Sunday, July 2, 2017

Why Is #ISTESoWhite? Thoughts On Diversity #ISTE17

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference provides a great platform to learn and connect with fellow educators. However, like other ed tech conferences, most of the attendees I encountered were not reflective of the public school students, educators like me, serve. Several of my peers and I were struck by the lack of diversity we encountered among the adults who were in attendance.

It was particularly noticeable because of ISTE’s focus on being an International conference. As such it would stand to reason that those we saw at the conference would emphasize diversity and be representative of communities educators are serving, at least on a national level.

But, that is not what I experienced.
Some of what I experienced or noticed at ISTE.
It is worthwhile to call attention to the fact that I don't attend conferences the same way many people do. I spend most of my time in the conference halls, cafes (i.e. Blogger), and/or meeting with folks at local establishments. I've been doing this for several years now. I started this practice when I realized the benefits that take place when instead of rushing off to "sessions," you slow down and make "connections" with people who have interesting ideas and perspectives that you'd like to explore further. So, while I was able to find and connect with people from diverse backgrounds if I sought them out, without doing so, I felt their lack of presence. In its place, a sea of white filled the conference floor, hallways, and hangout spaces. This really hit me when I looked at some of what was captured from the pre-conference, blogger cafe (in this pic and this vid), awards ceremony, and conference floor. The panel line up or presentations with multiple presenters, for the most part, were not diverse (unless that was the topic). Yes, there are exceptions, but we need more than exceptions and we need to take notice and discuss when that is not the case.

Some colleagues from back home noticed too. They reached out to me commenting on the lack of diversity and wondering how this could be addressed more effectively within our learning communities.

Bronx school Principal Jamaal Bowman speculates that this could be the result of a few factors. One is that often people don't know about these events. He points out that chances are these communities have more pressing issues to think about, like racism. Yet, we (white people) need their voices and insights.

Jamaal thinks another problem is that white people and people of color (POC) generally don’t  grow up around one another. So many of the white people that have historically attended and put these events together don't have friends from diverse backgrounds and don't know how to approach them. They also may not notice when spaces are predominantly white.

A tale of two conferences

It is however, important to note, that this is my experience from the perspective of a white woman attending ISTE. Many attendees of color, had a very different story to tell. They felt supported this year. They worked together to submit proposals to present. They formed meetups. They felt there were more opportunities where they were welcomed. They came together and felt a strong sense of purpose and hope. They worked to make significant progress as a result of continued work over the years to provide more adequate representation of diverse populations at ISTE and other conferences.

Part of what led to my very different experience, is that these efforts were not know among all attendees. If you were not aware such groups, efforts, and/or activities existed, then it is quite possible you would have had an experience like mine.

My colleague, and #NYCSchoolsTech educator Clemencia Acevedo points out, that while the experience colleagues and I had may be different from others, writing about and discussing such topics opens the door for constructive conversations, feedback, and enables us to learn with and from one another. In fact, my initial Tweet about the issue, already exposed educators such as Clemencia and myself to spaces and opportunities that are out there, but not known to many of us.

Awareness of, and exposure to, opportunities and conversations like this are necessary and ISTE is aware. In fact the issue of diversity is one ISTE’s new board president, Dr. Mila Fuller is addressing head on. New board members (Gary Brantley, and S. Dallas Dance) are people of color who are also putting this issue at the forefront. Sarah Thomas, founder of EduMatch and co-founder EdSpeakers (which supports members through the process of presentation submission at conferences like ISTE), is another woman of color, standing out this year. She won ISTE's Making IT Happen award and had the opportunity to share her voice and insights during an ignite talk prior to the opening ISTE keynote.

ISTE is intentionally working to make progress in this area. Organizers gained momentum in attracting more people of color as participants and presenters this year. There was great progress and communities of color indeed felt more welcome than in ISTEs of the past. However, my experience was that the circles often did not intersect.

Change doesn’t happen overnight. Perhaps there is a continuum, and ensuring a more diverse representation is what precedes ensuring that there are more opportunities for interaction where we learn among one another. This requires being intentional in ensuring experiences where attendees can connect with a diverse group are more prevalent and promoted more widely. This means we are focusing not only on ensuring a diverse audience is present, but that we also make opportunities and safe spaces to connect and interact with, rather than separate from, one another.
I reached out to several ISTE board members and advocates and discovered some of the actions they are taking to help ensure ISTE works to serve its diverse national and international audience.  Here are some of the actions they are taking.

