Wikimedia Foundation Chief of Community Engagement to leave the Foundation

Originally published at: https://space.wmflabs.org/2019/11/15/wikimedia-foundation-chief-of-community-engagement-to-leave-the-foundation/

Hello everyone,

I am writing to let you know that Val D’Costa, Chief Community Engagement Officer, is leaving the Wikimedia Foundation. I also want to share some changes we’re making around how the Foundation organizes staff in the Community Engagement department.

Val joined us last January, bringing nearly three decades of experience launching and growing international initiatives in emerging markets. With the Wikimedia 2030 movement strategy as a guide, Val and her team drafted an ambitious new vision for the work of Community Engagement—focused on decentralization of power and resources, safe and welcoming spaces, equitable collaboration, increased language and cultural fluency, dedicated programs for groups such as women and young people, and expansive partnerships in service of free knowledge.

With this vision in hand, Val and I both see this as the right juncture for her to move on to her next professional challenge. While she will be leaving the position of Chief of Community Engagement, she will remain on as a consultant to me for a brief period.

I am deeply appreciative of Val’s time with us at the Foundation and want to thank her for the contributions she has made to the Wikimedia movement. She has been a passionate and persuasive advocate for our mission and pushed us to expand our vision of what could be possible for our movement. I wish her the absolute best in what she does next.

What comes next for Community Engagement

I’ll be direct — we are making changes to the CE department structure.

We will not be starting a search for a new Chief of Community Engagement. Instead, over the course of the next few weeks, the seven teams currently within the Community Engagement (CE) department will be integrated into the Foundation’s other departments. By January, all of the teams will have joined their new departments, and “Community Engagement” will no longer be a standalone department.

The teams currently in CE will be integrated with other Foundation departments aligned with executive leadership goals and based on their scope and focus, as well as how they might grow in the future. Some of these alignments are intuitive, such as Trust & Safety returning to the Legal department; others might not be immediately apparent.

What does this mean for your work?

Although we have a good sense of which teams will integrate with which departments, we are still meeting with the individual teams to work on the specific details of the transition. Our focus is on continuity for existing community programs and support for Foundation staff in making this change. You may hear from staff seeking input on those arrangements, and I want to thank you in advance for any feedback you may have.

We expect to wrap up these conversations in early December, to begin transitions in mid-December, and for the transitions to be completed by the beginning of January, at which point we’ll be able to share an overview of the new arrangements in full.

The work of the Community Engagement teams will remain the same throughout this period of transition. For example, if you need something from Trust & Safety or Community Resources, they’ll continue to be here to work with you. If you have a project or program underway with a CE team or staff member, that work will also continue. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to Greg Varnum at gvarnum@wikimedia.org or leave your question here in Wikimedia Space and we’ll make sure we find an answer to your question.

Why are we making this change?

The Community Engagement department has grown and evolved since it was created in 2015. We have brought in people with an increasingly diverse set of skills and backgrounds and introduced new support for additional languages, geographies, and areas of work, such as community health.

While this has helped the Foundation come a long way in addressing the needs of the movement, it has also created complexity. The breadth of activities and competencies now supported by the department is quite large—today, we have people working on issues as diverse as GLAM collection management, participatory grantmaking, and contributor safety—and increasingly, across many geographies, cultures, and languages.

This has created challenges for how we effectively coordinate such a range of specializations, how we assess their efficacy and impact against our mission. At the same time, as the Foundation has grown, we have developed capacities in other departments who will be good partners to those serving our community mission.

In making these changes, we see an opportunity to align the functions of the Foundation with the future of the mission and movement, and better serve long-time contributors and emerging communities alike. Over time, we anticipate these new arrangements will deepen the understanding of community efforts among all Foundation staff and programs, integrate community perspective across program design and support, and open up space for bold and fresh thinking about how to move our movement forward.

What about the future?

Some people may be wondering, what does this mean for the proposed work in the Annual or Medium Term plans, or the planned restructure of the Community Engagement department to a new regional approach?

We remain fully committed to the work and goals of the Medium Term Plan. For example, although Val was not able to attend Indaba to celebrate with the African community, our COO and Deputy General Counsel, Janeen Uzzell and Tony Sebro, both attended.

The planned restructure and expansion of CE was intended to help us support the community in achieving these goals. This includes the MTP’s focus on building a thriving movement, increasing community health and diversity, and growing among new languages, regions, and audiences. We set these goals as part of our interpretation of the Movement Strategy, and they will remain our focus for the medium term.

I still believe we need to make many of these changes, as well as be prepared for further changes that may arise from the recommendations of the Movement Strategy Working Groups. We see a future that could include improved regional support, and expanded programmatic support for emerging communities, whether those are new languages, geographies, or areas of practice.

