Devney Hamilton on Sassafras Tech Collective

Devney Hamilton talks about Sassfras Tech Collective, Sassafras' internal structures, and the importance of prefigurative processes.

Episode Notes

Sassafras encourages people of color and/or with disabilities and/or trans or gender-non-conforming, or otherwise targeted with oppression in tech to contact them at info@sassafras.coop.

Ways to stay in touch with Sassafras:

Organizations mentioned:

Places to learn about co-op work opportunities:

Co-ops that support Sassafras' work:

Organizations that help fund cooperatives:

Organizations that provide resources for starting coops:

Books and reading recommended:

Transcript

Recorded in February 2021.

[00:00:00]
Devney: We would not be here without each other. We make each other’s livelihoods possible and each other’s growth possible.

[intro music]

[00:00:18]
Ana: Welcome to Real Co-op Stories. My name is Ana and today I’m talking to Devney Hamilton, a developer with Sassafras Tech Collective.

[00:00:27]
Devney: I’m Devney Hamilton. I use they and she. I grew up in the Midwest and then was in the Bay Area for college at Stanford. And that’s where I got pulled into tech. Facebook and Google were still new and cool. Facebook was in their old Page Mill office.

[00:00:46]
I had a lot of questions about what does this mean for community, for information. Started taking classes, and then ended up doing a degree in computer science and interned with a mission driven education company. Saw how angel funding really pushes priorities, and really well-meaning folks end up not being able to do what they really want to do.

[00:01:10]
After six years in the Bay Area, I was ready to come back to the Midwest. So I came back with my partner for their schooling. I wanted to get into the real world, I guess, and found a consultancy here that has really excellent practices where I learned a lot. They’re a B corporation, employee-owned. Great, great place.

[00:01:30]
Ana: Was that Atomic?

[00:01:31]
Devney: Yeah, Atomic Object. Yeah, they’re great. Yeah.

[00:01:34]
And I was like, how do we do this for projects that don’t have like Fortune 500 funding? How do we do this for software where the value is not gonna concentrate wealth? It’s actually just, people are healthier. People are having better relationships. The environment is in better shape. Like there’s a lot of things that are valuable, but they don’t concentrate wealth so they don’t get funding.

[00:02:01]
So how do we do software for that? And I had actually been envisioning like, maybe I need to work for like 10, 15 years, get really good, freelance and try to build something. And then I was googling about how do you do this. You can’t build software by yourself. You need a team. How do you do it?

[00:02:19]
And googling around I found out about tech co-ops and then I saw that there was one in Ann Arbor, where I was in Michigan. And this was Sassafras. So I looked them up and reached out and talked with them and they were not hiring at the time, which was good because I needed to keep learning more stuff.

[00:02:37]
So then I was on their list for when they did hire and I applied and then eventually I started working here. I’ve been here for four years. I was hired as a developer. And there’s five to seven of us at a time, hoping to hire really soon. So we’re six now. And so I’ve also gotten into more kind of wearing a lot of hats cause we all wear a lot of hats.

[00:03:03]
So to introduce Sassafras we’re a worker cooperative and we build technology in service of global justice movements.

[00:03:10]
We focus on both relationships and technology that move us away from patterns of oppression and towards more humanity and cooperation. So where a star, a bright one, we try to be a bright one, in a constellation of sustainable, just, anti-oppressive tech workplaces. And so we get to catalyze new and visionary technology that expands spaces for movements and for the people in them to dream, collaborate, build power, heal, and experience joy. So that’s our vision that we arrived at, coming on two years ago. And it was really cool how, when we wrote this, we started having more projects that aligned beautifully.

[00:03:50]
I want to take a little time to just talk about who makes Sassafras too. So in, in reverse order of appearance, Mariam joined us a few months ago and she brings incredible product and UX design skills and co-design skills that are opening up new possibilities for us.

[00:04:11]
Particularly for accessible and affordable, beautiful tech. She literally wrote the paper on prefigurative design, which means practicing that the means shape the end. So we take care to choose our means such that they feel and look like the ends we’re going for. And she has so much experience doing and thinking deeply about just processes. And that’s already strengthening us in our projects and as an organization so much. And she’s brought more humor and a lot of care.

[00:04:43]
Then, Kevin brings a lot of fluency in a bunch of different technologies. Bringing full-stack JS was great and really quick learning in both tech and anti-oppression and he has this wonderful balance of humility to keep learning and the confidence to value our work. And he has an improv background, which has helped us be lighter on our feet, so to speak as an org and he prompted us to open up to the world more. We have a blog that we might not have without him.