Actions taken by ISTE organizers and advocates to invite diversity

1) Digital Equity PLN (@DigEquityPLN)
ISTE DE PLN works to inspire thoughtful discussion & action aimed to ensure access & opportunities for all.  Learn more at

2) New President, ISTE Board of Directors, Dr. Mila Fuller
This is an area of focus for new board President Mila Fuller. She is working to ensure that ISTE in-person attendees represent the diverse community that is active in technology in education online and in their own communities that are influenced by ISTE.

3) Black Techs of Color Meetup
This is a private social media space where Black techs of color plan and connect. They created their own safe spaces while encouraging each other as presenters and leaders.
They felt this was a good year.

5) Support from The #ISTEBoard
The ISTE Board believes in the need for an inclusive network and they are taking actions to move in that direction. They acknowledge the issue and are addressing this by ensuring their marketing materials, presenters, language used, and student standards (such as #7 Global Collaborator) are more inclusive.

What do you think? What has your experience been as an attendee of ISTE and other conferences? Does any of this resonate with you? What are some actions we can take to invite diversity? Please share in the comments and I will include in an upcoming post on the topic.

Editors note: Brava for making it to the end of this post. Were you looking for the strategies to invite diversity and see they are now gone? That is because due to the length of this post (1000+ words), per recommendation of blog readers, the strategies to invite diversity have been moved to their own separate post which you can access here.


  1. Thank you for posting about this issue. (As a white female educator) I was also disappointed in the lack of diversity displayed on the vendor hall floor. Although I don't have "purchasing power" and wasn't looking for new products to buy, I do enjoy speaking with current district partners about how they are improving their products. But in brochure after brochure, on countless banners and backdrops, I saw so many white faces looking back at me. And I didn't notice, but I bet there was a disproportionate representation of children of color in the advertising for academic and behavioral intervention products. That could just be my cynicism. Either way, I applaud you for pointing out both the shortcomings and strides towards change.

  2. I had a very different experience, as I focused on the Poster presentations and not the vendors. On Wednesday in particular there were schools presenting and the students were a dynamic mix of people of all different back grounds as well as Spanish and English speakers. I attributed it to being that the schools in attendance were from the surrounding, heavily Latino area. I enjoyed hearing the students present to me in English but speak with each other in Spanish; a true dual language approach. I saw much diversity in the attendees and wasn't paying as much attention to the vendors, though did also see several vendors of different ethnicities.

    1. You bring up an important point. The students are indeed diverse, but the adults did not reflect this diversity. This is where I think we need to do a better job.

  3. I'll point some of my existing concerned contacts to this post, as it is not a new discussion. We've made some noise (some of which has been heard) on Twitter about the higher-ed conference/event space, as well as the overall edtech conference space. Event/conference planners and organization boards are starting to do more than just talk to each other and wring their hands.

    FYI: A side issue is that papers & presentations are good for tenure and promotion, but "mere" attendance is not. The counter-intuitive part of this is that you have to attend to network—and networking is vital to tenure and promotion. I've seen POC/women (in and out of academia) fail to network, believing the work itself would be enough. And I've seen admins fail to fund POC/women in attendance and research opportunities. Conferences can make it easier for governmental entities like NYC DOE or public state universities to bring diversity: Offer adjunct & grad student pricing to make it more affordable.

  4. Hi Lisa. I enjoyed reading your post and understand the point you are making. As a former ISTE Board member I applaud and support diversity in conference attendance and of course in presenters and those who are invited and featured. Remembering of course that most of the presentations are selected via a blind review process. What has really concerned me for many years is the lack of international representation. Although having this word in its title ISTE continues to be very underrepresented by members and visitors from outside if the USA. Ideally ISTE conference should move around the world each year however we know this is impossible economically. I recommend however we not lament the lack of diversity but work towards making it more possible for minority's to attend and be active.

  5. Julie, I would certainly echo your sentiment. For an organization of this caliber, and with the name INTERNATIONAL in there, it should attempt to venture outside of the US. Not just for the sake of "minorities" to attend, but to truly be a leader in diversified, international experience. ISTE should be the "Olympics" of EdTech conferences. Hosted by other countries. I certainly look forward to that happening, or they may very well change that INTERNATIONAL to INSTITUTE.