February 11, 2019

In the Interest of Transparency

Last July I committed to increasing transparency around TMC decisions. I never could have guessed that we would end up with this post, but here it is. I hope that this history lesson and perspective helps move the conversation forward.

The Twitter Math Camp board and committee (Team TMC) consisted of a mix of people who had attended the first TMC in 2012 and people who had joined later. There was often a conflict between nostalgia/replication and vision/change. On both the board and committee people lived along a spectrum from “it works fine, the easiest way to get this done is to do the exact same task I did last year” to “last year my favorite part was ___, what if we also did ___, and someone I talked to asked/suggested ___.” As in any organization, there was lots of compromise. But throughout all of our decisions, there was a tension - some of us wanted to create a professional organization, that wasn’t a priority for others. This happened because TMC didn’t start as an organization, it started as a gathering of friends. It quickly grew into something much bigger, but the structures didn't grow as rapidly as the attendance.

  • TMC12: a few people organized a free gathering for a few people they knew on Twitter
  • TMC13: a small committee organized a free gathering for a bunch of people they knew on Twitter

I attended TMC13 and joined the committee for the following year.

  • TMC14: a committee organized a free gathering for a growing number of people connected on Twitter (registration opened Feb 22 and closed Feb 26, reasonable!)
  • TMC15: a committee organized a free gathering for a growing number of people connected on Twitter (registration opened at 8:15 am and closed at 9:00 pm the same day, tricky but still not terrible)

Our host for TMC16 was Augsburg College. They were able to offer us the site for free only if we met a minimum number of people staying in the dorm. That made us a little nervous we wouldn’t meet the minimum so we decided to charge a $20 registration fee. It was a just in case fund, that could turn into a fun fund if we didn’t need it. So we needed to open our first bank account that year, which meant moving from a group of people organizing a gathering to an incorporated entity. We needed some official looking papers that say things like Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws. We also needed a board of directors. I got named both secretary and treasurer because why not, they were just titles and someone needed to have them. A few board members were from the committee and a couple were invited people who had attended a conference, but it didn’t seem to matter much because the board had no role other than to have your name on the paper that let us open a bank account. If you’re curious what kind of work I did as a committee member that year, I posted about it. It was a lot of labor, but a labor of love. For the next few years, the role of the board was to pick the host site each year, and the rest of the committee continued doing the exact same roles they’d been doing for years. Since there was no turnover people stuck with their one task, did it in isolation, and communications and structures were minimal to non-existent.

  • TMC16: a committee (and a board) organized a conference for 200 people connected on Twitter (registration opened at 11:45 am and filled at 7:45 pm the same day, full on unfair for anyone working during those hours so we re-assessed)
  • TMC17: a committee (and a board) organized a conference for 200 people (chosen via lottery) connected on Twitter
  • TMC18: a committee (and a board) organized a conference for 200 people (chosen via lottery) connected on Twitter

During the summer of 2018, we changed quite a bit. Team TMC met for the very first time. Yes, seriously, we’d never had a meeting either virtually or in person with the whole team. We decided to move to Slack to keep track of our discussions, which allowed people to see what happened in other subcommittees! We decided that the board would have regular meetings and help make some decisions. And we shifted the conversation from wondering what to do about diversity to making a commitment. We knew that this would require making changes to most parts of the conference because we weren’t just going to get educators of color there, we were going to build a conference experience that made educators of color feel welcome, included, and that TMC was their space. Some of us brainstormed what that would require, we wrote up a proposal, we shared it with the entire board and committee and asked if they were ready to make a commitment to equity and diversity. After discussion and clarification, every member of Team TMC signed on to the plan.

Most aspects of the proposal have been formalized and made public already:

As with all organizations, different members of the organizing team participated in different initiatives, to different extents. Some of us felt more urgency in fighting for aspects that we thought aligned with TMC’s mission even though they required changing some aspects of the traditional structure. The conflict between nostalgia/replication and vision/change was readily apparent. Other times we were educating and explaining perspectives and experiences. None of the behind the scenes work was unexpected. In fact, it was anticipated and I appreciated the honesty when some members of the team readily admitted from the start that they would need support. I was ready and willing to provide that. Neil deGrasse Tyson said it well,
“It’s okay not to know all the answers. It’s better to admit our ignorance than to believe answers that might be wrong. Pretending to know everything, closes the door to find out what’s really there.”
It was hard work, and sometimes stressful or frustrating. But every time I would question whether it was worth it to continue I would ask myself:

  • Who would be harmed if I quit?
  • Who would be harmed if I stayed?

