Foundation 360: “We are a plucky advocate in a Steampunk society.” Interview with Maggie Dennis, Community Resilience and Sustainability, Legal Department

The Foundation 360 series profiles important work happening at the Wikimedia Foundation, and the people behind it.

Myleen Hollero / Wikimedia Foundation / CC BY-SA 3.0

A long-time fixture in the English Wikipedia community, Maggie Dennis, Vice President of Community Resilience and Sustainability, is a self-declared nervous public speaker that errs towards extreme candor when answering questions. “I write fiction,” she told us when we asked her what character the Legal Department would be if it were a character in a novel, “So where I’m going is way specific. We are a plucky advocate in a Steampunk society with the full bustle and the umbrella. I see us marching into Town Hall to push back against the restrictive rules that are going to disadvantage our people, but also talking amongst our people as we come out of the Town Hall about how to succeed with what we have now. Oh, and I see us as female, for the record.”

Specific as it might be, Maggie’s answer touches on a throughline about the work of the Legal Department and about the work of the team she directs: Community Resilience and Sustainability. She expanded when we spoke with her for this series.*

Q: If someone asked you at a party to describe what the Legal department, which includes Community Resilience and Sustainability, does at the Foundation, what would you say?

MD: We defend the ability of open knowledge to thrive on the internet. We do it from multiple different perspectives. The lawyers are doing it by pushing back on legislation that prohibits intellectual freedom. We on the Community Resilience and Sustainability team do it by supporting the ability of Wikimedia communities to function – to thrive and grow over time, to recover when bad things happen with as little disruption as possible. Right now, we’re working to support clear and transparent forms of self governance, to reach shared priorities with our communities, and to help people better prepare for leadership roles and to serve them with essential support. Together, we ensure the protections and the freedoms that allow Wikimedia to thrive.

Q: Tell us about a project you worked on this year that had implications for the larger movement.

MD: I have now come to oversee Movement Strategy, as well as the Thriving Movement priority from the Foundation’s Medium Term Plan. So there are a lot more teams that I look at and I go “these are my people,” but if I look at it as in the past year, I have to say the one that’s been with me from the start of the year to the finish is the Universal Code of Conduct. That is an enormous achievement.

Q: You have been in the Wikimedia movement for close to two decades. When did you first realize that there was a need for a Universal Code of Conduct?

MD: First, I want to say that I am speaking from my memory here. I know that memory can color your recall and that it’s subjective, but this is the way I remember it.

As a volunteer, I came under target as part of my anti-vandalism cleanup. A user on Wikipedia who I’d never met came to my talk page and randomly called me a horrible name. He was trying to do some sort of experiment to prove that administrators were treated differently. I don’t know the full details, all I know was that someone randomly called me a horrible name, like throwing a bottle at me out of a car window. And it really didn’t matter to hardly anybody that it had happened. I felt alone and hurt.

Another time, somebody came to my userpage and vandalized it to say something really degrading about me sexually. That hurt me even more. It’s awful when people attack you for no reason, especially when you’re trying to do something good with your spare time. I don’t have a thick skin, but I have developed a lot of patience. I knew that I would get over it and that I wasn’t going anywhere. There are a lot of women and there are a lot of other people, particularly marginalized people, who don’t feel that way. 

For example, we know that over ⅓ of contributors report feeling unsafe on the projects, and we have not seen improvements in this over time. With gender minority contributors, over half report feeling unsafe. So, while feeling unsafe may not be the experience of everyone on the projects, I feel strongly about listening to the people who have had the courage to speak up about it. Our experiences are prevalent, and they matter. So it has been my determination to do something.

Q: What is different in the Wikimedia world as a result of the work being done on the Universal Code of Conduct?

MD: We are still only halfway through. We’re working on Phase 2 where the enforcement mechanisms will be defined. Phase 1 was the drafting of the Universal Code of Conduct, where more than 1,500 volunteers from 19 projects in 30 languages participated in its creation. Phase 2 is about enforcement, and so far, more than 3,500 volunteers across 21 projects have taken part in conversations about how enforcement could work in their communities. We will be able to see and measure the impact when the enforcement mechanisms are actually in place.

Many community members that I’ve heard from have told me that they take hope from knowing that the community is pulling together globally to make sure there are basic standards of safety. It is a big change. 

On the other hand, people are rightly concerned about the enforcement, about what it means, about whether this will lead to some Draconian failure to allow free speech. I think that is a tension we have to continue to navigate. When I say that there are a lot of people who have expressed hope to me, I don’t want to disregard the people who are concerned that they’re going to lose freedom. I think it will be important for us to find a way that we can support hard conversations.

Q: How does the Universal Code of Conduct support the movement’s future?

MD: The challenges of integrating people from all across the world into one online space are huge. In order for us to hit our movement goals to truly represent the world’s knowledge, we need to have safe spaces and clear rules of engagement so that there’s not ambiguity around how people can expect to be treated and what they can do if they feel like they haven’t been treated within that code. While prioritizing process over purpose is a bad idea–we should always remember why a rule exists and not just that it does and make sure that rules meet their purpose–ambiguity around expectations can be equally dangerous to our ability to achieve our mission. I think we waste a lot of time talking about whether things are okay or not, and if we could eliminate that ambiguity we’d have a lot more energy to do the work. 

Q: Why is this work meaningful to you?

MD: Helping people feel safe in a world that, as far as I can see, is increasingly tense and difficult to engage internationally, is one of the biggest impacts I can hope to have in my life, ever. The work we do to share knowledge with the world is really hard. People fight over the basics of information: is COVID real? Are vaccines safe? Who is right and wrong in an international engagement? It is always going to be hard to pull people together to agree on what is accurate and share that in an unbiased way. Anything I can do to help people come together to have these hard conversations in the spirit of safety and with the interest of our readers in mind is something I’m proud to be part of. 

Want to learn more about the UCoC and the Community Resilience and Sustainability team?

*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.