[00:05:14]
Melody is someone who, like Kevin, is really fluent in so many technologies as a developer and tech lead and is always ready to pick something new up and figure how it works. And her endless creativity on both tech and organizational and anti-oppressive solutions keeps us going. And she constantly advocates for us to improve on both fronts. She’s pulled many a project back from a tech debt brink. She also brings new ones into being, thinking hard about consentful protocols. How can you take consent to like the lowest levels of the tech stack and build it. She just excels in mentoring others and writing policy and so many things

[00:06:01]
And then Elizabeth is a long time member who was here for well over five years until this summer. But she shaped Sassafras so much besides writing code and like improving our front end tech to champion projects that are closely in line with our vision before we wrote it. And champion accessibility. And she taught Sassafras a lot about skills and culture norms that make cooperative work possible. She led in reminding us that the worker co-op is for the workers taking care of our relationships with one another and that we need joy and boundaries and getting better at consent and choosing our own sustainable pace and negotiating that with the outside world is something that she taught us a lot before she went on to do other things that are exciting.

[00:06:49]
Tom is someone who, his love of process has kept Sassafras running this far. He was part of the founding group and he brings a love of fun which has been strengthened with everybody else I already talked about. The steadiness he brings to technical planning and architecture and to Sassafras' finances and operations it’s been huge. And he, along with Elizabeth and Jill who I’ll talk about next they’ve such just incredibly wonderfully high standards of personal growth in service of the whole organization. Besides that, he’s also kept up two multi-stakeholder open source codebases viable for a decade or more, which is not easy to do. And he’s done it while building a co-operative. Yeah, everyone’s really special.

[00:07:37]
And Jill, who also in the founding team has done so much to spread power in the org that we’ve actually been doing just fine with them being out of the office for over three months. But we’re really excited for Jill to come back. Our current thriving and potential trace to Jill’s vision in starting Sassafras, of really following and learning from Grace Lee Boggs, and INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence and other leaders. Jill’s also embedded that relationship piece I mentioned in the vision of really prioritizing external relationships in Sassafras and how we start new projects. And Jill’s a developer and is also always trying new tech looking for like, Ooh, what’s a project where I can try out this. But Jill’s also carried product leadership and UX design for, for many, many years.

[00:08:34]
We would not be here without each other. We make each other’s livelihoods possible and each other’s growth possible.

[00:08:42]
And there’s much more to say about each person. But we, we all bring a lot of tenacity in different flavors and we all have a lot of care and compassion for one another. And for future Sassafrassers. We’re like, “Oh, we want all of you.” We want to take care of all these like loose policy ends because we don’t want future people to have to deal with them. They’ll come and bring better ideas anyway.

[00:09:06]
Everybody has their own version of humor and celebration and that’s really important.

[00:09:11]
I also want to say that shorter term Sassafras staff, I won’t go into as much depth about have, have come and gone, but always like the energy and work and insight that you contribute that’s always really important.

[00:09:23]
We have so many organizations and people. USFWC Tech Co-op Peer Network and Aorta and then Open Bookkeeping and Key Figures, co-ops that do finance stuff, which is really important. And the Design Justice Network and so many other groups and individuals that like make our work possible.

[00:09:41]
So I just wanted to put a little more context on who’s doing the things that we talk about.

[00:09:48]
_Ana:_ I think that paints a really nice picture and a really warm picture. It also has the wonderful quality of pointing at the fact, that this is what cooperatives are about that they’re about the people and the relationships and as you put it that we wouldn’t have our personal growth without those other people, we wouldn’t have of course our livelihood without the cooperative. That idea that this is how actively a new world is being built.

[00:10:14]
Devney: We’re just able to focus on trying our best to create the conditions where we can all be doing our best. And you don’t always get it right. More often than not. And the experience of cooperation, like really, really drives home how like, it’s not about trying to get better at everything by yourself. It’s more just about finding people to work with so that you can complement each other. And it’s sort of relaxing actually, if you can rely a lot on other people that way.

[00:10:53]
Like I struggle with writing policy, but maybe I don’t need to like master that. We already have people who are wonderful at writing policy.

