What is Bridge Builders? Why does it exist?
These are the two questions I get asked the most, and the answer to the first question has evolved in the past two years. It’s been a little ephemeral and hard to nail down that first one; and I’ve been reluctant to talk about it because it never felt like a thing. To an outsider, they can see the event details, workshop format, the domain, the logo, the same attendees at the next one… it all seems to be real. To me, it didn’t feel that way for the longest time, and I didn’t know how to make a conclusion that I was satisfied with.
First, let me start with the why.
I arrived to Toronto in late 2017, not really knowing anyone. I had a few close friends, but it was a bit of a career shock coming back to Canada after having worked in Hong Kong for a few years and not really knowing who to speak with to find work. I thought that having some work experience prior in Canada before would be helpful, but it appeared that no one was interested in my resume. I realized I had to build my network, and fast.
I had worked for a high growth startup in Hong Kong before moving to Toronto, and I loved it. I fell into startups purely by accident; I was doing a masters program at HKUST, and in one of my favourite classes on Technological Innovation & Entrepreneurship, we had a couple speakers from a local startup. What they described was so fascinating and so innovative – I just knew I had to be a part of it. And then I was.
I knew there was a burgeoning tech scene in Toronto, so that was promising. I asked acquaintances, looked online, and signed up for a couple of tech events. I showed up to a massive TechTO event with hundreds of people, and it was completely overwhelming. I decided I needed to start talking to one person, and then another. And then, I had talked to most of the room by the end of the night.
I signed up for all sorts of tech community groups, events, workshops, seminars, bar hops, drinks, coffee chats, every damn thing. I went to every event I could manage to get to, mainly to feel less defeated about looking for work, but also to try and find some interesting people among all the many faces I’d likely only see once and never again. My networking spreadsheet grew monstrous, and I wrote a bit about my experience using the networking app Shapr.
With so many data points, a pattern emerged that was very clear. Every tech event I went to that had both men and women would be like a slowly failing mayonnaise (note: if this seems like an obscure analogy, mayonnaise is an emulsion of oil and water, which are normally two liquids that wouldn’t mix). It seemed that it may start off as an emulsified mix but slowly oil and water would separate out into its own gender groups. The men on one side, loud, boisterous, on their fifth drink: the sales, VCs, wannabe VCs, CXOs or all other tech bro categories under the sun. Or perhaps in smaller quiet groups: the engineers, the designers, the career-change web devs bright eyed and bushy tailed from their 3 month bootcamps. The women on the other side: marketing. Recruiting. Wives or girlfriends of husbands tagging along. Occasionally a designer, very rarely a developer.
Where were all the female developers and data scientists? It was only when I started going to womxn only events that I began to meet them. I met a ton of badass PhDs, data scientists, software engineers, physicists, quantum scientists, digital marketers, etc, but mostly in the safe spaces. And after having to intervene in toxic tech bro behaviour more than once at a tech drinks event, that I realized that there was no use being frustrated.
I learned to use my voice.
One night at a bar meetup, I watched a tech bro, drunk off his tits, saying inappropriate things to the female bartender and making her visibly uncomfortable. I had spoken to him a bunch earlier that evening and he seemed like a normal enough guy, but I also watched as he continued to smash those drinks from open bar and get progressively more raucous. I was unnerved as he was considerably taller (well, to be fair, I’m small so everyone is taller than me) and getting pretty loosey goosey.
I don’t know what the catalyst was, or how I decided that I was going to be the one to do it, but for the first time in my life I decided to speak up. Maybe it was the fact that most people had already cleared the event and it was pretty quiet; maybe it was the fact that I then realized I was the only woman left in the room other than the bartender; maybe it was the fact that I also had a bit to drink. But I said something, and I said it bluntly, and I had to say it bluntly many more times.
It was a 45 minute conversation. Back and forth. “Why is it inappropriate?” “I was trying to be nice.” “I had good intentions.” “I’m married!” It was exhausting. It seemed like it wasn’t worth the effort. I said what I had to say, repeated it enough times to drive the point home… and then he started to come around. He started to realize that his perspective wasn’t enough. He started to see things from my point of view and know how I was able to naturally gauge from body language the discomfort of the bartender. That I had so much more going through my mind watching that situation unfold.
By the end of the evening, I had to use a lot of physical, mental, and emotional energy to make a change in the situation and thinking of someone who normally had the privilege to not consider those things. I realized that, even if I hadn’t changed his perspective there, my action of making my voice heard was important. Whether the person on the other end is able to actively listen and be motivated to change is one thing; but if I never use my voice, it will never be heard.
Speak, or forever hold your peace
I thought a lot about how I had somehow grew more courageous over the years. I suppose I’ve always had a sense of wild abandonment, and after having spent almost a year speaking to rooms full of strangers, I started getting really good at it.
