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August 1st, 2016

Become a Better Open Source Advocate by Becoming a Better Human Being

The best role models for any cause, open source or otherwise, are people you would admire even if they didn’t support your cause. In other words, your support of open source will be more meaningful if you strive to be a good person.

People who care deeply about open source often ask themselves the question, “How can I become a better open source advocate?” That’s an interesting question, to be sure, but the answer might not take you far. Consider asking yourself a more probing question: “How can I become a better human being?”

joining hands

To my mind, the world does not need better open source advocates. What the world needs is better cellists who love open source, better choreographers who love open source, better architects, city planners, animators, schoolteachers farmers, designers, writers, filmmakers, doctors, nurses, legislators and school superintendents who love open source. By becoming a better human being, you advance the cause of open source.

Bear with me a moment while I share two brief anecdotes on my own journey to becoming a better human being. At my public library job, two beautiful adult African-American women walked into my workplace. I could tell they were a family unit and fond of each other. My tolerance for ambiguity is low, so I felt I needed to ask in a friendly way, “Are you mother and daughter?” Nothing wrong with asking a question like that, right?

Wrong. These two women were a married couple — and I couldn’t see it. They were gracious in forgiving me my gender-orientation prejudice. I was honestly embarrassed at myself. I was disappointed in myself. Why? Because on that day I was feeble in fighting my own prejudices. I must learn to tolerate ambiguity, because if I do that, I’ll put my foot in my mouth a lot less often.

The very next day a nice family from Ethiopia walked into my workplace, a mom and two daughters. One of the daughters appeared to be about 3 years old and one about 6 years old. So being the kindhearted person I am, I crouched down beside the shorter one, and with a friendly smile and voice I inquired, “Are you three?”

This nice child sighed and replied, “No, actually I’m in third grade. My sister, here, is in first grade.” Two days — and two episodes of putting my foot in my mouth.

Why did I need to ask the shorter child how old she was? The truth is, I didn’t need to ask that question at all. The only thing I needed to do was to make her feel welcome in my work area. In due course she could share her age with me, or not share her age with me. This child was gracious and forgiving of me, but I was not forgiving of me. Two days in a row I was given a lesson on why I need to do better at tolerating ambiguity. We all need to do better at tolerating ambiguity. We need to meet others on their terms, not our terms. If we’re meeting others on our terms, we’re not really meeting them.

So you want to become a better open source advocate? Strive to be a better human being. Graciously help others in your community — and in other communities — to become better human beings. And if open source is one of your core values, people will say of you, “Over there is a better human being, who also believes in open source.”

Become an exquisite cello player, too. Take up gymnastics. Learn to do magic tricks. Exercise greater patience with your little brother or little sister. Seek the best wisdom from cultures you’re unfamiliar with. Go wide.

Better human beings are rare. Be rare — and then help to make rare common. This is not my idea — this is our idea. We’re building it together. We’re building it by sharing stories. What are your stories?

For the past 10 years, Phil has been working at a public library in the Washington D.C.-area, helping youth and adults use the 28 public Linux stations the library offers seven days a week. He also writes for MAKE magazine, Opensource.com and TechSoup Libraries. Suggest videos by contacting Phil on Twitter or at pshapiro@his.com.

3 comments to Become a Better Open Source Advocate by Becoming a Better Human Being

  • Sven

    Become a better human being? No way! I’ll be an asshole and work for Microsoft. This will be my best decision ever…

  • F. Brennan

    But you never did anything wrong. There was no prejudice, you made perfectly reasonable assumptions. Nobody in the FOSS community needs to become a “better human being”, because that’s socially harmful identity politics. How about I advocate how I’d like to, you advocate how you’d like to, and you leave me out of your identity games.

  • Claude

    Great post.

    Haters gonna hate. Not much we an do about that. Just accept that their vision is only a projection of their mind, not the truth.