Personal Democracy Forum 2018 Safety and Inclusion Transparency Report

The PDF Code of Conduct establishes the principles, values, norms that are expected of every PDF attendee, while also outlining PDF’s definition of harassment and its consequences. This year, in preparation for our June conference, the PDF 2018 Code of Conduct was overhauled with the help of genEquality, an independent third-party organization with expertise in behavioral science research and best practices for gender equality and inclusion. The PDF leadership and organization’s procedures for reporting and responding to incidents were also developed further in advance of the conference.

We, the PDF leadership team – Andrew Rasiej, Micah Sifry, and Danielle Tomson – believe that the work of safety and inclusion must be prioritized as a continuous endeavor. We made changes to the structure, programming, Code of Conduct, and safety procedures in order to improve the overall culture of the PDF organization and conference. We are committed to continual growth and progress in this work.

In the interest of transparency and the development of best practices for safety and inclusion, we have prepared the following to share with our community what reports were received, what actions were taken, and what actions will be taken in the future. (In doing so, we’d like to recognize both PyCon and the Code for America Summit for modeling this approach around their recent conferences.)

Code of Conduct Revision and Implementation

  • As noted above, the Code of Conduct was reviewed and revised in consultation with genEquality, and genEquality’s executive director, Sherry Hakimi, was engaged as the independent third-party ombudsperson at PDF.
  • The PDF Code of Conduct was both printed in the PDF program guide given to all attendees and included as a loose insert for attendees to read and sign, in affirmation of their commitment to PDF’s shared community values and norms.
  • Attendees were given time during opening remarks on both Day 1 and Day 2 to read and sign the code; attendees were asked to affirm their commitment on both days.
  • Attendees were given at least 4 people (Sherry Hakimi, Andrew Rasiej, Micah Sifry, Danielle Tomson) and 5 ways (phone, text, online form, email, and in person) in which they could report any form of harassment or conduct violations.

Safety & Inclusion Reports

Before PDF

We sent two communications to the entire PDF community in order to recognize past shortcomings and failures, and to publicize changes, including avenues for submitting reports, going forward. A number of PDF community members took advantage of the independent third-party reporting system during this period.

There were a total of 4 email reports and 2 phone call reports prior to PDF. All reports were received in confidence by Sherry Hakimi, the independent, third-party PDF ombudsperson. Because none of the reporters wished to make a public statement, Hakimi held the details in confidence, and only shared an overarching summary alongside her recommendations to the PDF leadership team for actions and future improvements. In aggregate, the reports centered on three primary themes:

Personal interaction with PDF founders (4)

Actions and Resolution

Four individual reports were received regarding past encounters with the founders of PDF. Because each reporter asked for anonymity, the specifics were not shared with the PDF founders. However, the high-level themes were shared with the PDF founders and they were heard. We are committed to continuing the work of enhancing safety and inclusion, which includes a commitment to their own personal development.

Past harassment at PDF (1)

Actions and Resolution

As reported in the HuffPost, there was a sexual harassment incident at PDF in 2013. Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry sent out an email acknowledging the report and apologizing to Erie Meyer, the person mentioned in the HuffPost story. In the wake of the HuffPost report, we hired a third-party to review their processes and practices in relation to the PDF Code of Conduct and their own capacity to appropriately receive Code of Conduct violations. Prior to PDF18, the Code of Conduct was reviewed and strengthened.