Everything is just practice, I thought. And that’s it – most folks just need practice, and know how to do tangible things when it came to speaking up about injustice and things that aren’t right. It’s not easy to hold a difficult conversation – in some ways it’s easier with a stranger because it doesn’t feel like high stakes – you may not see them ever again. It’s the hardest to hold tough conversations with those closest to you because you tend to have the most to lose.
But then, if there are such high stakes, isn’t it better to try even more in those situations? I thought about the workplace, and professional settings. How often I’ve had to deal with shitty chauvinism, egotistical male managers, and just idiotic men who are all confidence and no substance. I couldn’t speak up then because I was afraid of being ostracized or of losing my job. I’ve tried and have been penalized. I thought about toxic close relationships. I thought about family conflicts. Wouldn’t it be so much better if you could practice having those challenging conversations in a safe space, so that when the time comes, you’ve already mimicked the body language, the pace of your words, the expectations of the emotions you’ll feel?
Monthly workshops, to help you practice and learn.
It took a while to figure out the scope and gravity of what I was organizing. The more research I did, the more responsibility I felt; women do try to speak up on many occasions, but are ignored, not believed, mocked, belittled, or gaslit. There were so many potentially negative consequences of nudging people into action; I wasn’t sure if I was helping fling them off a cliff.
I decided to try things and to see what worked. (I do this a lot.)
The first event we had was a roundtable discussion, with about 15 people in the room. There was a pretty even mix of genders and somewhat diverse racial representation. It was a bit awkward at first, going around the room with mildly moderated conversation discussing gender and racial topics.
Then, it went off the rails. There was an argument, and there were raised voices, and then there were tears. Worst of all, the person who ended up in tears and leaving the room was an indigenous woman. What hell hath I wrought in the name of “conversations about justice”! Fuck. I felt awful. I thought – maybe this is it. I wasn’t meant to do this and to stir shit up.
But at the end of the event, we naturally gathered into a few small groups, and had smaller discussions. And something emerged from that cesspool of negative energy – a motivation to do better, and to commit to truly creating a safe space. The discussions turned into actionables and assignments, and then we organized the next one. We figured out how to hone in on the right topics. We figured out the right format. We worked on getting people engaged and practicing in small group discussions. We planned more, and now it’s two years later.
I learned a lot about intersectionality in the past couple of years, and I began to understand how much privilege I had. I’m a light-skinned Chinese woman with higher education, fluent English with no accent, fully able-bodied, pretty damn smart and capable. Sure, I’m a woman and that tends to put me at a disadvantage in some ways, but I had so many other things that worked out better in my favour. What use is understanding I have privilege if I’m not going to use it?
I need to do much more. We have a crisis. I’ve learned a lot in the past weeks about the Black Lives Matter movement. I thought I had some idea, but whew, I did not. My experiences and understanding had been very far from the Black experience, but I realized I needed to learn more about their struggles and to support Black folks and marginalized groups to get to an equitable position in the systems that govern our lives, like education and jobs.
I hate that it took me so long to realize what Bridge Builders not only meant to me, but what it meant to the community that all organizers and attendees have built together. My gratitude and heart goes to: Lisa and Joanna who were here since the beginning. Stefan, Maria for helping organizing and presenting. Supporters from across the tech industry in Toronto who let us use their beautiful office spaces for our cozy gatherings. Rashik, Don, Vivian for getting something out of it, and then wanting to give back and having done so in spades. Jesse, a friend before Bridge Builders, an even better friend since then, and someone who has been fighting and resting and fighting and resting and fighting and resting…. but never giving up. Giving your time to do the research, the organization, the running up and down elevators and stairwells to get people into the events, facilitating, and just all the discussions we’ve had of what worked and what didn’t work. I couldn’t have done any of this without you all.
Closing the gap
There’s this quote from Ira Glass that I think about a lot in all the creative and innovative things I pursue. And it’s sort of funny to realize how closely this related to any experience I had in my life as a creator. I never thought that hard about Bridge Builders as a creation, but of course it was; it came from my weary soul, my frustration with being a woman in heavily male-dominated industries, and my existential struggle with morality and justice. Here’s the quote:
Nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish somebody had told this to me — is that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?
A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit. And the thing I would just like say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be — they knew it fell short, it didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have.
And the thing I would say to you is everybody goes through that. And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase — you gotta know it’s totally normal.
And the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work — do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week, or every month, you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while — it’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that, okay?Ira Glass
There is no end point – it’s continuous iteration. We’re going to keep working hard to keep people informed, aware, and practicing. We’ll do our best to contribute to conversations and actions that will help dismantle white supremacy, destroy oppressive policies and thought processes, and to move the needle forward. Everyone’s participation is so important, and if you are going to do the moral, just thing, you must use your voice and you must use it often. You just have to fight your way through it.