#107 – Michelle Frechette on Advocating for Accessibility and Diversity in the WordPress Community

Transcript

[00:00:00] Nathan Wrigley: Welcome to the Jukebox podcast from WP Tavern. My name. Is Nathan Wrigley.

Jukebox has a podcast which is dedicated to all things WordPress. The people, the events, the plugins, the blocks, the themes, and in this case, advocating for accessibility and diversity in the WordPress community.

If you’d like to subscribe to the podcast, you can do that by searching for WP Tavern in your podcast player of choice, or by going to WPTavern.com forward slash feed forward slash podcast. And you can copy that URL into most podcast players.

If you have a topic that you’d like us to feature on the podcast, I’m keen to hear from you, and hopefully get you, or your idea, featured on the show. Head to WPTavern.com forward slash contact forward slash jukebox, and use the form there.

So on the podcast today we have Michelle Frechette.

This is going to sound like a lot, and that’s because it is.

Michelle Frechette is the director of community engagement for StellarWP at Liquid Web. She was called the busiest woman in WordPress by Matt Mullenweg at WordCamp US 2022. She is also the host of the WP Coffee Talk Podcast, co-founder of Underrepresented in Tech creator of WP Speakers and WP Career Pages, president of the board for Big Orange Heart, Director of Community Relations and contributor at Post Status, co-host of the WP Motivate and Audacity Marketing Podcasts, host of the WP Constellations Podcast, author, and frequent organizer and speaker at WordPress events. Michelle lives outside of Rochester, New York, where she’s an avid nature photographer. You can learn more about Michelle at meetmichelle.online.

You see, like I said, that’s a lot.

This willingness to engage in all manner of WordPress projects has given Michelle a voice. And she’s on the podcast today to discuss a topic which is close to her heart. Diversity equity, inclusion and belonging.

She talks about her experiences at WordPress events, and how they were not always easy for her to attend and be a part of. Michelle uses a scooter to get around, and there have been situations in which she could not enter venues and access all the facilities.

This frustration made her take action, and, as you’ll hear, effect change at subsequent event she attended.

It’s not all about events though. Michelle talks about the wider goals of making all aspects of the WordPress community more open and inclusive.

Being one of the voices promoting this message has not always been easy. And we hear about how Michelle copes with those who disagree with her quest to create change.

If you’re interested in thinking about inclusivity and how embracing diverse perspectives can impact the WordPress community, this episode is for you.

If you want to find out more, you can find all of the links in the show notes by heading to WPTavern.com forward slash podcast, where you’ll find all the other episodes as well.

And so without further delay, I bring you Michelle Frechette.

I am joined on the podcast by Michelle Frechette. Hello Michelle.

[00:03:40] Michelle Frechette: Hi Nathan, how are you?

[00:03:41] Nathan Wrigley: I am very good. Michelle has been called the busiest woman in WordPress, I think that’s the right wording, by Matt Mullenweg. And if I was to read out her bio, which I’m not going to do, I’ll let Michelle introduce herself. You would have some understanding of why that happened.

So I’m going to give you an opportunity right at the beginning, you can go as deep as you like, Michelle. Give us your bio, give us your story about your relationship with WordPress, and the different projects that you are in, before we begin our conversation.

[00:04:09] Michelle Frechette: So my day job, I always feel like a superhero when I say that. By day I am the Director of Community Engagement for StellarWP, and all of our plugins and themes, that are part of that company at Liquid Web. And my external projects though, are the ones that I think you are more interested in talking about today, perhaps.

Which are things like WP Career Pages, WP Speakers, and underrepresentedintech.com. So a lot of the side projects that I do, and the things that I do within the WordPress community, really are community oriented projects that are to help others find their footing and move forward in the work that they want to do within WordPress, and within the WordPress community. So I really enjoy doing those kinds of things.

[00:04:52] Nathan Wrigley: How did you discover WordPress?

[00:04:55] Michelle Frechette: Oh, that’s a good story actually. It has to do with spaghetti. So actually, one of my best friends and I, we had started a nonprofit together. I was working at a massage school, as the director of the massage school. She was a massage therapist, and graduate of the program. And she came to me and she said, after a thousand hours of working in this program, you graduate, you take an exam, and then you’re just on your own spinning in the wind. Because you really have no idea how to build a business, how to get clientele, all of these things. You know how to do massage, but that’s about it.

And so we started a nonprofit to help massage therapists actually have careers. So we did classes, we had, you know, meetings. We did all of these different things, special education and continuing education, those kinds of things. And so we decided we needed a website, and her husband was a WordPress developer.

So he created this beautiful website for us. And so we started sending him content. And he’s like, hold up ladies, no. These are your logins, you log in and you put your content in. I built you the frame. Have fun. I was terrified. I like logged in and I thought, what button am I going to press that’s going to make the whole thing come crashing down? And I’m going to have to say to him, I broke this site.

But of course that doesn’t happen really. So I remember putting information on the homepage, hitting update, and then quickly opening a new tab to see what happened, right? And the fact that there was all of these words that I just wrote, out there for the whole world to see. Nobody saw it, because nobody knew about the site at that particular moment. But the idea that they could, that somebody in Europe could open up this website, and see that I had put words out into the universe, was incredibly intoxicating.

