Future Ada: Tech Organizing Through an Intersectional Lens
Ada Lovelace's work on the first analytical engine helped lay the path for our modern world and continues to serve as an inspiration to people worldwide, including Electronic Frontier Alliance member Future Ada.
Based in Spokane, WA, Future Ada was founded in 2017 to advance opportunities and support for underrepresented genders in science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics. That same year, Forbes noted that closing the gender gap could increase U.S. Gross Domestic Product by two trillion dollars, yet work environments in many of these fields are so hostile to women that over fifty-percent will leave the sector as a result.
"Just because you're not a master at your skill or you don't have something published in your name, doesn't mean you can't bring something to your field."
Since their launch, Future Ada has grown into the understanding that establishing a genuinely representative sector requires an intersectional approach, and that creating inclusive spaces, where individuals from all diverse backgrounds want to be, is key to that mission. In the days leading up to our recent collaboration on panels at this year's HOPE and DEF CON conferences, I spoke with Rebecca Long and Emilie St-Pierre—respectively Future Ada's founder and Security Ambassador—to find out what they've learned since the group’s founding, and how they have adapted to the needs of their community and this unprecedented moment.
How did the idea for Future Ada come about? What inspired it and what were some of the first steps you took toward making it a real thing?
In 2017, I was really struggling with my career. As a woman in tech, I was dealing with some discrimination and sexism in my own career, and I wasn't feeling supported by the leadership in my company. Honestly, I was feeling like I should quit all of tech. I felt like, ‘nobody wants me here, I don't feel welcome, and the messages that I'm getting are that I am not good enough to be here—and no one wants to help me improve to meet whatever mysterious gap that no one will disclose, then maybe I should just go do something else.’ Thankfully, I ended up going to a conference called Write/Speak/Code that happened to be nearby in Portland that year. I went with another woman on my team who's a developer. At this woman- and non-binary-specific tech conference, they had everyone divide up into two groups. One was for the people who were newer in their careers, and one who was for people who were further along. I ended up in that [second] group.
Throughout the week, we had to come up with projects and talk about them. At first, I didn’t know what to do. Then I got a text message from an old boss—also a woman—and she was expressing the same feelings. That’s when I got mad. I felt like, ‘maybe I don't belong here, but I'm sorry, I know for a fact that you belong here because you're awesome.’ I thought, what kind of nonsense is this that we're both feeling like we're being driven out of tech? I have a ton of experience—over a decade of experience at that point—and she had even more than me. I felt, ‘we're well trained and we have every right to be here.’ So, I channeled that into this project at the conference. I decided I was going to create a nonprofit.
I was already running a user group called Spokane Geek Girls and active in the community. I had already been feeling like there was more I wanted to do to help people that were coming to me for mentoring, and help, and feeling similar to me. I had this idea of a nonprofit that would be what I’d need. But, I also felt like ‘no, I don't know how to do that. I have no idea how to start a non-profit or run an organization. That's just a ridiculous idea.’ But it was at this conference I decided, nope, that's not a ridiculous idea. This is really important and I'm going to find out how to do it. So, I bothered all of the organizers of this conference to tell me everything they knew. How do I do this?
I made some friends and they helped me develop our original mission statement and our name. They were all wonderful soundboards for me. There hadn’t been anything like this in Spokane. I just tried to channel all of my anger at the industry for lack of support and all that I'd been experiencing. I thought ‘we need to do better. We need to channel that into positive energy, and I want to help other people.’ It helps me to help other people and I know other people are in similar states. Maybe they don't feel comfortable speaking up, or maybe they just haven't woken up to what's going on around them. Maybe they don't understand why they're never getting that promotion or why they're not getting these career opportunities.
It sounds like maybe that conference was an awakening moment for you in the way that you and other women were experiencing Imposter Syndrome. Are there any tools or strategies that you've been able to use that help women identify that that's what they're feeling and overcome that?
Every speaker—and these are folks who are accomplished, wrote books, high-level management—and they're like ‘I also feel this way.’ And it was just like, ‘what!?” That's incredible. At some level, I'd always known that. But I think hearing it, and hearing it again, and hearing everyone share their stories, that was most powerful for me. Because you feel that you aren’t good enough right now, that doesn't mean that you actually aren't good enough. It's a facade that society or various things are trying to tell you and convince you of.
Hearing other people, who are very successful, talk about that kind of stuff, and share their stories and how they work through it—even if it's ‘I just powered through,’ that’s been really helpful for me.
I try and speak about this stuff and be open with my own experiences with people, and help others know that it's okay if you are also feeling this way. That doesn't mean that you have to stop. That doesn't mean that you don't belong here. It doesn't mean that you don't deserve a promotion or that nice salary or whatever your dream job is. You can still make an impact.
In the last few years, I’ve been picking up the storytelling mantra as a tool. I want to highlight other people's stories and give people a platform, so they feel safe to talk to me about their story and I can share, with them, my story.