[00:11:02]
I think a couple of years ago when we started working more with other organizations, we got like more direction of how to build in space for celebration. And that’s really important, I think for anybody trying to get a co-op off the ground or a project like that, like really savor the steps forward, savor the things where you didn’t use to be able to do that. Or it didn’t feel good before, but today it went okay. Like that’s a time for celebration. So.

[00:11:45]
We have times on the calendar for it. At one point we had an app that Tom made where we could finish it, push a button on our computers and it rang at actual like real-world bell. Elizabeth started the tradition of like pine cones. When we want to appreciate someone, we call it a pine cone. And Alex both brought like actual pine cones from a tree. And like, you can hand them to someone if we’re in person. But we also have a Slack emoji for pine cones and the Slack emoji for teamwork, which I was surprised doesn’t exist and emoji for “thank you”. A lot of people use like the praying hands, but we have “thank you”. We have a lot of fun on Slack actually.

[00:12:27]
Ana: Tell me a little bit more about the Sassafras hiring process. You learned about them, you email them and they’re like, “Oh, we’re not hiring yet” and so what does that mean? How does hiring work?

[00:12:39]
Devney: We’re really busy doing our stuff. We have dreams of like having an opening, and hiring process to do that. It’s very bootstrapy, it’s like probably some things that maybe similar for startups, except for we work on this like very slow timeline.

[00:12:54]
You can follow us, we’re @sassafrastech on Twitter and we’ll post stuff there when we are hiring. There’s a tech co-op network. So we are only able to do what we do because of the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives which has all kinds of cooperatives and there’s a group of tech cooperatives within USFWC. And so we rely on them a great deal in all kinds of ways. And so it’s good to follow them.

[00:13:22]
If you’re like, I wanna get notified when they’re tech co-ops hiring. There isn’t much, there really just isn’t infrastructure for that. So find us and other tech co-ops on Twitter and LinkedIn, you can follow us, we’ll post our stuff.

[00:13:37]
We’ll also post our stuff to like USFWC has a job board. We want to lower the self-advocacy piece of that. And speaking of how busy we are, we actually partnered with another co-op story2designs, and they made us these beautiful designs to update our website, including like making it easier for people to just say like, “Hey, let me know when you’re hiring.”

[00:13:59]
And we are still finding like capacity to hire so that we have enough time to build that website with that button to connect with people who want us to hire them. We just recently did a hiring process, which went really well and we’re pushing more towards doing an open hiring round.

[00:14:24]
It’s really important for equity for the hiring rounds to be open and have those postings out for a long time. So trickle through networks and reach people who we’re not in direct touch with. I wish I could say there’s like one place, but I’m we’re out there and the best way is to, so let us know you’re interested. For folks who are women or non-binary, Women in Tech Slack, if people are familiar with that, that’s a good place to be too. We’re there.

[00:14:55]
Ana: You used to work here in the Bay Area before you got to Ann Arbor and eventually to Sassafras. I’m curious, what’s the comparison? How would you compare the Sassafras hiring process to the quote-unquote “standard”, the tech hiring process where people, you know, apply and then they have a phone screen and maybe they do some coding and then maybe they come in and they do some whiteboarding. How did it work for you, for example, when you applied for a job at Sassafras?

[00:15:21]
Devney: What I did was we had like a half an hour phone conversation. The job description covered your regular stuff and also some things about cooperatives, right? Cause you’re applying, it’s like a member track. We’re very much like if you’re working here, you’re on track to be a member.

[00:15:36]
I’d also like read through the whole website. Our blog is a better source, since we’re able to update it more frequenlty, blog.sassafras.coop. I did a half hour phone conversation and I did a resume and cover letter. We’ve now updated that to a form that is just like whatever resume format you have handy.

[00:15:58]
And then what we would hope to learn from a cover letter and questions. Then some skills stuff. So like an initial skills thing, maybe a more in depth skills thing. I think we’re definitely struggling with like how to balance people’s time. And like it’s a lot of time to go through a hiring process. So I think we have the hiring process struggles are the same for us in terms of how do you make sure that the person you’re hiring has the skills that they need to succeed in the role without taking too much of their time.

[00:16:35]
When people have portfolios, you can use those. If people don’t have portfolios, you can give them opportunities to do more active exercises. We’re actually going to be figuring this out for ourselves very soon here. Yeah, that’s a pretty tough balance. And so what we try to do is try to make sure that at the point in the process that we’re asking for additional time, it feels like it’s worth everyone’s effort. And I think that’s the same as all good hiring processes.

