Making EA groups more welcoming
- Why work on this?
- Some failure modes:
- Some areas of diversity to think about
- During events
- Physically accessible spaces
- Food-related concerns
- Mental health and self-care
- Some ways to help group members here:
- Group members with children
- Ideological and psychological diversity
- Handling disruptions in the group
- Pitfalls of trying to be better at diversity
- Brainstorming beyond the usual suspects
This is a resource for organizers of EA groups who want to welcome great people to their groups and events, including people from groups that we’re currently largely missing out on.
Why work on this?
There are lots of ways to make a group generally friendly, productive, and enjoyable. (See this document of tips from local organizers.) But this document focuses specifically on ways to be welcoming to people from groups that may not currently feel very included at EA gatherings.
Some failure modes:
Groups miss out on great people who perceive the group unfavorably and never join.
Groups attract great people but then lose them as they encounter things that put them off.
Homogenous groups miss out on talent, experience, and information held by those who aren’t in the limited social group they recruit from. We end up with lopsided skill sets and the same conversations again and again.
“Founder effect” in biology is when a few individuals start a population which then has limited genetic diversity; the same thing can happen in a social sense. If a group is founded by a few people in particular social group who then recruit their friends, the movement can (without anyone intending it) end up much narrower than it might be. A group founded by English-speaking upper-middle-class male utilitarians in their 20s might accidentally stay within that demographic if it doesn’t make a conscious effort to include others.
Schelling’s dynamic model of segregation demonstrates how even a slight preference for one’s own kind can result in massive (unintentional) segregation. A movement stuck in a bubble can miss out on a wealth of viewpoints and skills.
Lastly, meaning will be read even where no particular meaning was intended. If a certain group is drastically underrepresented (in leadership, in images on a website, or wherever), members of that group may come away with the impression that they are not valued and that this is not the place for them. It takes conscious effort to check that these kinds of distortions aren’t happening.
Some areas of diversity to think about
family structure (single, partner/partners, children, no children)
gender and gender expression
religiosity (whether someone participates in religion) and religion (which religion)
Try different methods of listing events rather than just word-of-mouth (since people’s friends tend to resemble them demographically). One group with a population very heavy on tech workers found that listing their events on Meetup.com helped bring in a more varied crowd.
Sometimes group attenders can get the impression that they are the only ones in a particular category just through missed connections. (One group had several parents who attended periodically, but each thought they were the only parent because they didn’t happen to come on the same days.) An organizer might mention, “I hope Kenneth will come one of the days that you’re here; he’s also a medical student.” This works best for some kind of common interest or occupation; when applied to something like race it takes on a zoo animal effect, (“Have you met Clara? She’s Hispanic too!”)
Try to vary the event location. The Boston EA group found that older people mostly lived in the suburbs and owned cars, and younger people mostly lived in more urban areas and used public transportation. So an urban location with no parking was difficult for most older people, and a suburban location with no public transit was difficult for most younger people. Using a variety of locations means that both groups can make it to at least some events.
Women in some cities have reported heavy levels of street harassment on their way to and from EA events in certain areas. Try asking a few attendees if they had any problems getting around the neighborhood, and try to host events in areas with lower levels of street harassment.
Provide nametags. For those who aren’t great with names or faces, and especially for people with face blindness, they can help make conversations easier and warmer. The specific diversity-related reason for nametags is that nobody likes to be mistaken for someone who looks a bit like them (“I’m not Liang, I’m Emily. Do all Asian women really look that much alike?”)
Try to avoid jargon and acronyms, which can make things confusing for newcomers. Either the group organizer or some other designated person can play “jargon catcher” rather than making new people guess or ask. When people use jargon, ask, “Could you mention what you mean by earning to give?” or explain, “AMF is the Against Malaria Foundation.”
Seek out people who seem sidelined, who came there with a friend and seem unsure about the whole thing, or who may not know much about the topic of conversation. Ask if they have questions or if there are particular things they’d be interested in talking about. Of course, they may actually not feel like talking, so don’t force it.
Is the same person always taking minutes? Always tidying up the space after meetings? Always in charge of providing snacks? Try a policy of rotating these tasks, so they don’t default to being assigned by gender.
Recruitment and Retention on Hard Mode, Kate Donovan
Physically accessible spaces
Thanks to Zoe Savitsky for material.
You know who comes to your events, but you don’t know who considers coming and decides that the hassle of getting there, or of being unable to participate fully once they arrive, is not worth the trouble. Providing accommodations and information can help people access your events.
Provide a clear way to contact an organizer (like an email address) to ask specific questions about the space. Provide more than one way to RSVP to an event (like texting or emailing an organizer) and not just something like Facebook, which is hard to use for people with vision impairment.