And so I started doing more and more with that site. I decided I could do this for a living, or at least for a side project. And so I contacted him and I said, okay, I understand how to use WordPress, and I understand how to buy a domain. What I don’t understand is, how do I have hosting in one spot and a domain in the other, and actually put those two things together so that I have a domain on the web?

He said, Christine’s working almost every night this week, if you come over and make spaghetti for the kids, because they had four kids, I will show you how to do WordPress. And so I went over there, the kids helped me. We made spaghetti, all of the things that go with the dinner like that. The kids cleaned up dinner. We sat down at his dining room table, opened up, and he showed me how to buy a domain, how to buy hosting, and then how to put WordPress on that hosting.

I wish I still had it. I had a little blue piece of paper that had four steps. The third step I remember was, change the salt keys. We don’t really do any of that anymore, right. But I remember doing that. And so from that, I started building websites for other people. I left higher education at some point and said, I think I could do this as a full-time job. Hung a shingle, figuratively. And within a few weeks I had so many clients that I was doing marketing for, and building websites for. Yeah, it’s kind of like the rest is history.

[00:07:46] Nathan Wrigley: That’s absolutely fascinating. The thing that I’ve noticed about you, apart from the fact that you’ve built websites, is you’re heavily, heavily involved in the WordPress community. And it can be quite a jump, going from WordPress user to WordPress community member. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that, you know, most people that have contact with WordPress, probably have absolutely no idea that there is a community of any description at all.

So how did that happen? How did it become such an integral part your life? How did you discover the community, events and so on? And how did it become the fulcrum of so much in your life?

[00:08:20] Michelle Frechette: Same person. So, you know, shout out to Christine’s husband, Rob. But he said, hey, you know, we have this meetup in Rochester for WordPress users. And I said, okay. He said, well, this is the next one, this is where it is. And I showed up to that meetup. It was in a darkened room, because they had a slide projector, you know, overhead going so they could show what’s going on with this website.

The topic that day was Digital Ocean. I had no idea what was happening. And then they showed some CSS, and I was like CS what? And so I was the only woman, in a dark room filled with men, talking about things I had no concept of. And it took me two years to go back.

After two years, he had also said, look, you got to look at this thing called WordCamps. And so I went to WordCamp Buffalo, and I literally sat there all day learning from people whose names I had heard of but had never been, you know, in their presence. And thought for $25, I think at that time it was $20, I just got so much information, and lunch. You know, it was amazing. And so I thought that’s pretty cool.

And so the next year, Rob said, I can’t, first of all, he was organising meetups on a whim. Hey, we haven’t had one in a while, is everybody free next Tuesday? My brain can’t operate that way. It’s like, I need structure. So when he said, I can’t run this anymore, does anybody want to step in? I was like, me, I’ll do it, I’ll do it.

And so we have regular meetups, at the same time every month. Same day, every month. And things got a little organised that way. I went to WordCamp US, and said to Andrea Middleton at the time, yeah, maybe someday we’ll have a Word camp in Rochester. And she said, why not this year? And so I was like, okay. So we had the first WordCamp Rochester.

I was speaking at that time at different WordCamps all over New York and Canada, actually, eastern part of Canada. And things just kind of started to snowball from there, I guess, where I got asked to speak in more places. My name started to be recognised here and there, and I’m not a developer, so I was constantly surprised that people wanted to hear what I had to say. But that’s where I really started to learn that the majority of our community are WordPress users, not necessarily developers.

And that it takes everybody in our ecosystem to make WordPress the product that it is today, and that you can be a marketer and contribute to WordPress. You can be an, you know, a community person, contribute to WordPress, and that it really takes everybody. If it was just software, without the rest of us, it would not be nearly what we are today as WordPress, and what we know as WordPress. So, yeah, I don’t know if I answered question.

[00:10:46] Nathan Wrigley: No, that’s really interesting. There’s an awful lot that’s gone on. And you’ve obviously, right from the get go of finding WordPress decided that you wanted to, well, you had that 2 year hiatus, but after that you were in with both feet.

More recently, I think it’s fair to say that there are some areas of the WordPress community that you’ve taken on as, well, crusade is the wrong word, but you’ve got issues which you think are important. And you’ve made them the focus and the fulcrum of what you do. And we’re going to get into some of these today.

So let’s, first of all, just introduce the acronym under discussion a lot today, and it’s the acronym DEIB. It may very well be that people have no idea what that means. So first of all, can we unpick that? What do those letters stand for, and how does it in any way go with WordPress and community, and all of that?

[00:11:33] Michelle Frechette: So DEIB, the acronym itself stands for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. And so the idea is that there are entire groups of underrepresented folks in any organisation, in any community. And those are going to be the people that are either minority groups of some sort or another, whether it’s racial, ethnic minority, whether it’s ability minority, whether it’s age.

There’s so many different ways that somebody can be in an underrepresented group, the LGBTQ+ community for example. And so, what DEIB activities try to do is kind of level the play field a little bit, and make sure that everybody has access to whatever the community is. So in our case, of course, WordPress.

And not just access to WordPress, anybody can download WordPress, as long as you’re in a country that doesn’t restrict access. Of course, we know that that does exist too. But it’s more than just having access to the software, it’s having access to representation within the community.

And so what we do at Underrepresented in Tech, what I’ve done with some of the other projects that I do, is really seek to make sure that everybody has an opportunity to be heard. Have a voice in the community. And see others like themselves on stages, in podcasts, writing for blogs, and CEO or C-suite positions, things like that.