[00:17:03]
Towards the end, we have an interview where we share about our own organizational growth through learning how oppression infiltrates our organization and working through conflict together, using that to improve our policies and infrastructure over time. How we’ve repaired harm that’s happened.

[00:17:24]
And it’s actually great. If in the interview we kind of get to like a hard part of the conversation because we need to know what it’s like to run into each other’s like bruises and cuts from having survived the industry. And the more ways the person’s marginalized, like the harder it is to, to keep going through that.

[00:17:45]
We’re all learning how to be sensitive and supportive. Trying to get to a place where we have a sense of “we can move through the conversations together that are hard”. Yeah.

[00:17:56]
Ana: You described Sassafras as tech co-op, but can you tell me a little bit more about what does the Sassafras do as a business?

[00:18:02]
Devney: Oh, yeah. We do a lot of custom software development. And then with that, there’s a lot of product work that we do. We’re part of the Design Justice Network. And so there’s a lot of like product and co-design work. We also have our project management or project planning pieces that we do. To support that we do, I guess what people call dev ops infrastructure.

[00:18:32]
We do some CMS work. We do some more custom work in Rails and JavaScript. It’s interesting, cause we’re always like excited about trying new tech and we find ways to do it and we also tend to be pretty conservative to protect our clients' budgets.

[00:18:47]
So we’re not like wedded to particular technologies. But we end up doing a lot of Rails and JS. We also do UI design. Sorry for me, it all kind of folds together. UI design it’s not an afterthought. It’s very central to what we do. And user experience design. Yeah.

[00:19:04]
And then we’re all doing kind of organizational building work. And you know, that’s hard. Like we have an HR committee, but no one on the HR committee has any training. So we have outside support. It’s possible we’ll be able to hire somebody who has more training in that. But we’re all kind of doing our best on those pieces.

[00:19:22]
I don’t want my association with Stanford to like stick out too much as any kind of like requirement at all. That was my path. I had some upper-class privilege growing up but we’re very interested in hiring people who have had very different paths and we have done that. So people who’ve learned on the job in various ways or moved from other careers into tech.

[00:19:48]
Ana: So you mentioned Design Justice and being part of that. Can you explain a little bit what that is and what it means?

[00:19:53]
Devney: Yeah. I’d encourage people to check it out. designjustice.org. It’s a network of people and organizations who have been thinking through design processes, that center people who have been marginalized by design, especially the way it’s talked about in tech circles. So a lot of co-design and just everyone is an expert in their own experience and their own needs.

[00:20:20]
If you know, somebody is coming in as like a product designer, you know, we know some things about software and we know some things from having been through multiple software project processes. Otherwise the role is facilitation and sharing design knowledge. And then combining that with the knowledge and expertise of everybody who is going to be using what they’re building.

[00:20:44]
So focusing on sustaining and healing and empowering communities. Centering the people who are most directly impacted and holding a lot of like accountability and accessibility and expecting things to change as that happens.

[00:20:58]
Ana: I would love to hear more about this idea of prefigurative process and design.

[00:21:05]
Devney: I wish Mariam was here. You can find her work. Mariam, M-A-R-I-A-M Asad, A-S-A-D. Google on it to read some original.

[00:21:15]
There’s a lot of co-design processes, which I’m less familiar with, that really position a designer as a facilitator. So this is all deeply related with Design Justice Network, where everyone’s working with these ideas that the process shapes what we end up with.

[00:21:34]
I’m of the generation who remembers when Facebook was free, before ads were a big thing. There was this sparkle of like, “Oh, we want it to be free for everyone.” And so that led to ads. But now really our attention is being sold and we have no say in the governance. So that’s a place where slowing down and looking at “what is the design process for this tool?” could have led us somewhere else.

[00:22:06]
I think a related premise, that’s kind of also very basic to us, is just that like, technology is always a tool. It’s not a solution. Right? People change things. People improve things. And there are tools that can let us do that.

[00:22:25]
Starting with, how are people communicating with one another about what they’re experiencing? Who’s at the center of those conversations, how do they feel in those conversations? That’s the very beginning of any change. There’s relationships, there’s also where are resources going. That obviously has a lot to do with power, like who can come up with $120 a year for a domain and hosting.

[00:23:01]
And then, looking at what are the structures. Are you working in a university? Are you working in a for profit company? How are those governed? Are there interventions you can make to make a process housed there more just? Or does it make sense to build an alternative place, an institution or structure, where new, different possibilities are possible.