Underrepresentation of men of color at past PDFs (1)

Actions and Resolution

A past PDF speaker made a report regarding men of color being underrepresented among mainstage speakers at PDF, and also positing that when men of color were included, they were only invited to discuss problems facing urban communities of color, rather than subjects of broader concern. Hakimi received this report and together with her, we looked at the data from the past three years. The data indicates the following:

  PDF 2016 PDF 2017 PDF 2018
Mainstage Speakers 35 37 18
Men of Color 5 (14%) 10 (27%) 4 (22%)
Women of Color 5 (14%) 7 (20%) 4 (22%)
Total People of Color 10 (29%) 17 (46%) 8 (44%)


We recognize that highlighting historically-underrepresented people on our main stage is of critical importance. In 2017 and 2018, the data shows that people of color represented more than 40% of the total of mainstage speakers. We commit to ensuring that people of color are well-represented on the PDF mainstage. In addition, we believe we have not relegated men of color to only speaking on a few subjects (see, for example, talks by PA state representative Chris Rabb, MI city clerk candidate Garlin Gilchrist, Color of Change ED Rashad Robinson, ACLU People Power director Faiz Shakir, Progressive Coders Network founder Rapi Castillo, or Senator Cory Booker). But we agree that this is a valid concern and will continue to pay attention to it going forward.


During PDF

During PDF, we received 3 in-person reports:

Lack of transgender consideration/inclusion in conference operations (1)

A conference attendee notified us and the PDF operations team that the PDF venue did not have a gender-neutral restroom. We acknowledge that we did not remember to check regarding the venue’s availability of gender-neutral restrooms. We apologize for this oversight. New York Law School did indeed have gender-neutral restrooms (on the fifth floor), but we did not know the location and these bathrooms were not marked on the map included in the conference materials.

Resolution: Upon realizing this oversight in inclusion and operations, the conference operations team took immediate steps to designate certain bathrooms on lower floors as gender-neutral bathrooms.

  • Going forward, the PDF team will ensure that this operational item is prioritized. Per the attendee’s suggestion, gender-neutral bathrooms will also be clearly marked with signage and clearly identified on the conference map.


Improvement in disability access at PDF (1)

Situation and Actions:

We received an in-person report from an attendee regarding having better disability access at PDF for the hearing-disabled. The attendee was not hearing disabled, but felt that there were inadequate resources for anyone who was disabled. They suggested utilizing a microphone system in the workshop rooms in order to ensure that all attendees will be able to hear the speakers and other participants.

Resolution: We commit to ensuring accessibility for everyone. In future years, PDF will include a field in the registration form for future attendees to notify the PDF team if they need any special accommodations so that they can ensure the appropriate accommodations. Additionally, we are in the process of researching American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters and resources for future years.

Use of othering language (1)

Situation and Actions:

We received an in-person report regarding the use of othering language by another attendee in a workshop. Specifically, language was used to refer to people as “crazy,” which the attendee felt was insensitive and disrespectful.


Language is an important component of inclusion. We commit to make an effort around setting norms around respect, particularly respect for those with mental health issues.


After PDF

After PDF, Hakimi received an email report from a conference attendee regarding transgender and non-binary inclusion at PDF. The report both pointed out poor conference design as well as best practices for the future, including:

  • PDF did not ask speakers and attendees to identify their preferred pronouns (an inclusive best practice). Best practices include:
    • Normalizing the practice of identifying preferred pronouns by asking speakers and attendees to write their pronouns on their name-badge
    • Putting speakers’ pronouns in the program
    • Adding a blurb to the program regarding the significance and importance of pronouns in identity
  • Some PDF speakers conflated “gender equity” with “women’s equity.” However, recognizing the full gender spectrum is necessary. It was suggested to ask speakers to clarify, specify, and be more inclusive in their content regarding gender equality and gender equity.


PDF leadership will include a field for pronoun identification in the PDF registration form, and pronouns will be included on PDF name-badges and in conference materials in the future.

In Conclusion

 We are committed to the work of safety and inclusion as a continuous endeavor. We are grateful to the community members and attendees who reported these incidents and shared their concerns, because they give us the feedback we need in order to improve. We are also grateful to the attendees who joined us at PDF and affirmed their commitment to our values, principles, and norms. The founders and leadership team of PDF recognize that we are all works in progress, and we hope to continue to build on the trust you have put in us as conveners and organizers.