However, we are putting those plans on hold for the next few weeks, while we focus is on supporting the existing teams through this transition. I want us to make sure that goes well, before turning our attention to the future. That said, I fully expect to resume work on how we expand our support for these critical new areas in the first quarter of the new calendar year.

Final thoughts

I want to be absolutely clear that these changes are in no way an indication that the Foundation is decreasing our commitment to support for the movement. I hope you see how this offers an opportunity to do the exact opposite—to set us up to support the movement in the best way we can.

For those with an interest in Wikimedia history, it’s worth noting that the Foundation has taken many different shapes over the years. In 2014, teams focused on community support were embedded in other departments. At the time, we were much smaller, and our ability to truly engage with the full breadth of the movement was more limited. In 2019, the community engagement teams are better resourced, more global, and more representative of the movement (although there’s always space for continued improvement).

We see this as the right moment to integrate the perspectives, experiences, and skills of these teams across the Foundation, ensuring that support for the movement is woven into all the Foundation’s work. As Wikimedians, we know change is a constant—and it is through change that we often do our best work, solve our hardest problems, and find our new path forward. Thank you in advance as we take this next step to support the future of our movement.

Sincerely,
Katherine

Originally sent to Wikimedia-l by Katherine Maher on November 15, 2019

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Katherine Maher wrote:

Valerie and her team drafted
an ambitious new vision for the work of Community Engagement focused on
decentralization of power and resources, safe and welcoming spaces,
equitable collaboration, increased language and cultural fluency, dedicated
programs for groups such as women and young people, and expansive
partnerships in service of free knowledge.

With this vision in hand, Val and I both see this as the right juncture for
her to move on to her next professional challenge.

I’m sorry to hear the news of her leaving. I wish her good fortune in her next endeavour and I wish success for the WMF in implementing the vision of her team.

Katherine Maher wrote:

We will not be starting a search for a new Chief of Community Engagement.
Instead, over the course of the next few weeks, the seven teams currently
within the Community Engagement (CE) department will be integrated into the
Foundation’s other departments.

I believe this change might give a new chance to improve community engagement with the WMF teams.

The Movement Strategy community conversations and the office actions consultation was a step in the good direction, but the community is looking for a more engaged, real-time, person-to-person discussion with team members, besides the unidirectional flow of these plans. As Valerie’s ted talk states: “Think Circles, Not Pyramids”. We very much appreciate the contributions of the few working group members, who joined the discussions, but hoped at least one member of all working groups would join.

I hope as a result of this restructuring all teams and members will take part to some extent in “community engagement”. Direct communication is the most effective way to achieve community goals. With the strong divide between the WMF and the communities, I see direct communication as the only way to bridge those gaps and create healthy cooperation between the communities and the WMF.

I believe if engagement with the communities increases, the communities will be more trusting and helpful to the teams, thereby paving the road to success for the Movement’s goals.

Katherine Maher wrote:

For example, if you need something from Trust & Safety or Community Resources,
they’ll continue to be here to work with you.

I appreciate the time invested by Karen (KBrown) and Samuel in the partial bans consultation. In other matters however it is very hard to gain the attention of T&S. I assumed it’s the T&S team’s purpose to address community health issues, but I might be wrong. When I’ve reported an issue of tool abuse and possible harassment to the T&S - that previously received no response (not even acknowledgment) from the ArbCom -, almost 2 months (sic!) later I’ve received the following response: “The issues you have described in your communication to us are a local community governance matters, which fall outside of the Foundation’s remit. We respect the autonomy of the Wikimedia communities and, as a rule, do not interfere.”
This was at the time when Fram was temporarily banned by the T&S for harassment.
I’ve clarified in a response that the issue involved Terms of Use violation, which is the policy of the WMF, not the community. There was no answer in the last 3 months.

As the community health research projects revealed in previous years, editors are occasionally bullied, harassed; often this is done to influence decisions and silence different POVs. Established editors are part of a social network of fellow editors, who can protect them from harm, but new and casual editors don’t enjoy such safety.
As an example: the first response I’ve received from the OTRS, when I asked how to handle an issue of preferential treatment, that I often see new users are a victim of:
“Report them to ANI and hope you’re not hit in the face with a boomerang.”
This is the safety new users can expect currently. Needless to say, such response in a professional support team would be unacceptable.

My questions are: Where should new and casual editors seek help in the new team structure if the communities ignore their problem? What team and individuals will work to improve community health?

Paul J. Weiss wrote:

I definitely do not want Trust & Safety to narrow its focus to ensuring

enforcement & reducing liability. As you know, legal but negative behavior
is a significant threat to the future of Wikipedia and sister projects. The
team needs to be organizationally placed to maximize, not minimize, its
access to resources, the community, and other staff as well as its impact.
Placing it in Legal could, for example, decrease significantly contact and
trust from our community members whose experience with laws is that they
are used as weapons and tools to oppress rather than engendering fairness
and cooperation.