[00:23:27]
So I’m not sure I’m doing it justice, but I will know more about it , working more with Mariam and maybe you can talk with her about it.

[00:23:36]
Ana: I will look up her work. I, I do think it’s very important because, well, I’m sure you know why.

[00:23:43]
Devney: Yeah. Like if we talk about human centered computing, like who are the humans at the center of the conversation at the beginning?

[00:23:51]
Ana: I wish it was more talked about and an idea that’s more prominent in movements and talks around all of these things, including cooperatives. With this like narrower lens sometimes not everyone obviously, but you know, we talk about cooparatives, and so then it’s just about worker power. But what’s the more holistic, bigger view?

[00:24:13]
Devney: Yeah. In some ways it’s a remembering knowledge that’s been held by women of color organizers and community leaders for endless generations. That’s core to community organizing. It’s coming into some of these tech conversations. Mariam’s done a lot of work of making it legible to like academics and techies, who are not familiar with women of color led organizing. Which has, you know, countless forms, but often has the thread of, how are people feeling now, who’s talking now, who’s listening now. So that’s old, old knowledge that’s been proved over and over again.

[00:24:59]
We do know what we need to build a better future for ourselves and the later generations. Again, it’s like about process, shifting resources, doing things in a good way from the beginning.

[00:25:17]
Ana: What kind of customers does Sassafras typically have?

[00:25:20]
Devney: We work with nonprofits, activists, researchers. Most of the funding that funds our work in some way comes through non-profit channels. Sometimes that can be like community fundraised. Overall, the cooperative network in the United States depends on a lot of community funding.

[00:25:44]
And so for that, The Working World and Seed Commons are a couple of names people can look for if they want to learn more about how that works.

[00:25:53]
Ana: Sassafras when it was founded, was there any initial investment or any other financial bootstrapping?

[00:25:59]
_Devney:_ The co-op emerged from three people who had projects that they were doing either as part of like an academic role or as a volunteer. Those relationships with non-profits evolved into like, “Oh, well, how can I keep doing this without like the institution I used to be at”. That emerges into freelancing.

[00:26:26]
That was kind of the base of our work. And we still have relationships with those organizations. And there was no initial investment. All three founders are white. And one of them, there was a family loan involved at one point. There’s also just like a lot of, a lot, a lot, a lot of volunteer work involved as always starting new things. That family loan is very small as businesses go ($10,000), from a professional family, not like a super wealthy one.

[00:26:58]
We’re pretty lucky in that we don’t need a lot of capital to do our work. We’re selling mostly our time. We need our technology, but because of that, you know, we, we haven’t needed to access a lot of like loan capital. A lot of other co-ops do need that to get started.

[00:27:15]
The difference between that and like a mission driven situation with angel funding is dramatic. Our clients are navigating funding landscapes, and all of the issues with nonprofit funding are in play, but we’re very much able to focus on “is this, is this what’s going to be best for the constituents of the organizations who we’re working with.” And that’s just like this freedom that feels really good.

[00:27:49]
It’s been really clear to me as a cooperative where we have a year long period between joining as staff and becoming a member. With everybody member in that first year and owning the organization. It’s so clear to me that that the requirement of angel funding, that people who already have an incredible amount of money are investing in this because it’s a good chance to get even more money, is unbelievably stifling in terms of what can be done and what people can, what we’re able to put our day-to-day energy towards making. That’s a very narrow lens on what we might want to be doing with our time and energy together. Yeah.

[00:28:31]
Ana: That touches on another thing that I’ve been curious about, which is that in the VC-funded tech world the focus is on building and selling product. Because of course, if you build some software basically selling more copies of it has zero marginal costs. It’s all profit.

[00:28:49]
While when I talk to co-ops I notice that mostly the business model of tech co-ops tends to be custom development work and essentially selling people’s time, as you put it. And so I’m curious if at Sassafras this ever comes up. The tension between, well, you could fund yourself much better and be more sustainable if you were selling a product versus selling your time.

[00:29:15]
Devney: We’ve had a couple of things up our sleeves that are products and it’s possible, we might evolve that direction. I’d have to check, but Loomio might be a co-op product company.

[00:29:27]
There’s stuff that we want to build and we’re like, well, if we’re going to fund it, it’s going to be a product. And we’re in like a consortium of other co-ops working on products to support additional co-ops coming into existence.

