Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees/Call for feedback: Community Board seats/Reports/2021-02-24 Bishakha Datta

Conversational Report
Bishakha Datta - 24 February 2021

Attendees Edit

Objective Edit

Bishakha Datta served on the Wikimedia Foundation’s board (appointed) from 2010 to 2014, and later on the Funds Dissemination Committee. She is the only person from South Asia, apart from the currently serving Raju Narisetti, on the Board. Apart from her experience serving on the Board, she runs a non profit organization named “Point of View” which works towards building and amplifying “the voices of women and other marginalised genders”. The objective of the meeting was to draw insights from her experience and expertise, on the proposed changes.

Topics and Notes Edit

Bishakha was first introduced to the structure of the Board of Trustees, their roles and responsibilities, along with the previous round of changes to the by-laws, in which the number of board seats were increased from 10 to 16, and the trustee evaluation form was approved. This was followed by the problem statement for the call for feedback.

Feedback on specific ideas Edit

  • Quotas or affirmative actions as it is called in the US, have historically been used effectively and precisely for the purpose of increasing diversity, and to ensure that those who typically do not get represented through the conventional means. It has always been controversial. For example in India, reservations for Dalits led to huge controversies and a lot of opposition. But if you talk to Dalits who have benefited from education, leading to employment etc. many will say if those quotas didn’t exist, they would not have had those opportunities.
  • If we recognise that there is a problem and one needs to solve that problem, then why shouldn’t we go for the most obvious solution to address that problem. It has always been controversial, even outside the Wikimedia movement, but that doesn’t mean that is not the right thing to do.
  • The proposal for the community, regional seats, doesn’t seem very different from quotas. Maybe the word “quotas” is triggering, and probably needs to be called something else, something like a diversity seat.
  • Given both the number of communities and the number of appointed seats have been increased, the quotas should be divided between both of these categories. For example, one from community seats and one from appointed seats for a certain group, should be set aside for diversity.
  • Even with quotas, there can be elections. The approach is - in an election, there will still be voting for a quota seat, but one can only run for that seat if they belong to the allocated quota, as per certain criteria. This will be a mid-way between an open election and closed quotas - where it can be said that you can only run for a seat only if you belong to a certain underrepresented group or meet some criteria, but you will still go for an election within candidates for that seat.
  • Another way to look at this would be, geographical expertise. Quotas are generally given to regions which have been underrepresented historically. Instead, it can be said that there hasn’t been expertise from a particular region, and we now want to ensure we get that expertise, following some criteria.
Call for types of skills and experiences
  • This is always tricky. It is fine to say that we want to set criteria for everyone on the Board. But the criteria then has to be defined before the nomination process begins, but not after the election is over. It can be treated as an eligibility criteria. Having said that, it’s hard to arrive at consensus on this. The community will argue that if it is a community seat, it ought to be left fully open.
  • There isn’t any harm in having an eligibility criteria for everyone on the Board. It could lead to a more effective board. Even if a community member has enough votes to win an election, but doesn’t have basic understanding of governance matters, can be counter-productive, especially since the Board size also has increased.
  • Bishakha mentioned that when she served on the Funds Dissemination Committee, there was some sort of formal or informal eligibility criteria in form of questions for the candidates, for both elected and selected candidates - simply because they were handling a large amount of funds. If one has no expertise or head for grantmaking, it wouldn’t have helped or made sense to serve on the committee.
Board-delegated / Community-elected selection committee
  • With reference to the two tier indirect election in the US - first the popular vote, which is then sorted state-wise in the electoral college, there was a lot of uncertainty whether the popular vote will translate effectively or whether the electoral college will block it, Bishakha said that she is not in favour of an indirect election, where the community doesn’t have final say.
Regional seats
  • It is good to have broad region categories, which again is a form of recognizing the underrepresented. It is not entirely dissimilar to the concept of quotas. But limiting the voting to a region only doesn’t make sense - because it is a global movement, and restricting voting to a region only, sort of makes it like a ghetto. I don’t think it is a good idea to think only people from South Asia understand people from South Asia.
  • For diversity, geographically it has been quite bad and needs immediate redressal, but it is also important to acknowledge the emerging understanding of gender. Is it enough only to think about women and men, or is it time to start thinking about new articulations of gender such trans, non-binary and also sexual orientations such as LGBT+?
  • Diversity should be seen as integral to governance. The idea of diversity should be flexible - it should not be seen as separation, rather a necessary specialization that has been absent and we need that now.