So we actually have a better community when it isn’t just one homogeneous group. I don’t know why that never rolls off my tongue right. But we don’t just have one group of people. In our case, you know, white, straight, males, who are running everything.

It’s important, if we are going to have truly the best product that we could ever have, that different voices, different perspectives, different experiences help shape what that looks like going forward. And so DEIB really does, the DEIB movements and the things that we can do for that, is super important in order for us to have the best product ever.

A lot of times you’ll hear it referred to just as DEI. A lot of companies have DEI. But the B part of it, that belonging part of it, that brings it from tokenisation to actually inclusion. That inclusive part of it is so important.

It’s not just enough that a CEO decides that they have a black person on the cover of their website, or on the cover of their brochure, and things like that to show, hey, look at us, we’re with it. We know what this is all about. Anybody can use a stock photo, but what do you really do? How are you really including people and how are you celebrating differences? That’s what’s important.

[00:13:52] Nathan Wrigley: I don’t know what your experience is outside of WordPress in the recent past, but do you feel, do you have an intuition that the WordPress community is actually quite open to these kind of discussions? Do you sense that there’s an acceptance that this is an issue, which needs to be air and talked about?

Because I can well imagine that in any community, there’s going to be people who think, well, you know what, the core thing is, for example, the code. That’s the thing that counts, so that’s what we should all concentrate on, and all these other things are not for me to worry about, and we don’t need to worry about them.

I have this intuition that WordPress might be ahead of the curve on these kind of things, and addressing these issues, but, what do you think?

[00:14:27] Michelle Frechette: I think it’s grown over the last few years. So few years back, we had the first, what was originally called the all women’s release squad. And then it was the all women non-binary release. And at that point in time, lots of people got behind it. It was a wonderful thing.

But there’s always a faction of people who grumble and say it’s not necessary. I think it was Joost de Valk posted in the Advanced WordPress Facebook Group, how exciting it was that this was all happening. And I think by the time they closed that thread, there were over 300 responses to that one post. The majority of which were negative, and then replies to those negative responses.

And this was what, three years ago? It wasn’t that long ago. And so, to be able to look at that and say, wow, that many people, not just men, but majority men, were against having a release squad that was all women and non-binary folks. Saying that it couldn’t possibly be the best release that it ever could be, because men weren’t involved.

Assuming that, just because it was women and non-binary folks, that it would not be the best that it could be. And that’s just, that’s just rubbish, to use a British term. It’s rubbish. There are women and non-binary people, who can absolutely code as good as any man, and we can lead, we can do other things.

And so I think that that really was, perhaps not the beginning, but that was that snowball starting to get some more traction, and build bigger as we came down that hill. Because we had champions behind that, like Josepha, because Matt was behind that kind of movement as well.

After that, and because my voice started to grow within our community, people would start to approach me and Ali Nimmons and say, we really do want to have like more diversity at this WordCamp, or at this event. Do you know a black person who would be willing to speak? Do you know a woman who would be willing to speak there?

And we thought, well, how do we respond to this, right? How do we tell people, well, check with this person, check with that person. And so we started to build a spreadsheet for ourselves, of people that we could recommend. And about 20 people into that spreadsheet, and literally two days after we started it, were like this doesn’t feel right.

Number one, we don’t know everybody, right? Believe it or not, I don’t know every black person in WordPress. I just don’t. I don’t know every disabled person. I don’t know every woman in WordPress. And so for me to only recommend 20 or 30 people, means that the other people aren’t necessarily getting recommended by me.

And I understand networking, you know who you know. But we started to talk about the fact that we could build something that people could opt into, and others could search without us have to either gatekeep or be the go-between. And so we built Underrepresented in Tech for that reason. There’s a whole database there.

If you want to find somebody for your podcast, you’re looking to hire somebody, you can go there. You don’t necessarily know why they’re underrepresented, so you might look at something, you might search WordPress and see what looks like a white male. Which you don’t know if he’s sitting in a wheelchair, because you only see his face, or you don’t see anything. You don’t know if he’s part of the LGBTQ+ community.

Because it’s not our job to out people with what their disability or their gender is, or their sexual preference and orientation, or their abilities, things like that. So that’s not up to us. We do vet everybody that’s in the database. You have to trust that that person is who they say they are, and that we’ve vetted that.

But we wanted to give an opportunity for people to be found. That grew into what we started as a vlog. Because we were like, well, let’s be cutting edge. Let’s go back, let’s be retro, let’s have a vlog. Which quickly like, all right, we scrapped that idea, and turned it into a podcast. We have over a hundred episodes, over 10,000 downloads of our podcast, which is Underrepresented in Tech, where we talk about those issues.

We talk about what it’s like to be an underrepresented person in technology. We sometimes bring in guests, so we get their perspectives as well. But the whole idea is that me as a 50 something year old woman, 55 now, but at the time wasn’t right. 50 something year old woman who has a disability, in tech, and a young black queer woman in tech, we kind of ticked a lot of those boxes, right, of what it means to be underrepresented.

And so we have perspectives, and we have ways that we can engage with people. But also people started listening, and people started learning. And the things that we write, and the things that we say, sometimes come under incredible scrutiny. But more often than not help inform, and also effect change within organisations, and within the community, to be more inclusive, and to at least understand and be aware of the fact that not everybody experiences the world and the WordPress community in the way that the person listening to it does.