[00:29:40]
We’re going to be evolving. Our goal is to not necessarily like build custom software, build the product. Is really just like, these are the skills we have. And these organizations and teams need, need like tech skills and support, and we’re gonna provide that and we’re gonna figure out like what’s best.

[00:30:05]
We kind of think of custom software development as last resort, because it’s very expensive. So we want to make sure you have a really good reason to use it because money that’s going to us in a lot of cases is money that’s not going to other like really important people and things.

[00:30:20]
We may have a couple of things that evolve more into a product set up, and we’re learning about that business model, product business models. My guess, is it less common because it, it does require more risk and, and investment. So far that investment has been few strings attached, more in the grant model. The strings would be meeting grant requirements.

[00:30:46]
Ana: How does decision-making then work in the co-op? You said, there’s five or six of you right now. How do you decide for example, “oh, let’s start spending some of our time building this product” or learning about a product business model. In general, what are the processes day to day to make decisions?

[00:31:02]
Devney: We’re a consensus model and there’s a lot of things that go into making that work. One of them is we have meeting templates that we love. They were here when I came, so many thanks to my predecessors for doing that. We love our meetings and we all build up our facilitation skills. We have like professional development budget, and facilitation is a great use of that. And that’s something that you just keep learning.

[00:31:28]
And then we have our governing and guiding documents. So the bylaws is like the legal one, but then on top of that, we have policies which we write and then all consent on. And policy writing is itself its own kind of skill, skill and area. That’s what my coworkers are strong in.

[00:31:51]
We’re moving towards having a process committee to sort of define how this happens. Trust is really important. And we’ve gotten a lot of outside support, absolutely necessary, from people with a lot of skills and liberatory and anti-oppressive organizational and movement work. Aorta is one of them. There’s a lot of folks doing that now, which is wonderful.

[00:32:17]
And we need that because we need to be able to build trust. And move through conflicts across power differentials of race and gender and class and other experiences and structural inequalities. So that’s the central work and sort of precedes us all, being able to arrive at consensus.

[00:32:40]
I love that a lot of our energy is really towards self-governance. Having a chance to practice self-governance and the skills we need to do it day in and day out is really precious, especially in the environment now where there are a lot of forces making authoritarianism seem attractive to a lot of people.

[00:33:03]
It’s incredibly grounding to be like, “no, I, I know that we are capable of self-governance because we do it every day.” It takes a lot. It takes unlearning a lot of the urgency. It takes letting go of a lot of habits that we’ve built up to either use privileges that we have not earned and are harming us too, or strategies for surviving being oppressed. Those habits and strategies that are absolutely necessary if you’re not allowed to self-govern actually make self-governance really hard. So having a good reason to work through those together every day is really special.

[00:33:45]
Ana: That does sound quite wonderful.

[00:33:47]
Speaking about anti-oppression and liberatory structures, I wonder if, as a co-op, you ever think about the makeup of your team in terms of demographics, and if you do something specific. How do you approach stewardship of the membership of the co-op from that lens?

[00:34:04]
Devney: Yeah. Every day. In order to do our work, we need the strongest relationships we can have with a lot of different perspectives. We have to have justice built into our processes in order to build software that will not make things worse and will make things hopefully better for people using it.

[00:34:31]
Sassafras started as three white people. One of my first interactions with the co-op world was actually at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit, in a co-op session. I was like, “Can a white-founded organization ever be a good place for a person of color to work?” And the answer from the people leading that was like, well, it depends on how hard they’re going to work and making that happen. From there it started with a commitment to anti-oppression and learning by the founders and rule and bylaws that distribute power through consensus.

[00:35:09]
And then you start peeling back the layers of what’s not working. I can’t speak to the early days, but you know when in this case, like a person of color gets hired in the organization, then you learn a lot about what’s not working. And then you have to take that feedback in.

[00:35:25]
There’s probably harm at that point, we have to repair that harm and then we have to like change policies. Now we have like cultural norms document. Our code of conduct has evolved. All of that work comes from working through oppression playing out within the organization and seeing what we can learn as individuals and as a group. And it requires changing behavior. So that takes time.

[00:35:51]
And demographics-wise at this point there’s… I don’t do this off the top of my head very often, but there’s one person of color. I’m a white-passing person. I have a lot of white privilege. And then everyone else is white. That may change.

[00:36:06]
We also work a lot on what are our relationships as an organization? Because the work we do, most of the work we do day-to-day is on project teams that involve other organizations. And so building strong relationships with organizations and individuals of color is important in our work.

