an issue like this it’s more about them feeling safe and comfortable than me trying to feel better.

It appears externally that even the small things take a long time for the organization to make decisions on and then take action. Do you see this as a problem, and do you think this is something that can be improved on?

From an outside perspective, I am fully aware that it can be frustrating waiting for particular changes to materialize within the OTW – although we try to communicate as often as we can, the issues that we are trying to address (and our discussions about them) are complex and can’t always be summarized neatly. Some of the reasons for this are due to all of us being volunteers; those ideas need to be implemented by several committees across several different time zones, with people often working around their own families, school obligations, or jobs. Some of those reasons are due to infrastructure or the OTW’s organization. For example, on AO3, in our Accessibility, Design and Technology committee, for a seemingly simple feature change to be implemented, there needs to be discussion across relevant committees (again, working around time zones and volunteer schedules), the code would need to be written (which often means putting aside other projects to focus on this), beta’d, tested, again across several committees, changed if necessary, released, and then the whole process would start over again for the next feature. In Policy and Abuse for something to be changed, there would need to be extensive discussion among the committee, the Chairs, and Legal- where the suggestion is examined from all angles. I do see this as a challenge, and frankly, feel that all the committees are doing extremely well in rising above these challenges to ensure that the OTW runs relatively smoothly. The turnaround time has already been improved upon, and I have no doubt that it will continue to do so.

How would you balance the OTW’s need for funding with the membership amount being prohibitive for a lot of users (especially those outside the USA and/or with low minimum wages) therefore leaving decision-making only to those who can afford it?

For several years, I was not in a financial position to donate money to the OTW; instead, I donated my time and energy by serving on several committees. In this, I could still contribute to the decision-making by serving on those committees and offering feedback and discussion when issues arose. When I decided to run for Board, I donated so that I would be eligible to have a more direct impact. So in relation to the eight years I have used the OTW’s various projects at no cost, I have spent a total of ten dollars. As I understand it, the need to have users contribute is related to ensuring, as far as they are able, that voter fraud is not occuring. I believe the Development and Membership Committee has made the amount as low as possible for just that reason: it is the lowest worthwhile donation amount minus the cost of payment processors. They’ve specifically tried to ensure, within their power, that the amount is not a barrier to anyone that wants to be a member of the OTW.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that although electing the Board of Directors is a very important process and we encourage as many fans as possible to engage with this process, the OTW Board of Directors are just one part of the decision-making within the OTW.

Do the candidates believe the org needs employees? If so, how should OTW avoid disincentivizing volunteers who may feel upset? What roles would they prioritize for employees? How would you fund employees and how would you decide how much an employee should be paid? [merged question]

The issue of paid staff is a frequent topic of discussion during Board elections and is definitely firmly on all the candidates’ radars. It is also firmly in the Vision Statement as a topic of discussion. The simple answer is that yes, I believe that in some instances, certain roles would benefit from having a paid employee or specific work contracted out. But this is in no way a simple process, and there are a number of pressing questions that we would need to address. Currently, the OTW does not have an HR department. Therefore, who would manage the employees? What would happen if we needed to fire them? How would we file taxes, and in which country? Under which country’s laws can we ensure that they are fairly and competitively paid, with benefits that would ensure that the work was completed in a timely manner?

As for prioritizing roles, I think it would be most crucial to investigate hiring a systems administrator and/or coding specialists, simply because they are constantly filling feature requests and system updates. As for funding employees, I believe that funding would come from a mix of current funds and grants- assuming we qualify for them. Although some volunteers might be put out by the decision to make some roles paid and not others, I would work to communicate just how important this move is for the overall health of the OTW and the well-being of our volunteers – and that it doesn’t mean their time and dedication is valued any less.

ETA July 15, 2020: The note at the top of each Q&A post was updated per a recommendation by the OTW Legal Committee.