[00:19:06] Nathan Wrigley: I wonder if geography has anything to play here. So there’s a whole raft of things that I want to ask you on back of what you’ve just said, but let’s begin there. So, for example, if I live in your part of the world, so you are in North America. The complexion of countries in North America may very well be different to, I don’t know, for example, South America, or the Middle East, or Australia, you know, pick any part of the world.

Is there anything in that, or do the proclivities of North America, do they spread across the board? So let’s just take two events. Let’s take Word Camp US and Word Camp Asia. If we were to try to apply criteria, would they be the same criteria in your estimation? Or, does geography in any way play a role in how you would want that event to look, based upon where it is?

[00:19:55] Michelle Frechette: It’s definitely going to play a role, because underrepresentation is going to look different ethnically, within different places. It’s not going to change how many women are included. It’s not going to change the LGBTQ+ acceptance, in a particular community. It’s not going to change ability and disabilities.

So if I go to an event and nobody at all, there’s very few women on stage. Everybody looks the same. Everybody has the same physical abilities. Then I’m not seeing a lot of diversity there. That’s not to say that people aren’t, right? Sometimes you don’t see diversity. You can’t know that somebody is disabled necessarily, because they can walk. I don’t, but other people do, and still are disabled folks.

And so, yes, you’re not always going to be able to tell just by looking at the lineup, or looking at the room. And certainly, ethnic inclusion around the world is going to look different. After we started Underrepresented in Tech, Nigel Rogers invited me to speak to his meetup, which was, and I’m never going to remember, I never remember where he is. But he is in one of the African nations.

And so I get online, I’m talking to this group of, it was all men I believe, all black men. And one of them said, we’re not minorities. And I said, I understand that in your community, you are not minorities. I would be the minority in your community.

However, globally, if you look at the entire WordPress community globally, yes. If you look at all the people who have contributed to core. If you look at all the people who have been part of release squads. If you look at the stages of all of the WordCamps around the world, you are still the minority.

Your faces do not have equal representation, in the entire community, and all of the different places. And that’s what we’re striving for, is that when we look at a global level, who is holding power? Who are the people who are being uplifted? And, can we make sure that other people have those opportunities too?

[00:21:43] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah, it’s a difficult tightrope to tread that one, isn’t it? Because obviously if you were to, for example, put on an event in, as you just described, say Africa, or in the center of Europe, the makeup of those communities would be different. And so casting the net wider and saying, well, this is about the world, that’s kind of interesting, isn’t it?

Because we’re really in the first generation of people that have been able to sort of do that really. Because we’ve got, you know, we’ve got instant communication, and things like that. And so we can have this much bigger perspective.

Okay, so that’s really interesting. If somebody’s putting an event on, and again, we’ll just take those as an example, let’s say Africa, or Europe, or wherever you know, something different from North America. Is there a correct amount of different things that you need to do, to satisfy these DEIB, well, I think criteria is the wrong word, but recommendations is maybe a better word, I’m not sure?

In other words, do we have to see in the speaker lineup, okay, there needs to be 4 of this thing, and 8 of this thing, and 12 of this thing and, you get what saying? Does need to be so prescriptive, or is it more of, okay, we’ll try our best? We’ll do what we can, and we’ll accept what comes out the other end.

[00:22:54] Michelle Frechette: There’s a little bit of a combination, that’s kind of a spectrum. And somewhere in the middle of those two things that you just said is what I would love to expect. And part of that is, take a look at the, what you’re doing to recruit. If all you do is put it out, and just say anybody, this is what I’ve been told. It’s out there, anybody can apply. I can’t help it if minorities aren’t applying.

Well, yes and no, because you can invite people to apply. If traditionally your event has had white faces, and mostly male on stage, do people who are not white faces and mostly male, feel encouraged to apply? Do they feel that’s a space that they’re welcomed in? Do they feel that that’s a space where they have a voice?

What have you done to make sure that those people feel that they could be included, and not excluded, because of what you historically have had on stage, or historically have had as your outreach, or historically have had as your organising team?

So if you really do want to make a difference going forward, what can we do? We can invite people to speak. Just because we have always had it as the luck of the draw, doesn’t mean it has to be that way. We can say, I want to make sure that I am inviting people to apply.

And one of the things that I’ve suggested in the past is, don’t just say, Sarah Smith over here, you have a darker face than Michelle does, we want you to speak. And then hope that she’s going to suggest a topic, or apply with a topic that fits. So what I’ve always said is, we really do want you to speak, I want to make sure you’re in our lineup, can you suggest three topics? And then we can make sure that one of those topics fits within everything else.

So for example, if everybody wants to talk about SEO, unless it’s an SEO conference, that’s not a good lineup, right? So you need to make sure that the topics work too. But if Sarah Smith says, I could talk about SEO, I can talk about building your public persona, and I can talk about outreach to underrepresented communities.

You’ve given Sarah three different things, and one of those topics is most likely to be able to be in your speaker sessions, in your topics, without overlapping other people’s topics. So there are definite ways that you can increase your diversity on your stage, by making sure that you’re inviting people to speak, at the very least encouraging.

[00:24:55] Nathan Wrigley: So there is a process of, there’s work to be done basically. If you are, let’s say you are putting on an event as described, in the scenario that you are suggesting, merely saying there’s the form, it’s online, everybody can access that form. That’s possibly not going to be enough because of history, really.

