Another Case for Diversity

I’ve spoken in the past about why I think diversity is important. For example, understanding genders helps us design better databases and interfaces. But this past weekend another argument for diversity was presented to me. I was reminded that experiences many of us take for granted are often experienced differently by other people.

I’ve spoken in the past that I’m a caver and I teach cave rescue. As a caver I’m a member of the National Speleological Society. This is a great group and it’s dedicated to cavers and those who have a personal or professional interest in caves. It recently added a section for diversity. Some of the discussion behind this occurred on Facebook and it was quite telling in the reaction.

Let me start with saying that cavers are some of the friendliest people I know. It’s far from unheard of for a caver to look in the NSS Members Manual or online and say “Hey, you don’t know me, but I’m passing through your area, can you hook me up with a local cave to visit and maybe some crash space” and it happens. So yes, cavers are quite open and hospitable.

That said the Facebook discussion was an example of many of my fellow cavers missing the mark. The one that stood out in my mind was “Of course people of color can come caving with us. They just need to ask. We never turn anyone away.” And that’s most likely true. But, there are problems there, including people of color knowing they can ask and who to ask and where.

One response I found particularly telling, was a person of color pointing out that in parts of the South, simply walking across a field to a cave was potentially unsafe to them. This was a concept the white cavers couldn’t wrap their mind around and even actively told the person his experience was wrong.

So in this area I do think it’s important for us to reach out to members of groups who might not traditionally cave and invite them to join us.

But, as I said, another reason was presented to me on the past Thursday night. The NSS Education and Diversity Committees had joined together to present a webinar by Beau D. Carroll on Cherokee Syllabary in caves in the Alabama area (the main focus was on Manitou Cave).

Now, I go caving because I think it’s cool, both literally and figuratively. Seeing how the rock changes as you move to different parts of the cave, or seeing formations, and all that is just really interesting. My experiences are shaped by that. I also enjoy taking beginners of all ages caving and seeing their reactions and their often growing enthusiasm. I can quite safely say I’ve literally taken 100s of people on their first caving trip and am proud to know that several have gone on to become great cavers, far outpacing my own experiences.

That’s my experience.

Beau talked a lot about the experiences he, as a member of the Eastern band of Cherokees experienced while exploring in Manitou Cave and other caves. For him, it was both a learning experience (he is working on a PhD in archeology) as he found and translated the Cherokee Syllabary writings in the cave and as a way to connect to his ancestors. To me, this was particularly fascinating for two reasons. The first is the history of the syllabary itself is fascinating. It was developed over a 12 year period by Sequoyah and within 5 years, it’s estimated over 90% of the tribe could read. It’s one of the few writing systems that was developed within recent memory and for which we have somewhat decent records of its development. The second reason is that the writing very much is recording the history of a people whose entire way of live was disrupted by the Trail of Tears. He’s unlocking history and we’re learning from it.

It’s also a very different way of experiencing the dark zone of a cave. It’s not just a matter of “oh this is cool” but “this is someone’s history and culture.” One example stands out to me.

At one point during the Q&A Beau talks about leaving offerings of tobacco for his ancestors inside a cave. I have to admit, initially this offended my sensibilities, especially in light of the NSS motto.

Take Nothing but Pictures, Leave Nothing but Footprints, Kill Nothing but Time

But it forced me to stop and think about my own prejudices. While it’s clear from other comments Beau makes that he and his Cherokee agree on much of the concept of cave preservation, am I right to be offended? Is my concept of “leave nothing but footprints” truly correct? For me, caving is not a spiritual experience, but for him it is. His experience is arguably as valid as mine and I think should be respected also.

In the end it made me realize that a strong reason for a diversity committee isn’t just to “bring others into the caving” but for us to realize how others experience caving. This is equally and perhaps in some ways more important. I don’t think we can truly understand caving until we understand how others experience it also.

I want to thank Bree Jameson for bringing the webinar to my attention and Devra Heyer, NSS Education Committee Chair and Leah Hill, NSS Outreach Chair and Ambassador for the Diversity Committee for putting this all together. It’s a great presentation.

Please, take an hour out of your day and listen and watch. It’s worth it!

Also, please not my latest Redgate Simple-Talk article is now online: PowerShell editors and environments part 1 is now online.