15 A marriage of misfits

Finding ways to sustainably recycle electronics, decolonise the Internet, create affordable conservation technologies, make open medical hardware and develop openly accessible cell cultures – these are some of the challenges fought by fellows.

To take these battles on with integrity and to continually invent, evaluate, reinvent, convince and solve problems – while no one else has any idea what is being talked about – makes the journey long, exhausting and lonely. It takes a special kind of person to embrace this, and to make it their life.

It’s no surprise that the fellowship has been fondly described as a “collection of weirdos”. One reason the community works, is that these misfits have found each other and realised that they aren’t so alone after all. The fellowship is a place to find commonality. It is an opportunity to share stories, learnings and experiences that have been gathered along the way; to learn from one another. But it can often take time for fellows to come in from the cold; to sit around the fellowship hearth and know they are among friends.

All fellows find the community overwhelming at first, but it’s part of the process – and completely expected. It takes time to build confidence in the group before a new member of the cohort can feel comfortable and truly let go. But once those bonds are in place, the environment of trust makes sharing common experiences easier.

At a recent Gathering, a new fellow described a tricky and potentially volatile situation in their community: a significant clash of personalities with a volunteer. Removing that single toxic personality was the easy choice, but it wasn’t an option. Long-term personal relationships between the volunteer and other highly valued members of the community meant that if one was removed, the rest might follow. There was no simple resolution, but just having a safe place to talk about the issue led to others discussing similar situations. It was incredibly helpful to the fellow and, of course, to others.

But the fellowship isn’t just for help. It’s a testing ground for new ideas, and these will all get a thorough grilling – and with everyone’s best intentions at heart. Eventually, fellows feel enabled to try things they never would have dreamt of attempting before.

While creating CrowdVoice, a platform that harnessed the power of crowdsourced media to contextualise social movements, Esra’a Al Shafei found her experience with the Shuttleworth community to be valuable in more ways than one.

“I have a sense of belonging,” she says. “It sounds clichéd, but to do this in Bahrain is very isolating. To do this anywhere else, I would not have that support network. A lot of the foundations we work with exist to commit something to their investment committee. You have a programme officer to respond to, auditors to respond to, financial reports to submit. Nobody asks, ‘How are you?’ That’s something the fellowship provides. The group cares about you as an individual.

“When my fellowship ended, I thought at first it was going to be another one of those experiences I would just move on from. But I continued getting invites to the in-person Gatherings, and the community keeps coming back to get energised and renew a lot of the friendships. We may not agree on every single thing, and there are definitely controversies involved, but as a whole, this group of fellows and team genuinely cares, and that’s what makes the fellowship so meaningful.

“Apart from the technicalities, you immediately understand why people are fellows. It’s not just because what they do is open software or hardware, or open this or open that. It’s because they come with an open mind and want to solve what they perceive as a grave injustice – it’s a group of people struggling for real progress, accessibility, social justice. I think that’s a recent transformation of what the Shuttleworth Foundation means.”

It’s a gradual transformation Esra’a has observed – and been part of – since she joined the Shuttleworth community in 2012. Then, she felt the concept of Open as driven by the technical definitions used by the software and hardware communities that made up the majority of the fellowship. But as we have shifted focus to cover different social challenges, each new fellow has brought a different perspective. Over time, the conversation has expanded.

“The fellowship was really what made me understand Open from a philosophical standpoint,” says Esra’a. “Why Open, how Open, to whom is it open and by whom is it open – these are all questions I had never considered before.

“Now we have people like Anasuya [Sengupta], Astra [Taylor], Tiffiniy [Cheng]… every single one of them looks at Open completely differently. We see it as a movement, but within that, each individual has a different angle. No one has or wants a monopoly on any idea or concept.”