Provide information about a meeting space in announcements. Even if a space’s accessibility is less than ideal, at least this allows people to make a decision about whether going is feasible for them. “Classroom B is to the left of the main entrance and up a flight of stairs.“ “We’ll meet on the lower floor of Panera, which is accessible via an elevator and has a wheelchair-accessible bathroom.”
Some information to provide if possible:
Is there parking nearby, particularly disability parking?
Is the venue easy to access by public transportation?
Are the building and the specific meeting space wheelchair accessible?
Is there a disability-accessible bathroom with grab bars and a 32” door?
Are entrance doors at least 32″ wide? Because of the ADA, virtually all public spaces in the US meet this standard, but some older places do not.
If hosting a lecture that will have a question-and-answer session, consider that not everyone will be able to come to a microphone 5 feet off the ground to ask their question. Consider having wireless mics that can be brought to people with mobility impairments.
If using printed materials, have them available to email to people in digital text format so that someone with vision impairment can get a handout in document form and use a screen reader.
Try to find less noisy, less crowded venues. People with hearing impairment, sensitivity to noise, sensitivity to touch, and other situations can find it difficult to hear or pay attention in these environments. (Not to say you can’t have socials at a pub, but don’t have all your events there.)
It’s not always possible to provide food or find a restaurant that will suit everyone. But try to provide information about what kind of food will be available so people can decide if they want to eat beforehand, bring their own food, etc. If you’re going to a restaurant, you might link to the menu so people can find out if there is food they can eat. Some restaurants even post lists of their food that is vegan, gluten-free, etc.
When serving drinks, it’s a good idea to provide some options without caffeine or alcohol. Even a pitcher of water is nicer than having to go find the tap or a water fountain. This is especially useful for particular groups of people who are systematically affected:
Those who are pregnant or breastfeeding
Those whose religion opposes the use of psychoactive substances
Those with medical conditions or medications that mix badly with alcohol
Those with a family or personal history of alcohol problems
Mental health and self-care
Effective altruism attracts some very conscientious people with goals like “cause the flourishing of all beings.” …huh, what could go wrong?
For some people, feelings of guilt can be a welcome motivation to be more generous or productive, but in others guilt can spiral out of control. For some people, trying to save the world or avoid causing harm becomes terrifyingly immediate. The resulting misery can be so paralyzing that it makes the person much less able to help others.
The movement has some very impressive people, and it can be easy to feel lacking in comparison. While drawing inspiration from other EAs can be motivating, we should remember that what comes easily for one person may be much harder for another. We should try to recognize when comparing ourselves to others becomes counterproductive.
While these problems can happen without a diagnosable illness, depression and anxiety (as well as other mental health problems) are fairly common. Around 20% of young adults experience an episode of mental illness each year.
80,000 Hours writes in their career guide:
“Look after yourself, and take care of the basics. The basics are getting enough sleep, exercising, eating right and maintaining your closest friendships. All of these make a big difference to your energy and productivity, and prevent you from burning out.
If you’re suffering from a mental health issue – whether anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression or something else – then make dealing with it or learning to cope your top priority. It is one of the best investments you can ever make both for your own sake and your ability to help others. We know people who took the time to focus intensely on dealing with serious mental health problems and who, having found treatments and techniques that worked, have gone on to perform at the highest level. . . . All the same applies if you have a problem with your physical health – look after your health first.”
Some ways to help group members here:
Bring up self-care, either formally or informally, as a topic of discussion. (Example event.) Let people know this is an ok thing to talk about.
What helps keep you feeling motivated?
When does the scale of the work that needs doing in the world feel inspiring and when does it feel overwhelming?
How do you deal with uncertainty about whether you are doing the right thing?
How do you decide how much of your time, money, and energy to use for your own enjoyment and how much for the greater good?
Feel free to reach out to me (Julia); after working in the mental health field and experiencing depression myself, I have lots of thoughts on this.
Group members with children
Understand that a few hours’ babysitting may cost around $50. Many parents can’t afford to do this every time they want to come to an event, so excluding children also excludes their adults.
If it’s ok to bring kids, specifically say that in event announcements. Even if nobody says anything unfriendly, many parents are probably wondering, “Is it ok if I’m the only one bringing a child?” It makes a world of difference to say, “I’m so glad you guys could come! It’s great having the next generation here!” Or if they don’t bring their child, mention that it would be fine to do so if they want.
Try to vary the time of day and time of week when scheduling events. An evening meetup may be great for parents of a little baby who can sleep in the stroller, but terrible for parents of older kids who need to be in bed early. Add some lunchtime or afternoon meetups to the mix.
Some optional steps, if you want to be particularly helpful:
If the parent is having a hard time juggling coat, shoes, baby, and bags, ask if you can hold anything.
If there’s a quiet space (like a bedroom or a sofa in another room) that you’re okay with them using, offer to let the parent use it for feeding or hanging out with a fussy child. It’s probably a good idea to mention this as a general offer before the child gets fussy, so it doesn’t come across as a veiled complaint.
