Roots Tech 2014
With graduation day fast approaching, I have set my sights on a future career that combines genealogy with the teaching of “warts and all” American history. My historical focus is on African American history and slavery so I have been working diligently to form myself into as much of an expert as possible on the tracing of enslaved ancestry and understanding the enslaved experience in America. With all that in mind I decided to attend the Roots Tech 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Roots Tech is considered the premier genealogy technology conference in the country. Every year for the last four years the Mormon Church’s family history research organization, Family Search, has organized the conference and hosted it at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City, Utah. According to the website, this year it included over 100 exhibitors and vendors, more than 100 classes and labs over four days and 13,000 registered attendees from around the country and around the world. It was also sponsored by several of the biggest genealogy companies in the English speaking world - Ancestry.com, Find My Past, My Heritage and of course Family Search. In other words I thought this would be the perfect conference to attend. There would be plenty of interesting useful classes, incredible networking opportunities and the chance to use the Mormon Church’s extensive records collection.
For better and for worse Roots Tech did not quite live up to my expectations. That was mostly due to the disturbing lack of racial diversity among presenters, vendors and attendees. I also did not find some of the presentations to be as interesting or engaging as I had hoped. There was however an almost overwhelming number of choices... I'll get back to that later.
The almost complete racial homogeneity was the first thing that caught me off guard about this conference (see photos above and below and from the Family Search blog). I knew it would be mostly white but I had no idea how white the crowd would be until the conference began. Two of the other black attendees and I estimated that there were no more than 15 black people out of close to 9,000 at the Salt Palace (I only counted for the days that I actually attended- Wednesday to Friday). That 15 includes two African men and one African American man who worked for Family Search, two black Mormon lifestyle bloggers who had been invited by Family Search to help with social media outreach, a black man I believe may have been working for one of the vendors, African woman wondering alone in a gorgeous green dutch cloth dress, a very tall man in his early 40's who was also alone, three members of an AAHGS (African American Historical and Genealogical Society) Tennessee chapter, and the most adorable elderly coat check man.
I remember the coat check man, whose name escapes me, looked up over the pile of coats, his eyes lit up and he exclaimed “Welcome! Welcome! What’s your name?” He had a warm gentle faced, a beautifully full head of gray-white hair and long elegant fingers. He was so excited to see another brown face. “There aren’t too many of us here,” he said, referring to the attendees. I suppose he had been counting too.
Actually most of us were counting. After being introduced to, or after I introduced myself to, nearly every black person at the conference, one of the first topics of discussion was how few of us there were and how little there was to address our specific needs as researchers of color. Yes obviously we can enjoy the digital scrapbook making presentation or the Google Hangouts for Family History lab. But other than the session on sub-Saharan oral histories or the two presentations in Spanish, there was not a single session, or company that addressed the specific challenges faced by researchers interested in non-European genealogy. And thats a shame. Not just for genealogists of color but also for the major genealogy companies that have chosen to ignore or put minimal effort into a relatively fast growing market.
According to my calculations, persons of visible African descent only accounted for 15 out of the approximately 9,000 people who attended the conference the three days I was in town. In other words black people represented .0016% of the population of the conference. That is .0009% if you only count the registered attendees and not staff.
- In 2010, black Americans accounted for 12.6% of the population.
- In the year 2000 the US Census polled to find the 15 largest ancestral populations in America. Americans of African descent were the third largest ancestral group in the country behind German's (#1) and Irish (#2).
So where was every body?
I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
Or again, you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren't simply a phantom in other people's minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It's when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you're a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it's seldom successful. (Ralph Ellison - The Invisible Man: Prologue.2)
Black's in Utah who may have had the easiest time venturing to Salt Lake, account for a measly 1.8% of the population. Utah's AAHGS chapter is mostly elderly, and from what I've been told, almost completely disinterested in technology. But, honestly, being that there was not anything targeted to their research needs, why would they bother driving the 5 minutes or 3 hours to get to the Salt Palace. What really would have made them that much more likely to attend than a black family historian in Maryland, Florida or Ohio?
Side Note: I also attempted to count the number of Asians. Not including vendors, I counted 10 women of visible Asian descent and two children. I spotted them all walking in two groups. I ended up in meetings during both of the spanish language sessions so I am not able to get a reliable tally for that group.
