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This one time, at WordCamp… (my take on drinking & harassment)

I want to tell you a true story.

We were living in an apartment just three doors down from the best BBQ in all of Oakland. That’s saying something. So is telling you that we ate that BBQ almost every single day. That’s how good it was!

I loved that apartment and I loved how close we were to some of the best smelling food ever. But it was three doors down.

Next door to us, just one door down, was an abandoned nightclub. Unless you’ve lived in an urban center, it’s hard to imagine that right next door to you.

But our abandoned spot wasn’t completely abandoned. Two guys sat on the front porch (entranceway) every day. One of them had a bike.

Yes. It was a crack house.

And people came by all day and night, looking for a score. I’d grown up sheltered in sunny southern California where my knowledge of drugs came from the movies. But this was real life.

Just a few days before Easter, I pulled up in my car to the apartment building where I was going to pick up my college roommates. But my driveway was blocked by police officers.

In the back of their car sat one of the two drug dealers. The worrisome part was that the other one (the dude with the bike) wasn’t anywhere I could see.

Then, by pure chance of timing, a cop came from behind the building and asked me to join him back there. I didn’t think disobeying a cop was an option, so I headed back there.

Yes. I helped the cops.

It turned out he’d been back there for an hour looking for evidence but hadn’t found anything. So I told him where to go look (because I could see where the drug dealers would go when they went to get their crack). Presto! He found it.

But that’s when I chanced a glance back to the cop car and saw that the dude in the back seat was now talking (thru the window) to his partner on the bike (who was right outside and had just witnessed me helping the cop).

Yes. I freaked out.

And the cop didn’t help. He walked me back to my apartment (highlighting which unit I lived in), while telling me there might not be enough evidence to keep this guy locked up very long.

And while this was happening, the dude on the bike took off. Planning how to hurt me and my roommates, I was sure.

For two days I didn’t sleep well. For two days I was scared to walk from my car to my apartment door. For two days I didn’t eat well and didn’t feel like doing anything.

Yes. For two days I felt powerless.

Scared. Afraid of the dark. Fearful for my safety. Unable to control my own destiny.

I was strong, smart, and resourceful. But at that moment, nothing was helping me feel safe.

Then I moved.

Two days later, friends helped me pack up our entire apartment and in the middle of the night, we drove away never to step foot in that area again (including eating at my favorite bbq joint).

It’s been twenty years and I can still remember that feeling of fear. Of powerlessness. And frustration. That it got to me.

But this isn’t a story about me.

When I read stories like the one from my friend Sarah, I can totally understand wanting to pack up and take off. Because deep down inside, I can connect to feeling distracted and stressed, regardless of how strong anyone is.

I wasn’t a victim the night I helped the cop. Nothing actually happened to me. But I experienced something that left me feeling stressed enough, distracted enough, fearful enough, that all I wanted to do was get far away. And that’s what I did.

Yes. This happens.

Harassment comes in all shapes and sizes. And it’s often a matter of perspective. What freaks me out or makes me feel unsafe may not make you unsafe.

But not talking about it won’t help. So shining a light on it, like my friends have done, helps.

No. It’s not ok.

None of us are perfect. In and of itself, that’s not an issue. But take imperfect people and have them pound shots and drinks until they lose any ability to control themselves, and you can predict the end result.

I’m not saying that sober people always make perfect choices – but most of us, when sober, make better choices.

That’s the benefit of positive peer pressure. Sometimes that’s all you need to keep yourself in check.

Stay Classy WordCamp.

Let’s just be honest with ourselves. None of us, not a single person I know, wants anyone to walk away with a desire to never attend a WordCamp again.

After all, they’re incredible value for the price. The community is awesome. The education is amazing.

My other friend Sarah has made a bunch of great suggestions but here are a few other things to think about if you’re thinking of “hooking up” at your next WordCamp:

  1. You know how much you can drink before it impairs your reasoning. Whatever that number of drinks is, drink one less.

  2. Take your spouse with you and turn the event into a mini-vacation. You may feel like hooking up with strangers a lot less.

  3. No matter how awesome you think someone is, save your pickup lines for a different event.

  4. However you feel about the open expression of love (or anything), this kind of “reputation” won’t help your business.

I’m no saint. But I try to limit my drinking at WordCamp events (any events, actually) to a single drink each night. That’s not because I can’t handle two or three. I’m a big guy. I could handle many more than 2 or 3 even. I joke that I like to remember each night of my life. But the reality is that I like to model what it means to be a professional who can enjoy networking after hours without having to get drunk.

I’m not telling you that you shouldn’t drink. But remember that others are watching you. And what you do will impact and influence what they do. If you drink until you’re wasted, they will feel like it’s ok too. And just because you can control your advances and not act like a jerk, doesn’t mean they will be able to.

We all need to think about the examples we’re setting – because at every event, younger folks are learning from us. So we need to stay classy.

And if you’re a person who has been on the receiving end of harassment, talk to someone. Tell someone at the event. Speak up.

Codes of conduct shouldn’t be a thing, but they are the very thing needed to be able to protect events from getting out of hand, if we can’t manage ourselves. Put a lot of people together, and things will go south. Because we’re not perfect. But not having a way to handle it, because there is no code of conduct – that sucks! But codes of conduct won’t feel important until enough people hear the stories that cause them outrage.

So keep sharing. And keep coming to WordCamps.

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