Formalising The Carpentries Community Roles & Support Structure

We will continue to listen to and support you as we endeavor to be the leading inclusive community teaching data and coding skills.

Over the past three years The Carpentries has grown in size - we run more workshops, train more individuals to teach, and serve more member organisations. Since our merger, we have also adapted the way we operate to comply with various laws and regulations (e.g. GDPR). What has remained the same is our intention to be transparent and supportive of our community. We are therefore writing this post to provide you with background and motivation for why we are formalising community roles.

Our lesson programs (Software, Data, and Library Carpentry) thrive on the ability for community members to contribute when and however they can. This approach makes it easy for anyone, regardless of background or experience, to contribute to the growth and development of ‘Carpentry’ workshops and instructor training. Our volunteers are building our success with countless hours of teaching, lesson maintenance, community calls, and other contributions that support our mission and vision.

Community contributions will always be vital to our success. We have learned over the years, however, that as the community grows in size and complexity, we must improve our operations such that community members are able to step into (and out of) community roles and activities painlessly. Two examples of such an improvement are the Trainer Agreement that was introduced for the Trainer community in 2020, and the formation of a Trainers Leadership Group earlier this year. A similar effort is being undertaken to help identify active and inactive lesson Maintainers and to formalise mechanisms for decision making in the Maintainer community. These formalised structures may be off-putting to some community members who want to contribute on their own time and in their own way. However, in essence, we must formalise these structures in order to ensure we can sustain our community long-term.

Why are we formalising community roles and support structures?

The introduction of structure to the community is in recognition of the need for transparency, improved equity and inclusion, and for legal and compliance reasons.

Transparency

When what it means to contribute is well defined, community members can make a more informed judgement before volunteering to participate, especially if the role spans over the course of one or multiple years. We want to be transparent with our community about the effort required to take on a particular role so that you are comfortable saying yes, onboarded effectively, and feel good about stepping away when you need to.

Additionally, our Core Team is better able to support our community when we can reliably predict how much volunteer effort we expect in different areas, and which roles we should focus on for additional recruitment. Consider, for example, the estimation of how many Instructor Training seats can be offered in a given period, which relies on accurate information about the availability of the current Trainer pool.

Equity & Inclusion

The growth of the community has also made us vulnerable to The Tyranny of Structurelessness - the effect where supposedly fair systems without rules and hierarchy inevitably come to mimic the ideals of those who contribute the most. If we do not define how roles and responsibilities are distributed within The Carpentries, our organisational structure will ultimately be driven by those who have more access and opportunities. It is important to examine where being proactive in identifying roles and responsibilities can improve equity and inclusion.

As we grow and launch out into new communities, we learn that the ways we operate, share information, and even interact with each other virtually need to be reviewed and sometimes revised. Our fiscal sponsor Community Initiatives requires us to implement a volunteer agreement across our community. A volunteer agreement outlines the relationship between The Carpentries and our volunteers. It also provides legal protections for both our volunteers and The Carpentries, and includes data protection and non-disclosure provisions in cases where volunteers need access to confidential information or internal systems.

Potential disadvantages to formalising community roles and support structures

We understand that despite our good intentions with formalising community roles, there may be several disadvantages. Formalised agreements and support structures may intimidate community members and/or leave them feeling underappreciated. After all, we Value All Contributions, but if your contribution does not reach “the minimum requirement”, you may wonder whether your contributions are truly valued. Additionally, some may feel that formalised structures feel more like contractual obligations.

Another disadvantage is the potential for a hierarchy to develop wherein volunteers who contribute a lot are seen as leaders or decision makers, to the detriment of those who are unable to contribute as much.

We do not want to discourage our community members from participating

We want to assure you that we are discussing these challenges in formalising community roles and support structures. We understand this will be a bumpy road and we will need to iterate along the way. As we begin to implement these ideas, know that your feedback has and will always inform our direction.

We will continue to listen to and support you as we endeavor to be the leading inclusive community teaching data and coding skills. Ultimately, there are so many broad benefits to being a part of The Carpentries community. Our efforts are intended to be community-led, and when they are not working we want to hear from you. Get in touch with us by emailing team@carpentries.org or by contacting the Executive Council.

In service,

Kari L. Jordan, The Carpentries Executive Director
Lex Nederbragt, The Carpentries Executive Council Chair

Dialogue & Discussion

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