I wholly agree with your concern, my first thought too. However, my experience (as detailed above) and observation is that T&S already only gets involved with legal matters, therefore placing it under the Legal department won’t change anything in the regard. That’s why I have no concerns about that move.

Katherine Maher wrote:

The planned restructure and expansion of Community Engagement was intended to help us support
the community in achieving these goals [of the Medium Term Plan]. This includes the MTP’s focus on
building a thriving movement, increasing community health and diversity,
and growing among new languages, regions, and audiences. We set these goals
as part of our interpretation of the Movement Strategy, and they will
remain our focus for the medium term.
I still believe we need to make many of these changes, as well as be
prepared for further changes that may arise from the recommendations of the
Movement Strategy Working Groups.

This year many long-running community and governance issues surfaced: the mass-desysop proposals of Azerbaijani and Croatian Wikipedias, admin civility issues on English Wikipedia and a few long-term, valued editors being sanctioned. These were present for many years and these are just the public issues known to me.

I believe in the Movement’s targets of diverse, inclusive communities and I recognize that we are very far from it. I believe the WMF has the resources to increase community health and diversity, if that target is pursued consistently. Change is not an easy task however and cannot be done without close cooperation with the communities. The key to community acceptance is transparency, communication, and practical solutions; enforcing rules and unilateral decisions would only result in resistance. I hope there will be specific roles in the new structure to engage with the community on a daily basis to resolve community issues and establish healthy practices. I’ve suggested in the partial bans consultation, that the WMF hire professional arbitrators/mediators to tackle the hardest cases in cooperation with community-elected arbitrators. Professionals would bring a new set of more nuanced tools to the table to resolve issues with minimal sanctions and without punishments.

The WMF is facing a huge challenge. I wish the best luck and good faith from the community to achieve the Movement’s targets.

Sincerely,
Aron Manning

Originally sent to Wikimedia-l

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Hi @AronManning!

Thank you for your thoughtful inquiry and questions.

Regarding your specific questions, “Where should new and casual editors seek help in the new team structure if the communities ignore their problem? What team and individuals will work to improve community health?” As Katherine mentioned, our commitment to the priorities established in our Medium Term Plan remains. Among those is a thriving movement, with several outcomes and metrics outlined in the plan.

The changes we will be implementing to the teams currently within the Community Engagement department will allow us to better support a thriving movement by both providing those teams with professional development more directly aligned to their duties, and placing teams with specialized knowledge of community into each department. When teams across the Foundation have built-in community expertise, everyone is able to better collaborate on and work towards fostering a thriving movement.

As is the case today, any necessary escalation of issues on the projects that reach the limits of community self-governance can still go to Trust and Safety, which is on schedule to resolve a long-standing backend constraint this quarter which will improve their email intake workflows. The Foundation is also working on an improved infrastructure that will enable communities to better address these issues.

Our commitment to important areas such as community health, diversity, and growth remains unabated. To provide a few examples, we are currently improving collaborations between teams like Trust and Safety and Anti-Harassment Tools through the hiring of a dedicated Anti-Harassment Program manager. We are also continuing to work on community health initiatives, such as the universal code of conduct, with consultations to be conducted later in the fiscal year. We are figuring out better ways to communicate across community with experiments such as Wikimedia Space, which are specifically aimed at creating positive, productive, and respectful dialogues and collaborations across communities.

Thank you again for your thoughtful comments and questions. Addressing issues related to how we treat each other on-wiki and how we grow our movement are very complex with a lot of historical and human factors involved. As you mentioned, there are indeed challenges that we need to overcome together so we can achieve the direction we have outlined in Wikimedia 2030. We are optimistic that the changes being made to our team structure will better enable us to advance these efforts.

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Hello and thank you for this information and update,

In a discussion I had with Valerie during her stay with us in Marrakesh (WikiArabia), I understood that one of the aims of having a community department was to help for more decentralization by having management roles related to specific geographical areas. Now that it is announced that this department (and roles within it) will be integrated in other departments, does this mean that this decentralization effort will not be put in place? As these new roles where in a planning phase, and do not really fit in any other department. Does anyone have any idea about it?

P.S: This is mostly relevant for us who come from places where there is no staff (no chapters, no WMF employees) and where many people (in community conversations) already mentioned that volunteering is not a sustainable and permanent solution (especially for offline/administrative work) if we really want to grow across the world, not only in the west :slight_smile:

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Hi @Anass_Sedrati,
Thanks for this question. A commitment to increased local and regional involvement, as well as geographic diversity is shared by many across the Foundation. In the coming days, we will be reviewing existing and new ideas to determine how to best advance the movement’s goals and address specific issues, including those that you’ve raised around decentralization. More information about our plans and commitments will be available soon as we work with our teams to finalize this transition. We appreciate everyone’s patience and will update you as soon as we know more.

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