Embedded Ideation

Thoughts from inside the box

KansasFest Has A Problem

This is not the first post I expected to release after six years. While technical content is still on hold, this topic deserves a longer post not suited to Twitter, so here we are. This situation is still developing and I’ll try update the post if anything changes, but for the moment my priority is to make this information available for people’s safety. (I apologize if things are a bit scattered, I lost a night of sleep writing this and am far too tired to refine it further).

A content warning first: this post references reproductive rights, transphobia, racism, ableism, and other potentially troubling behaviors.

For those unfamiliar, KansasFest is a retrocomputing event held annually in Kansas City, Missouri at Rockhurst University, a private Jesuit institution. I’ve joined since 2017, still a relative newcomer as the event has run continuously since 1989, with some folks in their second or third decade still attending. The first three years in person and the last two virtually (thanks to COVID) were, for the most part, extremely enjoyable and positive experiences. Staff and attendees both contributed to the welcoming atmosphere, and I deeply enjoyed nerding out on 70s-80s technology for days at a time. My only role with the event is that of attendee, I have no part in its organization, nor any real insight regarding operations or decisions of the organizing committee.

KansasFest adopts a fairly standard Code of Conduct prohibiting harassment of any kind. It states that it applies at all conference venues and conference-related social events. As a large group (a little over 100 for the in-person events, and around 400 for remote), one would expect individuals with a diversity of views and experiences in attendance. This is certainly the case at KansasFest. Beyond the Code of Conduct, in the interest of avoiding conflict among a small community, folks will generally keep potentially controversial topics to themselves, and focus on what brings everyone together to the event. Views expressed outside of the conference, even if they may violate the Code of Conduct for the event, are not generally considered an issue by the committee.

There is some disagreement among both attendees and committee members as to whether committee members are held to this same standard, or a higher one. The Code of Conduct stipulates that a violation results in sanctioning or expulsion from the conference at the discretion of the conference organizers. In order for this to be effective, beyond a doubt the conference organizers must be able to identify and respond appropriately to harassment. Some committee members have demonstrated recent behavior that, in my opinion, calls into question their fitness to wield such authority. Unlike individual attendees, their views shape the policy of the event, and expressing them publicly reflects on the organization as a whole. Additionally, the location (both the state, and the venue specifically) is problematic due to unfolding events outside of the conference.

Saturday morning, committee member Dr. Steven Weyhrich shared his views on Friday’s Supreme Court decision and subsequent protests. Calling abortion a “barbaric practice”, he directed those upset with the loss of their rights to vote in their home state to restore them. Missouri, where the event takes place, is one state with a “trigger law”. Reproductive rights were restricted the same day as the court’s decision. Several KansasFest regulars reacted strongly in the replies to this tweet, condemning Steven’s viewpoint. Clearing up any remaining ambiguity, he tweeted again to state his unapologetic stance against reproductive rights.

This by itself raises serious concerns about Steven’s judgment and impartiality, but wasn’t the catalyst for this post. After seeing his tweets, more attendees (myself included) publicly withdrew their support for the event. Discussion around this also continued on the KansasFest Discord, with more folks condemning the tweet, and some leaving the server. During this time, someone on the committee made an official statement distancing the organization from the views of its individual members. This was repeated in Discord, while another committee member dismissed an attendee’s concern that Steven’s views could be endorsed or shared by others. That committee member said this was “ridiculous” and asserted Steven’s “opinion does not affect his ability to organize the conference”. On Sunday morning, after catching up with the Discord backlog myself, I reiterated my concerns with Steven’s tweets there.

On a hunch, I went back to Steven’s Twitter account to check for other occurrences of questionable behavior or judgment. What I found here is the catalyst for this post. Going through the Likes tab, there are approximately 30 tweets visible from the past year, with at least seven that would clearly violate the KansasFest Code of Conduct. Since Twitter does not seem to allow viewing likes without first logging in, I’m attaching screenshots from the Twitter app to show the likes, followed by archive links to the actual tweets. As of writing, the tweets are all publicly visible, as well as the likes by viewing Steven’s account directly.

(Repeating the content warning for these, as I’ve added some context to the tweets. It’s relevant, but highlights just how vile and hateful the statements are, so please be warned and take care.)

first screenshot of likes, tweets 1, 2, and 3

second screenshot of likes, tweets 4 and 5

third screenshot of likes, tweet 6

fourth screenshot of likes, tweet 7

  • Tweet #7 an articulate Black woman discussing reparations is called “mentally challenged” because “she clearly isn’t all the way there”

After sharing a screenshot of the first two tweets liked by Steven with the Discord (I went through and found the rest later), several attendees continued the discussion. Some were as concerned as I am, while others were frustrated by or felt that I was violating the rules by bringing this up because it happened outside of the event, therefore is irrelevant and off-topic. At this point, I stated my hope that a committee member would respond regarding the blatant transphobia and racism endorsed by one of their own. The first one to respond immediately accused my of wasting time and violating the Code of Conduct, and gave me a 24 hour Discord time out. Since I was unable to participate in the conversation, and continued to find more tweets liked by Steven, I decided to write this post to finish the story, and document the full set of concerns that I could no longer share in Discord.

With all of that said, I want to reiterate how many of the organizers and attendees are truly awesome, and demonstrably supportive of marginalized people. My concern is with the committee member(s) demonstrating extremely inappropriate behavior and judgment (I’m naming Steven because this happened on Twitter and is an egregious example. Others have dismissed and downplayed our concerns about this impacting the event, but have also stated that they disagree with Steven’s views. I have screenshots of the Discord conversation, but will not share them at this time). It’s troubling as well, that several attendees are vocally more concerned about conflict splintering the KansasFest community, than they are about ensuring a truly safe environment for everyone. I think there is a good chance we will hear more from the organizing committee in the future, and the quality of this response is critical to the future of this event. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer to the knowledge that many attendees care more about old computers than people. Perhaps an organization that is demonstrably aligned with the Code of Conduct, and chooses a venue in a location where marginalized people’s rights are supported by law, can start to regain the trust lost in recent days.