If you’ve been to a WordPress event as me, then all of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle kind of fit. I should probably say, if you haven’t seen my face before, I am a white male. And so, you know, if I attend any of these events, there’s really no impediment to anything for me.

But is what you are saying that, if it’s not a situation where you see people on the stage that look like you, think like you, behave like you, it’s unlikely that you are going to make the effort to go in the first place. And so you need to take steps to redress that balance. And those steps have to be proactive, because it’s not going to happen by accident, given what we’ve got in the past, the history of these things.

[00:25:55] Michelle Frechette: And think about the history of a disabled person. Think about the history of a minority person. Think about the history of women. Not only have we not seen ourselves there, but in many cases, we’ve been discouraged and actively barred from access to those kinds of events.

So, if as a disabled person, I’ve tried to go someplace, there’s no curb cuts, there’s stairs, there’s escalators. I have to go in through the kitchen to have access to an event. I would be discouraged from attending that event. Would I love to be on stage, yeah. But if I can’t actually get on the stage, what good is it, right?

And that’s just from the perspective of a disabled person. If I walked into a dark room of a meetup, and I’m the only woman, with 10 men in a darkened room, how does that make me feel welcomed? That doesn’t. Because now I’ve put myself in a position where mothers all over the world say, never put yourself in a dark room with a bunch of men, right?

So there’s just history that comes along with being in an underrepresented group, that says to us, and whether that’s passed on through oral tradition or, you know, our families have taught us, or it’s just our own experiences in the past. We can sense, by looking at something in the history of something, whether or not we would traditionally be included in that event.

And we have people like me, who just like try to break those barriers open. Because I have broad shoulders and thick skin. I want to make sure that other people behind me feel welcomed, and have the access to those things. So I’m willing to be the person to suffer the slings and arrows, as Shakespeare would say, to make sure that it’s easier for other people to go through.

I think of myself as that icebreaker ship, that’s going through, you know, the Arctic, making it possible for other ships to follow through in my path. It’s not easy. And sometimes there are sleepless nights involved with some of those things, because you put yourself out there in a way that says, I need to see access for more people.

And other people who have traditionally held those positions, aren’t necessarily willing to give them up. And I understand that because power is a powerful thing, and we like being in a position of power, traditionally. And so the idea of seeding some of that power to other people, whether that’s a space on a stage, whether that’s in a boardroom, you know, that you bring people on your board, whatever that looks like. It’s not easy to include people that don’t look like us, and might have other ideas than us.

But that’s truly how we make a better community, and better products. I use this example all the time when I talk about inclusion. Back in the forties and fifties, they marketed vacuum cleaners to men, by showing pictures of vacuum cleaners with women in their pearls, and there are high heels and beautiful smiles, vacuuming their houses. Do you know how we market vacuum cleaners today? It’s how they work.

You know, we see a picture, a dog is knocked over a plant, and the Roomba, or somebody else is vacuuming it up. Kids spill Cheerios, let’s cut to a picture of that vacuum cleaner picking up the Cheerios. We talk about what the product does, not how pretty the woman looks using it. Because guess how many women actually want a vacuum cleaner for Christmas? Zero. That should not be a gift.

And so the idea is, more women started to join boardrooms, and more women started to be marketing and ad people, in the seventies and eighties, and we started to see some of that change. Because traditionally, women are the one now buying those kinds of products for the home. Let’s appeal to her, instead of show a man how happy your wife will be if you bring home a vacuum cleaner.

The same thing is true in every place, is you bring more people who have different experiences into those decision making processes, and you make a better product or a better service, to appeal for more sales. So it’s just good business. For your bottom line, much less, let’s be inclusive and let’s do the right thing.

[00:29:27] Nathan Wrigley: Do you prefer carrot or stick for this? And, is it necessary to sometimes deploy both. My intuition is that you are going to prefer carrot. But maybe the stick has to come out at various times. And I have seen those, I don’t really know what the right word is, but I’ve seen those miniature battles, if you know what I mean, where people have said one thing, and then there’s been people reacting and saying, we don’t need this, and they’re trying to explain it, and what have you.

So yeah, carrots or stick? Would you rather that we were able to introduce this idea and everybody came on board? Or, do we have to at some point say, look, nope, this is just what’s going to happen, you’ve got to come along for the ride?

[00:30:05] Michelle Frechette: Obviously carrot would be the better thing. If we can show people why inclusion is better, and how they can make their products and services better by bringing in more perspectives, and bringing in more experiences that people have. Those lived experiences are really what enrich the whole product and the whole process.

Like I said, whether it’s a service or it’s a product. How are people using it? If we only approach things from one perspective, we could only sell to that perspective, plus or minus maybe one standard deviation. But if we can make that bell curve wider instead of narrower, we have an opportunity to do more, and affect good for more people through what it is that we have created.

In order to do that, we have to understand how more people are using our products and services, or what we intend our products and service to be, so that we can appeal to all of those people.

[00:30:50] Nathan Wrigley: Do you have a sense that during the time that you’ve been in the community, things have changed? Can you, for example, give us an anecdote or a story about something that you know has changed, as a result of something maybe that you said, or somebody else said, which can just deliver the message that, well, everything is not set in stone. Things that were once the way they were can be altered.

[00:31:09] Michelle Frechette: So WordCamp US, the first one after the pandemic had shut everything down, was in San Diego. It was a very small event. They only sold, I think, 650 tickets, including sponsors and speakers. So it was, you know, that’s still a big event, don’t get me wrong, but as a global event, a very, very small.

I was there with my scooter, and tried to navigate an entire event. And by the end of the second day, I was in tears, because it was so difficult to be there as a disabled person. I got stuck in the bathroom, in the lobby bathroom, not in my hotel room. But in the lobby bathroom, because of the way that the room was built, and the exit was built, and where the trash can was, I couldn’t get close enough to the door to be able to open it, pull it to the side, and then go through the door. I literally had to wait until somebody came through. I would’ve texted somebody, I would’ve called somebody if somebody hadn’t come through, you know, fairly soon.

But somebody else had to come through that door to let me out. And that’s not, we’d like to be as independent as possible. When you’re a disabled person, you don’t want to have to rely on people to do everything for you. That doesn’t ingratiate you to the community, when you’re constantly begging and asking for assistance.

But that wasn’t the only problem that I had there. Several of the doors to access buildings didn’t have paddles, so they wouldn’t open themselves. So I had to ask people to help me get in and out of doors. My room, which was tagged as a handicapped accessible room, had a tub that I would’ve had to step over and into, which is dangerous for me. So I wasn’t able to actually take a shower or a bath. I had to, you know, sink bathe for five days.

And there was just so many things that just were inaccessible for me. And at the end of that, I did talk to people about it, and told them that it was coming. But I wrote an article for Post Status called Five Days Without a Shower. I very unemotionally explained what had happened, and how things were difficult for me. I pointed out what worked, and the people who were very helpful in it. But then I also gave a list of things that I think could be done, looking at future events, to make them more accessible to other people.

I know that I have a voice in our community. I know that people, you know, I’ve thousands of followers on Twitter, and I speak a lot, and that people know who I am. And so I realised that what I say in the community might be listened to more than people who don’t have that kind of following. And I don’t take that lightly. And I do try to use that for good.

And so I wrote this article. I gave copies of it to, you know, to Angela Gin, and I sent it to Matt Mullenweg and just, this is the experience, this is what I think we could do better. As a result of that, Wordcamp Asia, which I attended this year, reached out to me and said, we want to make sure, but this is what we’ve put in place and I think that everything is accessible to you. And it was.

The places that had stairs, they had put temporary ramps, so that I could get to them. The stage I was speaking on, I didn’t have to try to walk up three stairs, they had a ramp there for me. So everything was accessible.

WordCamp US this year, we had a team specifically for accessibility. You know, Alex was on that team, and he was looking at the accessibility from, no pun intended, looking at the accessibilities from the perspective of blind man.

But he was looking over the website. He was making sure that there were things in place, that he couldn’t get lost in a space that big if he wasn’t, you know, always having somebody on his side. So we had phone numbers in place where, if he literally couldn’t find his way out, somebody could come to him, and help him navigate.

We made sure that every place was accessible with wheels. We made sure that people who were neurodivergent, who might need quiet spaces, had the ability to step out and find a space that was just listed as a quiet space. We made sure that there were rooms for nursing mothers, that they could sit and nurse their children, or pump if they needed to. And not have to do that in a bathroom, which is not sanitary.

That was one of my suggestions, is that we had a person or a committee to look at the venue, to see what needed to change, in order for it to be an accessible event. So that was just one thing. One article that I wrote that was taken seriously, and that there’s a page in the handbook now for WordCamps, to make sure that you’re looking at things like curb cuts, like elevators. That there’s no place that, in a WordCamp, is inaccessible to somebody who can’t walk.

And so there’s lots of things that I’ve been able to, because I have a voice in this community, put out there, that have then been able to be accommodated. WordCamp Europe was terrified, that because it was old, such an old city, that I would have difficulty.

But I was in constant contact with Estela Rueda, who made sure that everything that there was, you know, she said, this is where you can go. Some places have stairs, but this is the way to get around that. If you get stuck, here’s my number. Like there was lots of things, there was constant communication, in order to be able to know that not just me, but anybody with, physical disabilities would be accommodated.

And so, is it easy to put myself out there as the disabled person who needs accommodations all the time? It’s not, right? So nobody likes to say, hey, my legs don’t work. I’m not a perfect person, and I can’t do the things that everybody else does. But by me being able to do that, hopefully means that I’ve, not only opened doors electronically for other folks, but put ramps in place, and given access to people who might not have had access otherwise. And so, yeah, I think there’s things that I’ve been able to say and do that have had an impact, positively, in our community.

[00:36:13] Nathan Wrigley: The curious thing, especially in terms of events, which is what we’ve just been talking about, is it doesn’t lessen the experience for people that don’t require it. You know, if there’s a ramp there, it’s no more difficult for me to use that. And so I think that’s brilliant. That’s such a nice tale of something actually changing, not in a heartbeat, but in a fairly short space of time. And so, well, bravo, firstly for writing the article.

I guess it does beg the question, do these things get thought about, unless there is somebody like you who has to go through, well, let’s call it the pain or something like that? You know, somebody’s got to go through it, in order to live that experience, so that they can report back on what needs to be fixed.

Do you sense that there’s still people having to go through pain in the future, or do you think that as a community we are getting better, you know, at a fair pace, so that it’ll be approaching perfect soon? Anything like perfect soon, have we still got a long way to go?

[00:37:11] Michelle Frechette: I think it depends on the location. I think some cities, some countries, it’s not as easy for them to pivot and be as accessible, just because of the history of the city. You know, there are places I said, oh, I’d love to go there. And somebody said, I don’t think you’d be able to. Disabled people in that city have a tremendous difficulty getting around.

Even in Asia. So, in Thailand, the cars are smaller, so to accommodate, to put me in an Uber, and also my scooter, which does come apart, some of that had to be at my feet and on the seat next to me, because it didn’t all fit in their trunk, for example. And so there are places that it might not be possible.

Also, like, I was in Phoenix Arizona earlier this year, and I called for an Uber, and I knew exactly what the person looked like, I knew what their car looked like, and I knew what their license plate was because that’s on the app. And this person pulled up, saw me in my scooter and sped away, because they didn’t want to deal with my scooter.

They canceled it, but they didn’t say, hey, I’m sorry I don’t have room in my trunk. Like they didn’t even communicate with me. They literally just drove away, and that was a terrible experience. And that was here in the United States, where we’re supposedly really accommodating to people with disabilities.

And so, yeah, it’s not always easy. I don’t think we’re ever going to not have to look at it, and make sure that things are accessible. And I think that there will always be places that are historically more accessible than others.

They actually, in Athens now you can, with a wheelchair, go up on the Acropolis. I didn’t because my daughter didn’t want to, even though I wanted to. But I was also told that once you get up the top of there, of course it’s just this ruins. And that’s not easy to navigate in wheels either. But they’ve done everything they can, even to make things like the Acropolis accessible.

And so is everything always going to be accessible? No. There are apartments with only stairs. I will never be able to visit friends who live upstairs, in apartments that have only stairs. But being able to access public spaces, and finding ways to accommodate with temporary ramps, and things like that, I think is super important.

And I hope that as long as I’m in the community, and I continue to talk about these things, that people will think about them for their events. And make sure that as many people possible can attend.

[00:39:13] Nathan Wrigley: You always seem very jolly, and we would say in the UK, fairly chipper. You know, you’ve got the glass is half full, kind of approach. Or at least that’s the impression that I have. But does this, so we’re going to stray into something maybe personal, you may not wish to reveal this, it’s entirely up to you.

Do these issues make you angry? Do you get a little bit annoyed on behalf of other people? Is there a bit of you that thinks, this is just not on? You know, it cannot be that events haven’t thought this through. It cannot be that these people aren’t represented. I’m just wondering, what the emotions it stirs in you are.

[00:39:44] Michelle Frechette: I would say frustration more than anger. It’s frustrating to me. Anger would come into place, if people acknowledged it and chose not to act. That’s anger. Not even looking, or not even thinking about it is the frustration. I think, traditionally, if somebody thinks about it, then they will try to be as accommodating as possible.

But to think about it and then not act, which is to make a deliberate decision not to include others. That’s when anger would come into play. But traditionally, anytime I’ve challenged or I’ve said, hey, have you thought about, most people are like, oh my gosh, I never even thought about that.

For example, WordCamp Buffalo this year. I was the mentor, I was part of the organising team for that event. And it was in an old school building. And the only way for me to get there was to go in the back of the building, up a little delivery ramp. And, was I angry? No, because I could still get in there. It was an old building that that was the only way to accommodate me, that’s fine.

If I’m going into a restaurant, I don’t want to come in through the kitchen. To me, that’s anger. They haven’t thought about it. They don’t want to include people in wheelchairs, if there’s no way to get in, when you’re trying to be open to the whole public. There’s ways that you can be accommodating. There’s just lack of understanding, lack of thinking, lack of thought to inclusion, that’s frustration. Deliberately denying access, that’s anger.

[00:40:59] Nathan Wrigley: Are you ever on the receiving end of other people’s frustration and anger? Do the causes that you champion, do sometimes you find that your social media is full of people who disagree with you, and perhaps, maybe disagree as too polite term there? Does it sometimes descend into things that you’d rather didn’t happen? In other words, is it always equanimous, the kind of conversations you have, or does it sometimes get a little bit fraught and frayed?

[00:41:24] Michelle Frechette: It does. A year and a half ago, I think, I wrote an article for a Post Status, called Misogyny In WordPress Is Real. And talked about the fact that women are still denied access, and still undervalued in a lot of places. And, you know, specifically, I pointed to that thread of all those people talking about the all women non-binary release, when Joost had posted about it in Advanced WordPress and Facebook.

There are other things that I’ve pointed to specifically, some of it tech related, some of it’s specific to WordPress. And the amount of people that attacked me, men, I will say. The number of men who posted replies to that post or comments on that post, completely misogynistic. It’s like, oh, look you’ve proven my point.

And attacked me openly on, you know, Twitter and things like that. I mean, it irritating, right? But it doesn’t anger me, because I’m like, okay, so you are just set in your misogynistic ways. Block. I will just block you.

People talk about me all the time. They don’t necessarily say kind things. I can’t own what somebody else thinks of me, that’s on them. So, you know, block them and move on. That’s the best way to be. I could be all angsty and carry it with me in a negative way, but I know that the work that I’m doing in our community, to try to level the playing field, to try to forward inclusion, the DEIB work, means that I’m going to encounter people that don’t agree with me.