Offer to hold or supervise the child while the parent goes to the bathroom or gets something to eat.
Spend some time talking with an older child—do they have questions about the discussion? What is their favorite book? Do they like animals? Did they do anything fun this week?
At times, children’s noise and activity isn’t a good fit for events where adults want to concentrate (especially for people with attention or sensory issues that make it hard to focus with noise going on). If a child is disrupting an event, an organizer can take the parent aside and figure out a plan (“I’m worried that people can’t hear the discussion well. Is there anything I can do to help? Would you be able to take your child to another room while she calms down?“)
Ideological and psychological diversity
“Because of the math/philosophy/utilitarianism thing, we have a massive problem with intellectual monoculture. Of my friends, the ones I enjoy talking about altruism the most with now are largely actually the ones who associate least with the broader EA community, because they have more interesting and novel perspectives.”—Ben Kuhn
People want to do good effectively for all kinds of reasons, and treating utilitarianism as a proxy for effective altruism is confusing at best and alienating at worst. Rather than trying to determine how utilitarian someone is, try focusing on whatever their motivation is: a person may disagree with utilitarianism but be very interested in using their time and resources more effectively.
Consider whether thought experiments are actually worth using. The Trolley Problem probably isn’t the best thing to trot out to a new visitor (and isn’t particularly useful in most cases anyway, since there are quite a few ways to improve the world that don’t involve shoving anyone in front of trolleys).
Remember that people have different psychological motives for engaging in altruistic projects. Some are mostly motivated by a sense of it being the right thing to do, without much emotion involved. Others have an intensely empathetic drive to address suffering in the world. People with a strong sense of empathy, as well as people primarily driven by abstract reasoning, can both steer their efforts with logic and evidence. Try to guide conversations in directions that are respectful of both logical and empathetic drives.
Handling disruptions in the group
It’s not possible to make everyone in a group feel comfortable all the time, so don’t expect the impossible. But at times a person’s behavior is habitually disruptive and needs to be addressed. It can be very uncomfortable for organizers to address it with them, but by not taking action you allow the exclusion of other people who now find the group unpleasant enough that they don’t want to be part of it.
Rather than silently tolerating offensive comments, some group organizers plan in advance how they’ll respond (“That’s not okay,” or “We’re here to talk about altruism. If you’re not interested in that, please stop derailing the conversation.”) Practice in advance.
Some groups have found that members spam the group’s email list or facebook group. It’s fine to have a moderation policy or ask a person to stop posting irrelevant or barely-relevant material.
If you sense that someone in the group is harassing or bullying someone else, check in with the person/people you think are being bothered. They may tell you, “No, it’s not a problem,“ or they may be relieved that someone noticed the situation.
If someone tells you a concern about another’s behavior, be careful about how you disclose that information. The victim/survivor may not want the other person to find out they’ve told anyone. Check with the victim about the next steps you plan to take: “Is it okay with you if I talk to the other group organizers, Alex and Mira, about the situation?”
Even if you believe something illegal has occurred, understand that the process of dealing with law enforcement can be very stressful. Whether to contact the police should be the decision of the victim/survivor.
Keep in mind that people usually have different memories and interpretations of something that happened. You may find that it only needs a private conversation for someone to stop a behavior that was unintentionally causing problems. Other times there may be a genuine disagreement about how to move forward. Please get in touch with us at CEA (Jon, Alison, Julia, or Amy) if we can be helpful in navigating a situation.
Seattle Effective Altruists’ “Be Excellent to Each Other Policy”
Pitfalls of trying to be better at diversity
Always having the diversity conversation with the one “diverse” person. They may be sick of this topic because everyone asks them about it.
Minimizing the existence or accomplishments of underrepresented people in the movement. For example, “How come there are no women in EA?”
Treating people as collectors’ items (“We finally got someone over age 40!”)
Indicating “We only want you around because you make our group look more diverse”
Asking people to participate for transparently irrelevant reasons
Rather than asking people transparently because of their identity, ask about an interest or skill of theirs that they might share:
“It would be great to have someone with your background as a nurse practitioner talk about how you handle triage decisions and how that might relate to cause selection.”
“We’d love to hear more about your experience on running fundraisers at your church; would you be interested in speaking about what you’ve learned from that?”
Pitfalls in Diversity Outreach, Kelsey Piper
Brainstorming beyond the usual suspects
When choosing people for a role (speaker to invite, group leadership), make a special effort to think of/ask candidates from underrepresented groups.
Brainstorm separate lists: a list of possible women, possible people from a developing country, etc. Set a timer and spend 10 minutes brainstorming each list.
Ask people to help you brainstorm: because I’m a young white American woman, my connections are skewed in those directions. If I ask a Pakistani friend, his list will probably skew differently and we’ll end up with a more balanced total pool of possibilities.