Family Search does appear to have made some relatively last minute attempts in the last two years to diversify the bloggers they invited to the conference. Unfortunately, despite the variety of African Americans who actively blog through personal and professional sites (see this amazing list thanks to AAGSAR), along with hundreds of active Twitter users, the only black bloggers in 2014 were two Mormon lifestyle bloggers who had not begun their own genealogical research before their initial invitation to the conference last year. They also do not appear to have had much of a following among genealogists or family history hobbyists before they started blogging from Roots Tech. Now to their credit, the women have since begun researching their own family histories, but they are still very new to it. Meanwhile there are dozens of black bloggers with decades of research experience who could have stepped into this obvious gap. It could have been so amazing to have blog posts and interviews coming from beginners and expert researchers. I did have an amazing time with the two lifestyle bloggers, known as Sistas in Zion. They are intelligent, interesting, quick and very funny. They are also the first to admit how little they know about genealogy. They were clearly invited to take part in Roots Tech's social media team rather naively for the sake of diversity. Yet, once they got in they managed to surprise everyone and score some of the biggest interviews at the conference.
Side note: the reason for this last minute addition to the schedule may have been due in large part to at least one very angry black blogger. She had noted the lack of diversity in the presentation schedule and went straight to Family Search for answers.
Quote of the day -
I know that part of my problem with the sessions that I did attend was due to the fact that I have been a rather constant user of technology and social media since I was a small child. I am a Millennial after all, unlike at least 98% of the rest of the attendees. As you can guess I stood out at this conference for a lot of reasons (brown skin, Afro, youth...). Anyway, the tech and social media sessions were mostly targeted toward a much older and less tech savvy audience. One presenter hosted a session on Facebook and attempted to "talk like a cool young person" and massively failed. I was just waiting for him to say something about "hip hoppers" or not sharing photos of your friends if their pants are sagging on the down-low. Anyway despite, the lack of tech in Dr. Bonsu's presentation he was able to keep the audience engaged by bringing them new analog ideas and a fresh perspective. The way I see it, if you are going to present on youth oriented technology, why not have an experienced young person do the presentation. They did later have a college student host a very promising presentation on cross generational social media usage.
Why is a lack of diversity a problem for Roots Tech and the big genealogy companies that sponsored it?
I think the answers are pretty obvious, but I am assuming that if they were that blatant to Roots Tech's sponsors then they would created a more inclusive event from the very beginning and this entire piece would have been unneeeded. So lets first take a moment to scroll back up to the photos of the Roots Tech audience. Not only is it more than 99% white, it is also mostly of the blue haired variety. Ok that was a bit ageist. But, kind of true. I would venture to estimate that more than half of the approximately 9,000 registered attendees were over 50. I bet at least 1/3 were over 60. That does appear to be relatively representative of the majority of family history enthusiasts. But like all things in America these days, you must diversify or die. In the case of genealogy the death is quite literal since many historical societies are significantly more likely to lose members to death than general waning interest.
In order to not only keep up but increase membership numbers, and cash flow, genealogy companies, non-profits and societies must reach out to younger people and fast growing minority groups. Roots Tech is a technology conference sponsored by companies that make the majority of their money off of technology users. According to a 2010 Pew Research poll, minorities, especially African Americans "outpace whites in their use of social technologies."
Among internet users, seven in ten blacks and English-speaking Latinos use social networking sites—significantly higher than the six in ten whites who do so. Indeed, nearly half of black internet users go to a social networking site on a typical day. Just one third of white internet users do so on a daily basis.
African Americans and American born Latinos are also significantly more likely to use smartphones and tablets to access the internet. This is primarily due a lack of access and/or relatively high cost for computers and internet service. If minority Americans are more likely to use technology than white Americans then why were there so few people of color at such a massive tech conference? It is not just because Roots Tech is a genealogy conference because tech conferences with a variety of focuses, across the country, have also had difficulty attracting minorities. I believe the problem with Roots Tech is that :
- the companies do not make an honest and true effort of reaching out to people of color and inviting them to come as speakers, vendors or attendees
- I personally know several black genealogists who speak at other conferences, teach courses on family research or run social media sites dedicated to genealogy. (Liv Taylor- Harris, Bernice Bennet, Michael Henderson, Robin Foster, Luckie Daniels, Wilhelmena Kelly and those are just the names I remembered off the top of my head!) It is a lazy argument to say that Family Search simply could not find anyone to present.
- there also should have been a push to contact and involve the heads of black genealogy organizations like AAHGS and ... oh wait here is a long list of African American genealogical societies Black Gen Societies
- why wasn't African Ancestry a vendor at Roots Tech? Were they invited? With only 15 people showing up I suppose it would not have been financially worth the cost of the trip and vendor fees. But if they had participated they likely would have used their own marketing resources to let their network of members and potential members know about the conference.