One of the other things that, thankfully, Emilie was able to bring was an emphasis on security. Security has always been a passion of mine but it's always been on the side, because it's not really my main job. So, I've been really happy Emilie's been able to help bring some of that to our organization with our open office hours and with our security workshops. To really make these things approachable for the whole community. We want everyone to feel like technology and all of these things are safe, and you can do it. You don't have to be some math genius to do any of this stuff.
Emilie, have you had any experiences with Imposter Syndrome or starting to buy into folks devaluing your work or your contribution?
Yeah, fully. To this day it comes and goes. I have to say, sometimes it’ll come back in moments where I'm going through something hard at work. But I definitely had Imposter Syndrome when I was new to the security industry. I'd hang out at conferences like DEF CON when I was still new. I was learning a lot, but even though I had some skills, I constantly compared myself to the security researchers that had found vulnerabilities. These people that were presenting at these conferences, I was like ‘well, I don't have something like that to bring to the table’ so I just figured I wouldn't belong. But just because you're not a master at your skill or you don't have something published in your name, doesn't mean you can't bring something to your field. I think it took me a while to realize that. Later on, training people that were new to the field helped me realize that. ‘Oh, I can easily tell this person what they can bring to the field so why is it harder to say that to myself?’ I've gotten better with that over time, but it's very relatable.
The name Future Ada, I imagine it's an ode to Ada Lovelace, but can you talk a little bit about how you arrived at that name?
Yeah, it is totally in honor of Ada Lovelace. I find her very inspiring. Our whole computer industry is thanks to her. We have a tendency—over history—to erase certain people from their contributions. She was one of them. Having her as part of our name, I get to talk about her. I can say, ‘hey did you know that computer science, the whole reason we have technology, is thanks to a woman? Did you know that?’ That's been really awesome.
I want our organization to help create future Ada Lovelaces. Ada Lovelaces of today, of tomorrow, of the next day. Our next generation. Where we're inspiring folks to go out there and break those molds. Because she definitely broke molds back in her day. That's what we need to be doing. That's how you get really awesome things and you can change the world. That's what we were going for when I came up with the name.
How did you find Future Ada, Emilie?
Thanks to the Diana Initiative, which is a small conference that tags alongside others during hacker summer camp. So, DEF CON, Blackhat, and B-Sides Las Vegas. I had just moved to Spokane, and I had already been doing these workshops over in Las Vegas about security and privacy, and had been hosting crypto parties, and I wanted that to continue in Spokane. But, Spokane is different. There wasn't a hackerspace that was open weekly. So, I just focused on seeing what I could do with other folks. When I saw that Rebecca was speaking at the Diana Initiative and it said she was from Spokane, I was so excited. I went to see her talk, and then after the talk let her know I was also from Spokane and that I’d love to do something together. I told her that I’d been doing these workshops and was looking to bring them. She was super receptive and very welcoming. Since then we’ve been doing these workshops. Learning as we go along. Now we get to offer them online, which is really cool. So, yeah, it's been fun to see our partnership grow and where we took it from there.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you faced creating the group and finding the right people?
Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was surprised that I had people coming to me. I was trying to keep it kind of on the D.L. that I was doing this until I had it really formulated, but word started getting out, and people were saying ‘I want in on this,’ ‘I want to be on your board,’ ‘let me help you.’ That was really inspiring.
Challenges? I'm not a marketing person, that's not my specialty. We don't really have anyone on our board that's a marketing expert. So we learned a lot on that end. I feel like we're learning a lot by doing things wrong. Not wrong, but not very effectively. We think ‘this will work great’. And it works, sort of, but we want to have a bigger reach. Learning more marketing will help us on that front but that takes time. It is a challenge.
We want to be really careful with what we do. We want to make sure that when we expand our board, that we're bringing in the right people. That we’re really mindful about that. We’re also aware of our 100% white board. As we work to expand our board, and organization leadership, we are being mindful to diversify ourselves and bring in better racial perspectives. We are working as an organization to learn how to grow and best speak on the topic of race and injustice. It's a process and it's important so we aren't shying away from it.
Are there any other challenges that you didn't anticipate?
Creating the workshops and letting people know that we are available to help them. We spend time creating these workshops. We spend the time to get volunteers to come to workshops and be there to help folks. I thought our biggest challenge would have been managing the demand, because we literally offer free tech support—and privacy and security support—but it's actually been very easy to do that. We have open hours for folks that we want to help, but we're obviously not reaching as far as we can. For me, marketing is like an alien planet. My background is really privacy and security. I think that's the challenge I've never faced before. And definitely the hardest one from my end.
We've had some really successful programs. We ran March for Science last year in Spokane. It was great. It was kind of a last minute thing. We came in to help as the new parent organization, and it was super successful. We had a huge turnout but that was one event. A one-day thing. And, then we've had other one-day events that have been really successful. But then our recurring workshops aren’t even an hour and we have low turnout. We haven't unlocked that piece yet.
Since moving online because of the pandemic, we've seen higher participation in our workshops, and I feel like we're going to have higher participation across the board. So, we're working to transition everything. Next year when we restart some of our year-long programs, they'll be online or a majority online. Maybe part of our problem is that Spokane is a little different and folks have different priorities, but attending something from home, where they don't have to worry about travel or parking, I think that kind of helps avoid it and it's less of a dent in their day. I'm really hopeful that this actually can be a really positive thing for our organization. and that it also expands our reach outside of Spokane. Anyone can participate. Which is really cool because it helps broaden our reach.