In September, October, November, and December I answered myself by saying I was supporting more teachers by staying, and the harm to myself was a manageable amount of stress. In January I was really unsure of whether the two sides balanced. And then in February, the balance flipped to the other side.

So what happened?

In January we transitioned from the part of planning where we make decisions and announce them, to the part where we act on things and interact directly with people hoping to attend the conference. This was where we found out how committed to the stated mission people were and how they react to questions and critique. “People” here is very broad, both people on Team TMC and people at large. Let’s look at how each group fared:

Speaker proposals were due on January 21st. Some members of Team TMC read them all, including the equity statements. We determined that equity statements were an area of growth for many proposals, but overwhelmed by the number of tasks we had to do in a limited time (our timeline hasn’t changed since the conference had 100 attendees, this was more proposals than that year with more information than any year to read in a week!) we drafted a multi-step plan, and implemented step one of the plan - email everyone whose equity statement needed work a separate comment included in their acceptance/waitlist/rejection email.

As you probably know by now, many of the people who received those emails were upset. For a variety of reasons, but partially since they didn’t know about the other steps of the plan. But they mostly talked it out amongst themselves and were ready to move forward.

Team TMC, on the other hand, got freaked out that people got upset. Some members talked and talked and talked about the perception while others avoided and avoided and avoided the issues. With a lot of work, stress, and a ton of my time (as well as others) we finally moved forward on some aspects like writing a blog post (although we continued avoiding others). I did not enjoy this period of turmoil, and it raised some red flags, but I was willing to put in the work because:
“It’s okay not to know all the answers. It’s better to admit our ignorance than to believe answers that might be wrong. Pretending to know everything, closes the door to find out what’s really there.”
-Neil deGrasse Tyson
I was (and am) happy to participate in explaining white fragility. I was happy to participate in building and implementing next steps. I was happy to compromise on how much we should provide detailed information vs. how much we should expect people to go out, find their own resources, and do the work. I was unimpressed by how tenuous the team’s commitment to our mission was in the face of adversity. I was appalled at the unwillingness to even engage in discussion about how to respond to reactions that were more than just “I don’t understand why I got this feedback,” but were disrespectful and even threatening from people who have attended, presented, and engaged in the community for years. If other board members were going to value the momentarily hurt feelings of previous TMC attendees over the feelings and safety of the educators of color we were inviting, I had to ask myself yet again:

  • Who would be harmed if I quit?
  • Who would be harmed if I stayed?

Suddenly the list of people who would be harmed if I quit felt less substantial than the list of people who would be harmed if I stayed. I was definitely harming myself, my stress levels were high. So high I went to a workout class on Tuesday night and it was the first time I’d been away from my phone for an hour in a week- I wondered if I needed to tell people I’d be out of contact for that long, then I wondered what absurd world I’d been living in that I was afraid to step away for an hour. This was one of several wake up calls. But outside of my personal wellness, I couldn’t continue to publicly send the message that TMC was making a commitment to a diversity initiative when it was clear the board wasn’t.

I kept thinking about this post by April Hathcock. (Especially since I didn’t see the update until writing the post you’re reading.)

I refuse to be part of an organization that would replicate that experience. If Team TMC was not willing to build norms and then uphold them, I would rather make a public statement by exiting. Even though it requires giving up a big part of my identity.

I truly wish that the dream we built was a reality. It still could be. I hope everyone holds TMC accountable to the promises made and that everyone continues to grow and learn and do better. I look forward to finding new projects to dedicate my energy to that will help others grow and learn and do better.
“Do the best you can until you know better. And when you know better, do better.”
-Maya Angelou


  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. You continue to inspire and challenge. I hope all can take up the challenges in productive and thoughtful ways with humility and compassion, while standing strong with unwavering support for equity.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I suspected it might be the case, but the clarity is helpful.

  3. Tina, thank you for sharing your perspective, as well as all that you have shared with the math community over the years. I look forward to what gets your time next, knowing that you'll fill this void with something great.

  4. Thank you, Tina. I appreciate hearing your perspective on this.