In 2012, Ellen Lapham, Carol Muller, and Kathy Richardson set out to memorialize the spirit of inspiration that their close friend Anita Borg brought to their lives. The original project, a community blog known as Anita’s Quilt, showcased the array of people whose lives Anita influenced and energized. This year, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Systers—the online community that Anita Borg founded to support women in tech—by republishing some of our favorite Anita’s Quilt stories.
A version of this post was originally published on December 13, 2012.
I can recall meeting Anita Borg for the first time when I was in graduate school. She visited UC Berkeley in 1988 as part of a WICSE (Women in Computer Science and Engineering) lunch at the invitation of Sheila Humphrys. Anita talked about her research in operating systems and the initiative to start the Systers email list. She told the story of how Systers was started when all of the women at a conference met in the ladies’ bathroom. After that lunch, I immediately joined Systers.
Anita and I had an opportunity to meet again six years later when I visited DEC’s Western Research Lab to ask some research questions about the DEC Alpha chip. I was an assistant professor at Northwestern University at that time. Prior to that meeting, I had distributed an email on Systers about starting a Systers-of-Color sub-list within Systers to focus on minority women in computing. The goal was to provide a forum for minority women to discuss issues particular to the group without having to provide an explanation about the issues. Such issues include greater levels of isolation, tokenism, scarcity of role models/mentors, and lack of access to influential networks. I was surprised at the level of pushback that we received about starting this subgroup. Anita intervened on our behalf to indicate that just as Systers was started to bring women together to discuss issues unique to women, so, too, was the Systers-of-Color list started for issues unique to women of color. The pushback stopped immediately.
During the meeting at DEC WRL in 1994, two things happened. First I had an opportunity to meet with the architect of the DEC Alpha chip to get questions answered related to my research on sparse matrix computations. Second, Anita invited me to lead a birds-of-a-feather (BoF) session on women of color at the first Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) in Washington, D.C., that June. I accepted with great excitement. We had approximately 10 to 15 participants attend the BoF and the bonding was great. We launched Systers-of-Color.
Women of color in computing continued organizing BoF sessions at GHC 1997, GHC 2000, and GHC 2002. The attendance at these sessions grew with each conference. For GHC 2004 in Chicago, we held our first Women of Color luncheon for around 200 participants. GHC has continued holding the Women of Color lunches each year.
In 2007, the Latinas in Computing group was started. In 2011, the Black Women in Computing group was started. Then in 2012, the two groups, along with representatives from other women’s groups, with leadership from the Center for Minorities and People with Disabilities in IT (CMD-IT), organized the first Women of Underrepresented Groups one-day track. Anita’s support for the Systers-of-Color list has had a major impact on many women from underrepresented groups.
The growth of Women of Underrepresented Groups in Computing has paralleled my growth with the Grace Hopper Celebration. As mentioned above, I started working with GHC as a leader of the BoF on Women of Color for GHC 1994, the first celebration. For the second GHC in 1997 in San Jose, I was asked to be a part of the program committee, which I happily accepted. I was then asked to be the Program Chair for GHC 2000 in Cape Cod. I went on to be the General Chair of GCH 2002 in Vancouver, the first GCH held outside of the United States. I then handled fundraising for GCH 2004, which was held in Chicago.
My growth with GHC, and in particular my close interactions with Anita Borg and Telle Whitney, helped me in many different ways. First, the leadership experiences with GHC have been invaluable. Second, the personal interactions with Anita and Telle were phenomenal. They have been exceptional role models and inspirational leaders. Lastly, the exposure to senior women in academia and industry through GHC has been very rewarding. This exposure led to me becoming a university department head and helping to cofound the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing conference series. Now my role as Executive Director of CMD-IT, in addition to be a professor at Texas A&M University, is enhanced by my continued relationship with Telle.
I really miss Anita, especially her great support and significant encouragement to do bold things. As my way of continuing Anita’s spirit, I want to encourage and support you in your efforts to do bold things that will have a significant impact and inspire others.