- Question: Are there any other genealogy companies run by non whites? At least there are plenty of women running these companies.
- They think that a token or two is satisfactory
- I asked a Family Search staff member why there was only one panel for non European ancestored attendees. He said that FS was afraid that if they had too many sessions for African descendants, then Latinos and Asians would want sessions too. Oh no!!! Now wouldn't that have been just awful! (Sarcasm obviously) SHAMEFUL! Just think of how many attendees they lost because people of color felt like this was a conference by and for white people.
- The one session on oral history in West Africa was not advertised as part of the extensive list of sessions during online registration. Trust me I actually did a word search of the list for "African" and "Black". Out of the hundred or so sessions there was nothing. I was so surprised to see the one workshop on the calendar once I arrived that I skipped a lab presentation that I had paid extra money for.
- They do not hire any, or enough people of color - In this case the need for a "Jamaal", as one of my favorite podcasters Elon James White might say, has left the company without a much needed diversity of perspectives. According to White, a "Jamaal" is the person of color who sits at the decision making table and ensures that the company does not maliciously or naively create a product that is offensive or unattractive to POC's (people of color). I like to believe that the vast majority of people these days consciously try not to be offensive to anyone. But sometimes mistakes or misunderstandings happen, especially in a homogeneous environment. For instance, you wouldn't hire an all male marketing team to create a new commercial for tampons right?...or was that on the last episode of Mad Men. Or would you? Either way, its not 1958. There are people of color out their with a great variety of skills, interests and education levels who would be happy to work at these genealogy companies, if only they knew that the positions were available. Lets not even talk about how most hiring is about networking and not your resume (see How Social Networks Drive Black Unemployment). In places like Utah where several of these companies are based, there is only a 2.5 % African American population. So of course there is only one Jamaal (or in Family Search's case Thom and Osei). To increase their staff diversity they have to advertise to audiences of color and they may have to import them to Utah or look for diverse candidates for their satellite offices in other states.
"They did fail. And it’s the same issue that many media sites have–a staff lacking diversity and sensitivity, so when anything goes down, there’s no one to point out the ignorance. We’ve said it time and time again–every staff needs a Jamal." ~ Elon James White
- Prohibitive costs - This was an extremely expensive event for me to attend. If it was not for the fact that I used nearly my entire grad student travel budget, provided by Brown University, to pay my way, I would certainly not have been able to attend. The trip including flights, registration, labs, hotel, transportation and food totaled over $850! For 3 days!! And that is with the student discounts! So if it was not for the fact that Brown gives its grad students $1000 stipend to travel to conferences there would have been only 14 black people at the conference. Timing of the conference during Valentines day weekend instead of a federal holiday when the average American has time off from work, was also an issue. Oh and come on, how are you going to host a conference during Black History Month and have almost no Black content? That was a complaint from almost every black person I met.
- to solve this problem Roots Tech may benefit from traveling instead of hosting the conference in one of the whitest states in the country. We really only made use of the Mormon Church's library for about 4 hours anyway (I think next year if they stay in the same location, they should hold a lock-in. There are so many dedicated genealogists out there who would have loved to bring a sleeping bag to the library and pass out at 4 am among the stacks. It's only once a year right?)
- Research awards or contests that encourage minority participation and award free/discounted registration and or flights would also bring in more underrepresented minorities and young people. Come on I can think of several ways to bring in more people of color without it making a big dent in the Family Search wallet...actually in the long run these ideas would bring in more money and more than cover the cost of a few prizes. This isn't rocket science.
Roots Tech needs to fix it's diversity problem, and it is a problem. It is a problem because there are thousands of genealogy fans and tech enthusiasts in this country who are of mostly non-European descent who use Family Search, Ancestry.com, My Heritage and others to do their online genealogical research. They pour their hard earned dollars into these companies pockets and they deserve to be catered to. In other words these companies need to continue to diversify their advertisements, staff and records. A few record uploads and nice sentiments during Black History Month is not enough! The shockingly un-diverse attendees in an increasingly diverse nation cannot be and should not be tolerated. If you are going to bring on companies that only have records for Europeans (Find My Past) then why are there no vendors that cater strictly to recent immigrant groups (another growing market), and people of color? Roots Tech and its sponsoring companies can and should do better. They are missing out on an excellent opportunity to increase their memberships (money), build themselves into companies that welcome Americans of all colors, and dispel the myth that genealogy is only for the elderly and white people who can trace their roots to a King of England.
Recommended Reading for anyone interested in increasing the number of minorities in the tech world or at technology conferences: