Responding to the Clay Johnson Story

To our friends and colleagues:

We were deeply upset to learn through recent reporting done by the Huffington Post’s Molly Redden of alleged assaults and unacceptable behavior inflicted on women by former Sunlight Foundation employee Clay Johnson during his career, and that some women in our community described experiencing his damaging behavior directly and indirectly at the 2013 Personal Democracy Forum.

The Personal Democracy Forum exists to strengthen our democratic system for everyone, regardless of gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion (or lack thereof). Non-harassment and non-discrimination are part of our core values. Given the gravity and nature of the alleged conduct, these revelations have prompted us to seriously examine whether and how we may have contributed to or enabled a culture of male domination at this event or elsewhere. We have reflected on all aspects of our work for the last 14 years, from our conference Personal Democracy Forum to the Sunlight Foundation (where, as paid consultants, we were both senior technology advisers for many years) to Civic Hall today. We are confident that we have always complied with our legal obligations, but doing what is required of us is not enough. To succeed in our mission, we must embody best and highest principles. Based on the allegations against Clay Johnson, we failed. We take responsibility for not living up to our ideals and apologize to everyone for that.

Regarding the Sunlight Foundation: we have volunteered to participate in the review now being conducted by Sunlight’s current board to examine the organization’s history to honestly determine where each and every one of us fell short. We need to face and understand our oversights to not repeat them.

Regarding the part of the Huffington Post story concerning Johnson’s unacceptable behavior at Personal Democracy Forum’s 2013 conference: We are profoundly sorry to Erie Meyer, whose experience at our event was described in the story. As the organizers and leaders of PDF, we take responsibility for the experience of our attendees. When we started PDF in 2004, we invited a line-up that reflected the white-male-dominated technology and politics worlds that we were part of. Thankfully, many friends and critics alike pushed us to rectify that reality. Since then, we have often had a majority of women-identified speakers in the years since hitting gender parity in 2011, and have been working to make PDF more inclusive of various demographics. We are proud of the Code of Conduct we implemented at PDF in 2016, but we wish we had put it in place sooner. As leaders who take responsibility for the safety of our community seriously, we promise to do better.

We want to learn from the past, but equally importantly, we want to focus on how we can improve going forward. Here are the first steps we are taking:

First, we commit to being better listeners and to learning how to identify and remove risks to people in our community sooner. For example, we now realize that men who are bullies are often also men who harass and harm women. So, in addition to stronger procedures for addressing and combating sexual harassment in the workplace, bullying, intimidating and oppressive behavior itself needs to be confronted and not tolerated. Furthermore, given the allegations against Johnson, we have also learned to take extra care that someone’s ability to impress other powerful actors not affect our recognition of the daily, critical need for ethical behavior and strong structures to support it.

Second, we will work with members of our community to review and strengthen the PDF and Civic Hall codes of conduct and the procedures we will follow to make sure we enforce them, as well as making sure attendees to our events can report abuses safely, and if needed, anonymously, and that they will be responded to immediately. We are also in the process of consulting experts in workplace culture and anti-harassment training, and we commit to additional training for ourselves and our staff to ensure that we continue to pay attention and resist any tendency to drift back into old habits and cultural modes.

For this year’s Personal Democracy Forum, we have engaged Sherry Hakimi, the executive director of GenEquality, who has years of experience helping companies develop equitable workplaces, to help us improve the existing Code of Conduct in advance of the conference, as well as enhance how to integrate it into conference culture. We are asking that this Code of Conduct be collectively read at the start of each day of the conference, with everyone signing it to confirm they have read it. Code of Conduct violations can be reported to Sherry Hakimi, who can also handle anonymous reports, or to the two of us, or Danielle Tomson the conference director. As for responding to violations, Hakimi is also training our team on best practices in handling these reports if we personally receive them. If you have feedback on the updated Code of Conduct or other reports of violations of it, feel free to reach out to us or to Hakimi at [email protected].

We are also producing a session at this year’s Personal Democracy Forum specifically focused on how we can all take collective action to build inclusive workplace culture. We hope it will be the beginning of an ongoing dialogue to educate ourselves and others in our community about other actions we can take and ways we can all contribute to creating safe spaces and equal conditions in our immediate community and the related communities we touch. We need and invite your participation in not only helping to make Personal Democracy Forum a safe event for everyone but also to be a model for how all conferences, especially technology events, should be organized.

These are just the first steps we are taking. We hope to have an open dialogue about what else is needed. We are listening, and working to build the trust on which we want to base our work going forward.

Andrew Rasiej and Micah L. Sifry

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