Are there any other partnerships in your area that you’ve found to be effective partnerships?
Emilie’s been working with Volunteers of America.
Yes. With Crosswalk. We teach teenagers about privacy and security. Online privacy and security. We've even done some introductory cryptography stuff. I'm very big on making sure that it's something fun. It’s a puzzle. We actually use some of EFF’s crypto tools for that. At the end of the workshop I told our participants ‘did you know that crypto is math and you just did math?’ They thought it was really fun and really cool. For kids that are maybe told that they're not good at math, or are uncomfortable with the idea of math, after that they realize that there's all sorts of ways to look at math. That's a big partnership for us.
There's another nonprofit in Spokane, that is more of a general tech nonprofit called Inland Northwest Technologists (INT). Our original Vice President came from that organization. He had brought to Spokane, with INT, this event called Code in the Dark. The last two times that event has been held in Spokane, it's been a partnership between that organization and ours. We bring in more of a diversity, and really work to help and make sure it’s an inclusive space. The first few years they ran it, it was nearly all men that were participating. Only men were in the top three winners. October of last year, the last time we held it, was the first time we had a woman win the competition. It was amazing.
We have been trying to work with the YWCA in Spokane, to help bring some of these security principles and privacy principles to their domestic violence survivors. Emily and I are very passionate about that and we want to be supporting this group of our community. We know the YWCA has been very busy. Just in general. So getting the momentum to really get that partnership off the ground has been a little slow. We're still hopeful. We're not going to give up on it anytime soon.
We are already available for service for survivors. When we have our open office hours on Saturdays we are ready to accept survivors. We have a clinical approach to detect compromise. So, we can accept anyone that is in that situation and help them navigate their technology or help them navigate compromises or any kind of stalkerware, spyware. We are ready to do that already.
I think switching to online has been wonderful for certain aspects of what we offer. The workshops are available to a larger population, and more accessible in some ways. My only concern is office hours. We would typically do them downtown at the Spokane Library. This also gave us the opportunity to help homeless folks. We had a few people come in that don't have a computer at home. Don't have a home. How do you make sure that you're helping that population? So that’s something that, when things start to open up, we'll definitely want to make sure that we're not overlooking certain segments of the population that we might be able to help. We said we're going to focus on being very online but not 100% online, because we don't want to miss those folks that we might be able to better serve that way.
No two communities are exactly the same. That’s one of the reasons it’s so critical to have groups like Future Ada that are rooted in and can adapt to the needs of their city or town. What are you finding are the core needs of your community? Is it different from what your original expectations were?
My original intention was really limited. The organization was focused on gender diversity. I thought we would just focus in on that. What I've found is you can't really solve that problem without taking an intersectional approach. If you care about women in tech, then great, you're gonna need to have an inclusive environment. Hey, you know what? That also helps all these other people. So, really, focusing on shifting our mindset to be inclusive and approachable really helps everybody. That's been kind of a shift for me that I guess I was a little surprised with, but I'm really happy that we've made this turn. I'm also learning how many people in our community could use more basic support. Not necessarily learning how to program, but ‘how do I fix this on my browser?’ Really turning folks from being afraid of technology to helping them feel that they can do this. That's been a little surprising to me, but I'm really happy that that's something that we can help with. Wherever the community is, that's where we want to be to help lift everybody up.
What is Future Ada’s decision-making process like? What are the voices that are involved? How do you work together to come to a shared path?
We have different committees. Anything security or privacy related, Emilie is in charge of that. So, anything she says we're probably just gonna back it. We have our career mentoring committee. One of our other board members is responsible for that. It’s the same thing, whoever is responsible for a committee we've entrusted them with leading that and reporting back anything that seems more pivotal or in need of a larger decision. But, generally speaking we meet once a month as a board, and we discuss things on a regular basis. I think we're all pretty much in alignment. We're also still a really small group, board wise, and our committees are still pretty small. Once we get bigger we're gonna need a more formal process, but at the moment we're all pretty well in sync, I think. Emilie, what do you think?
I was smiling when nash asked that question, because I was like ‘how do we come to decisions?’ Well, first we share all of our cats and cat videos during our meeting. And once we've done that, then we start really having these discussions. But what I like is that everyone is very very receptive and generally considers everyone's point of view and opinion really well. It's been a really nice dynamic, and I think it has a lot to do with, you know, starting the meeting off with cat memes and showing off our real cats, if we can. It makes a big difference.
Future Ada’s work to lift up and support Spokane women in STEAM has extended far beyond their local area, while still being focused on the needs of their own community. As members of the Electronic Frontier Alliance they have been instrumental in contributing to the development of related work for allied groups throughout the U.S.
If you are a member of a community or student-led group in your area working to protect digital security, free expression, privacy, creativity and access to knowledge, consider joining the Electronic Frontier Alliance.