[00:36:25]
We also think a lot about disability justice and how to build that in. That’s also a constant learning thing. And we’re very queer, I think all or almost all of us are queer. And two out of the six of us, I believe identify as cis men.

[00:36:45]
But it’s nice to have diversity. We’re like learning how to use our different positions in outward facing relationships.

[00:36:53]
It’s been great. Going up through college I had personally like, I’m liable to do like shit white people do, as somebody with a lot of that privilege and they notice it pretty quickly. In my early adulthood often played this like protective role of like, I’m going to use my privilege to protect others. And that actually doesn’t work that great in a co-op. So I’ve been unlearning that. So it’s really like lovely to be able to do that and try on different roles and shapes and keep learning myself that way.

[00:37:28]
Talking about demographics and anti-oppression and how they’re related. And couple of things on that. One is I had mentioned with hiring you need enough time for things to travel networks, and we know that the biggest thing is shaping our network now. And that’s related to building relationships as individuals, as an organization, with communities of color in our field.

[00:37:54]
We are intentional about where our relationship-building energy goes. And another thing is that accountability is really huge for us.

[00:38:07]
Having, you know, you start off with that. Like everybody’s like one member, one vote. And of course it’s harder than that in reality, but starting from one member, one vote has created opportunities for accountability that are really rare and I’ve been able to witness and be part of both ways.

[00:38:30]
I feel held accountable. I’ve been involved in holding others accountable for just changing our patterns. And it does depend on the person. There’s one instance of a person with institutional privilege in almost every way, an upper-class white man who was not receptive to that accountability and he’s not in our group anymore.

[00:38:52]
But there’s also been a couple of like white men with with privilege who have responded to accountability and support well, and really grown and same thing for white women, for myself. That process takes months if not years. And we’re able to do it because we started with one member, one vote. And it’s important to be growing into a place that will be a good place for underrepresented people to work.

[00:39:19]
That’s our priority ahead of like meeting demographics numbers, are related cause you need a critical mass of people for that to work.

[00:39:27]
The ways in which people who have worked at Sassafras have experienced being excluded from or targeted with abuse on technology, absolutely affects what we build. It affects what projects we prioritize, what we prioritize within those projects. We’ve been putting a lot of work towards and anti-abuse consentful cooperatively owned social platform. And that absolutely comes out of lived experience.

[00:39:53]
Ana: Is that a platform that is available somewhere or that people can contribute to?

[00:39:58]
Devney: We will share more when we can.

[00:40:03]
Ana: Okay. I’m very excited. That’s why I’m asking you.

[00:40:07]
Devney: No, it is really exciting.

[00:40:08]
We’ve been shaped really deeply by members who growing on their lived experience, encouraged us to slow down and like really value workers. And that wouldn’t be possible if we weren’t coming from a lot of different lived experiences.

[00:40:24]
Ana: You mentioned this very difficult situation, of a member that did not respond well to certain feedback and eventually ended up somehow leaving the organization. And I’m curious if you can share, how does that process work? Is that also a consensus based process?

[00:40:41]
Devney: It was very, very hard time. But it was absolutely consensus.

[00:40:46]
Ana: You mentioned that Sassfras is working with a consortium of other tech co-ops, working on something to help formation of co-ops. Curious if you could talk more about that.

[00:40:55]
Devney: launch.coop. They’re looking for funding. So at this point there are wireframes. Now, if you are like, “I want to start a worker co-op” you might find United States Federation of Worker Co-ops you might find Sustainable Economies Law Center, Democracy at Work Institute. You find a bunch of different organizations that have resource lists that are PDFs. And every state has different laws.

[00:41:16]
This group is hoping to put out a platform that has tools to walk you through like little modules to walk you through the essentials of getting a worker co-op into existence, and then connecting with cooperative developers and lawyers and finance folks and facilitators.

[00:41:36]
They’re going to be looking out for funding for that. So launch.coop.

[00:41:40]
Another thing for people is the co-op conversions are where an existing organization becomes a cooperative. That’s actually more common. So if you’re like in an employee owned company or a B Corp, that’s like really walking their talk and they want to become a co-op like that could happen. Yeah.

[00:42:02]
Ana: I would have imagined that it’s harder for an existing non-cooperatively owned organization to become a co-op but I guess it depends.

[00:42:10]
Devney: Yeah, I think that they did the, there’s just as many challenges both routes. Just different ones.

