Tuesday, July 6, 2010

3 Women, 2 Grace Hopper Conferences, 1 Global Collaboration

Three of the memorable women I talked with at Grace Hopper (GHC) in 2009 were Shikoh Gitau, a student researcher from South Africa, and Mary Hudachek-Buswell and Stefanie Markham, the local chairs for this year’s conference in Atlanta. These women forged a strong connection at GHC 2009 that has continued to develop, resulting in a panel to be presented at GHC 2010. Earlier this year Mary shared how she and Shikoh first connected: through our Grace Hopper 2009 Rides & Roommates discussion on Facebook. It’s such a great Grace Hopper story that I asked them to share it here on the GHC blog.

Mary’s story: Meeting Shikoh at GHC09

Last year was my first time to experience the inspiration of GHC. It was a long anticipated trip since GHC has always been something I wanted to participate in, but had not had the opportunity to do so in the past. I was asked to serve as the local chair for GHC10, and I just had to get to Tucson for GHC09. I decided to immerse myself in the experience of attending before traveling by reading the posts on Facebook and LinkedIn as the time approached. In order to save travel money with the budget crunch, I had to fly into Phoenix and drive to Tucson in a rental car. I kept noticing people posting requests for rides, meetings, or attending some sightseeing events together. I thought it was a great idea to communicate in this way. I liken it to listening in on a huge girls' gab session where they were all discussing going to THE party of the year. I became slightly addicted to reading the blogs, posts, and tweets which fed my excitement in attending GHC09. Occasionally, the thought would enter my mind, "What if GHC didn't measure up to my hopes and vision that I built up in mind?"

I was going to GHC09 with my Computer Science "sister", Stefanie Markham. As the time approached and anticipation mounted, I took the plunge and began participating in the online conversations. There was a post from a young woman in Cape Town, South Africa who needed a ride to Tucson from the Phoenix airport the day before the conference started. I had space in the car with only Stef and me driving down from Phoenix, so why not? It was the day and time we were arriving, and it would only cost sharing a couple of hours with a stranger in a small car in the middle of the desert. So Shikoh Gitau and I began coordinating online how we would meet, since phoning was out of the question. I gave Shikoh my cell number to call the day I would arrive in Phoenix. That was how we left it. Would she actually be there from South Africa? What did she really know about me? We each gave a leap of faith based on our common bond for what GHC could hold for both us.

Stef and I landed in Phoenix, finally got our bags, located the rental car facility, and finally got the car (seemed like hours). All the while playing phone tag with Shikoh. What Shikoh must have thought of the two crazy women from Atlanta. We met in an underground parking lot in Phoenix on what seemed like the hottest day of the year. As we began our drive to Tucson, (yes there were wrong turns as I was the driver) we got to know about each other and how our paths led us to GHC09. Shikoh had the same spirit as Stef and me, and a passion for furthering women in computing. Our new acquaintance with each other was fast growing into a tentative friendship as we filled every minute of the two hour drive with giddy discussion. We arrived at the resort and Shikoh determined she needed to be at a hotel somewhere else in downtown Tucson and there were no shuttles to get her there. Stef and I quickly checked into our room, and then headed out to take Shikoh to her hotel at the University of Arizona, as wel as a couple of other stranded students. Stefanie and I dropped the young women off, and then headed out to explore Arizona after a stop for fast food. We thought this would be our last encounter with Shikoh.

Not so! First thing the next morning and throughout the week, I continued to run into Shikoh and we would share our viewpoints, ideas, and information from sessions. We talked about how we should do something together for a future GHC. As we discussed the important issue of gender based violence after Megan Smith's speech, an idea came to the forefront of what we might be able to do. It was one of those goosebump moments in your life where you realize you might actually be able to make a real change in the world for the greater good. Our idea continued to grow, and plans were sketched out before we departed for our separate parts of the world. Both of us were forever changed by our meeting and connection to GHC. We have communicated electronically over the last 8 months, and our panel Take Back the Tech (Part II) was accepted to GHC10. We have a dream to harness technology in order to end violence against women in third world countries.

Shikoh’s story: Meeting Mary and Stef at GHC09

After receiving the news that my poster had been accepted for the GHC and that I had a travel scholarship to go all the way to Arizona, I was ecstatic. After all the excitement cooled down, I got right into planning how I was going to get myself SAFELY to Tucson. The Cape Town – Arizona flight takes about 24hours, so to beat the 11 hour jetlag I planned to arrive a day early. However, my funding did not cover the extra night so I first scanned my over 800 Facebook friends list to see who among my former classmates and friends lived in the area. The nearest I got was Phoenix, Arizona. They were very kind to host me for the one night. The next problem I encountered was to get to the hotel in Tucson from Phoenix. I joined the GHC fan page to see who was doing what, and posted my need for a ride to Tucson. Being from Africa, I am very wary of this kind of arrangement, Hollywood does not instill much confidence in as far as the great American desert is concerned. I had seen all sorts of imposter and hijacking movies, but I cast away the fears and went to the underground parking lot of the Phoenix Airport. With no pictures to view, I had to work with clothing color in order to identify Mary and Stef.

The U.S. was very new to me, so they brought me up to date with the whole being an American ritual. In that drive, I gained good friends and mentors as we headed towards GHC09 in what I regard as the greatest gathering on earth. Previous to the trip, I read a lot of what was presented in GHC, and came away feeling like an odd ball. My research in computer science was totally different from anything anyone was presenting, and needless to say I felt like an imposter. So as we exchanged our research approaches, I ended mine by saying that I am not “a real computer scientist”. The reaction from both Mary and Stef was not what I expected. They in unison told me to never ever say that, and stated that my research was great. It was good that I met these women and they had told me my work was good, because in the coming days, I continued to experience the “I am not a real computer scientist” thing, and they were there to correct me at every turn. After the keynote speech by Megan Smith (Google), they both came hunting after me with an “I told you so” expression written all over their faces. I have to say they were right; my research is indeed real computer science research. The meeting and discussion thereafter lead to the organization of Take Back the Tech (Part II), a panel at GHC10 that will bring together women from industry, academia, women’s rights activist as well as feminist organizations to discuss technology and gender based violence. We hope to have a concrete technological intervention as result of this panel as well as the continuing conversation.

Join Shikoh and Mary in the Grace Hopper Celebration session Take Back the Tech (Part II): A Feminist and Techie Dialogue on taking control of technology to end violence against women from 4:15 p.m. – 5:15 p.m. on Friday, October 1, 2010.

If you seek a ride or roommate for GHC, look for Grace Hopper 2010 Rides & Roommates on the Discussions tab of our Facebook page. And make your own pre-conference connections through our GHC online communities.

Do you have a story of a great connection made at the Grace Hopper Celebration? Tell us about it!

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