Okay, fine. Move on. I’m going to try to talk to the people who do, who want to learn. If I can educate in a way that helps people learn, and they at least consider, if not actually enact change, I’ve done some good. And if there are people who are absolutely going to stonewall, because they like the way that things are, I can’t move a stonewall. I’m going to move on to the people that I can help. And so those are the kinds of things that I look at.

And, am I always cheery? No. That is what you’re going to see publicly, of course. But you know, I referenced the fact that, by day two of WordCamp, I was literally bursting into tears, because I was so frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t access things.

Does it feel good when you get attacked? No, it doesn’t. You know, I challenged WordCamp Europe this past year, because the first couple of, it was three or four I think, announcements of the speaker lineup were less than 20% women.

It’s always hard to judge ethnicity, and you can never tell by looking at a person that they might not be an ethnic minority. You can’t tell if somebody’s part of the LGBTQ+ community. You don’t know if somebody’s non-binary. I acknowledged all of that, and I said I really hope that we see more of a balance going forward, with the rest of the announcement.

And that one tweet has almost 30,000 impressions, because people either said, yes, absolutely, we need this, or you don’t understand how it is in Europe, Michelle. It’s not the same as it is in the US. I acknowledge that. But you have women in Europe, right? You do have minorities, you have people of color, you have people with different abilities. You have all of the different things that make up underrepresentation. So to only show us a bunch of white men, really starts to make you wonder, well, what is the rest of the lineup going to look like?

I say I created controversy, I actually pointed out the controversy. I did not create controversy. The controversy already existed. I was simply the conduit, by which the rest of the world started to notice it. Because we’re so used to seeing so many white men in every lineup, but we need to make sure that that changes.

And so I had people, I mean, I went to WordCamp Europe. I had people there telling me things like, you don’t understand. I had people sign up on my calendar, just to tell me how wrong I was, and to say that you have a big voice in this community, you need to use it better. And I said, well, I did.

I’m not always going to be everybody’s favorite person. I actually have a sticker, I will bring one to you next time I see you, Nathan, that says, I’m not everybody’s cup of tea, and I’m okay with that. Because if you’re going to be a change agent, if you’re going to try to help things be better, there will be people who don’t like what you do.

There will be people who feel challenged by what you’re doing. And there will be people who just flat out disagree with you. And that’s okay. Those are not the people that I’m going to change. The people that you can actually influence, are the people who want to do better, and don’t realise that they haven’t been to that point.

And so, if you listen to my words and you think, gosh, I could be more accommodating, I could outreach to people who don’t look like me, and really make the speaker lineup more diverse. If those people have listened to me and enact a change, and really think about the way they do things, then I can say my work is done. Or at least you know, part of my work is done, and I will continue to fight the good fight.

[00:45:46] Nathan Wrigley: That’s the perfect segue then to probably round it off. And if I ask you, Michelle, where can people contact you? Should they have those intuitions, and they do wish to speak to you. Where’s the best place? What’s the selection of things that you, are you most frequently using?

[00:46:01] Michelle Frechette: Yeah. So I am still on, I like to call Twitter, but X. You can’t change your name on there, once you have so many links back to you. Yes, you physically can change your name, but I’m still @michelleames on Twitter and X. But if you go to meetmichelle.online, you will find access to all of the different things that I’ve done, my projects, WP Speakers, Underrepresented in Tech, WP Career Pages. All of those things that I’ve done for the community, to try to help people find jobs, help people find speakers, and just make the world a little bit more balanced.

[00:46:31] Nathan Wrigley: I will make sure that every single one of those is listed in the show notes. So if you head to WP Tavern, at the very least, you’ll know that they are there. Michelle Frechette, thank you so much for chatting to me on the podcast today. I really appreciate it.

[00:46:44] Michelle Frechette: It was my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

On the podcast today we have Michelle Frechette.

This is going to sound like a lot, and that’s because it is.

Michelle Frechette is the Director of Community Engagement for StellarWP at Liquid Web. She was called “The busiest woman in WordPress,” by Matt Mullenweg at WCUS 2022. She is also the host of the WP Coffee Talk podcast, co-founder of Underrepresented in Tech, creator of WP Speakers and WP Career Pages, president of the board for Big Orange Heart, Director of Community Relations and contributor at Post Status, co-host of the WP Motivate and Audacity Marketing podcasts, host of the WP Constellations podcast, author, and a frequent organiser and speaker at WordPress events. Michelle lives outside of Rochester, NY where she’s an avid nature photographer. You can learn more about Michelle at meetmichelle.online.

You see, like I said, that’s a lot.

This willingness to engage in all manner of WordPress projects has given Michelle a voice, and she’s on the podcast today to discuss a topic which is close to her heart, diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.

She talks about her experiences at WordPress events, and how they were not always easy for her to attend and be a part of. Michelle uses a scooter to get around and there have been situations in which she could not enter venues and access all the facilities. This frustration made her take action and, as you’ll hear, effect change at subsequent events she attended.

It’s not all about events though. Michelle talks about the wider goals of making all aspects of the WordPress community more opening and inclusive.

Being one of the voices promoting this message has not always been easy, and we hear about how Michelle copes with those who disagree with her quest to create change.

If you’re interested in thinking about inclusivity, and how embracing diverse perspectives can impact the WordPress community, this episode is for you.

Useful links

StellarWP

Liquid Web

WP Career Pages

WP Speakers

Underrepresented in Tech

Five Days Without a Shower article

Misogyny in WordPress is Real article

Michelle on Twitter

Michelle’s website

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