[00:42:17]
It tends to be attractive to small businesses with, owners who, you know, don’t want to be owners anymore.

[00:42:25]
Ana: That makes sense. So tell me a little bit about the day to day working at Sassafras, and how does it compare to the work you did before.

[00:42:34]
Devney: Client work is pretty similar. It’s just on projects that I’m more excited about. And also on a tighter budget.

[00:42:43]
The internal work, some of it’s similar, like managing capacity, lining up our client projects with our actual amount of time we have, the whole running of the organization. We have time set aside once a week, group time together doing organizational stuff. And then other times we’ll break up into committees. We have committees: the HR committee and the outreach committee and that finance committee and the hiring committee. We have more committees than people. We have like two, or two and a half committees per person. They just helps us organize our work and be responsible for everything. For example, we run evaluations. That’s an internal process that needs to be running regularly. Our workload management needs to be running our finances.

[00:43:28]
We also have a lot of professional support, which becomes possible, like later on in the life of the co-op.

[00:43:35]
Some of what you’re talking about with the anti-oppression stuff, you know, early on, an organization is really prone to having like a lot of stress. And stress tends to bring out those like strategies that can be really harmful or just not effective, that are very closely aligned with our experiences of privilege and oppression. More reason to slow down when it’s stressful and check, “is this really what we want to be doing?”

[00:44:02]
We’ve been getting a lot better recently at letting go of perfectionism and being more focused on like what’s an incremental improvement. Being ready to like recognize and repair quickly. Just part of the normal flow of things. As opposed to like being like, “we’re not going to mess up” and then like, “Oh no, we messed up. Ah, what are we doing?”

[00:44:23]
Just like we’re going to get a little bit better. We’re going to make a mistake. We’re going to fix the mistake. We’re going to get a little bit better. We’re going to try something new. We’re going to get help. That rhythm is much better, but it’s taken us a while to get there.

[00:44:34]
That’s a lot of our internal working, so it’s like, how do we make this a better, you know, today or over the next few weeks. And then getting a lot of outside support for all the parts of the business that you need.

[00:44:45]
Ana: Do you imagine ever going to a non-cooperative job?

[00:44:48]
Devney: I am not planning on it. No, I would love to keep this going. Yeah.

[00:44:56]
I think I had a really hard time earlier, earlier, earlier on. I’m like a disaster thinker, so I’m always like, “what’s the worst case scenario?” And I was like, “okay, well, if this all blows up, I’m just going to like, take a break and then try again.” And my coworker was like, “Yep, same thing. I’m going to take a break and try again.” We’re still here.

[00:45:13]
Ana: How old is Sassafras?

[00:45:15]
Devney: That’s a great question. I think we have 2013 as our starting time. I should check our bylaws and see when the earliest version of the like confirmed bylaws. Yeah, eight years.

[00:45:29]
Ana: That’s a very respectable amount of years for a business.

[00:45:34]
Devney: Around that time, Design Action Collective, in the Bay Area was a little older than that. And I know they were a big inspiration for when Sassafras was pretty, still kinda young. It was like, okay, well, Design Action has been at it so this might actually work. So many thanks to them.

[00:45:56]
There’s also a lot of history in Collective Courage, which I would recommend people check out. Collective Courage, a History of African-American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, by Jessica Gordon Nembhard. So having that history is also really grounding for us. People have been at this for a very long time. It is a way to build power. I recommend people check it out.

[00:46:20]
Ana: Do you have any final words of advice for anyone who is thinking about joining a co-op or starting a co-op?

[00:46:26]
Devney: Connect with US Federation of Worker Cooperatives. Support is really important. There’s just generations of knowledge about how to work together. When things get hard, that’s like the nudge to get support, not an indication that you should stop. It’s really worthwhile. And I think of it as like, I know so many people in their jobs are constantly stressed and over-stretched and constantly dealing with conflict, but not in a way that moves forward. Cooperative work is a chance to put just as much effort into working together, but you have a lot more ability to move forward together and make things better together and grow as a person, and learn things that will help future generations. So for me, it’s been so worth it and I’m excited.

[00:47:26]
I’m excited more people are looking into it. Try it. Emergent Strategy is an important book for us too, and that fractal thinking. If a lot of people start co-ops, you’re going to learn things that we haven’t learned and then we’ll find each other and do cool things together.

[00:47:41]
So yeah, just a lot of encouragement.

[00:47:43]
Ana: Thank you.