Why Tattoos

Ok, I admit it. The link between raising money for effective charities and getting tattoos is tenuous at best. I've tried explaining the link to people quickly, but they usually seem a bit lost towards the end. It usually works best to tell the whole story from beginning to end like I do on the home page. When I don't have time for this my shorthand explanation goes something like this:

Each year for my birthday I ask friends and family to donate money to a specific, effective charity. If we reach the goal I set each year I add another piece to my tattoo. Each one of the four elements in the tattoo corresponds to the cause which we raised money for.

It took a lot of work to explain it that way; I was really miserable at explaining the connection at first. That works for most people. A few people ask me how I pick charities, which is awesome! That is exactly what I want people to ask! I get to talk about comparing philanthropic endeavors and why I think it is important to prioritize causes as well as as charities.  The question I've found that really throw a s me off is "why tattoos?"

So admittedly I live in Body-Mod-Mecca so my perspective may be a bit skewed when it comes to needing a reason to get a tattoo. The answer is actually really simple and comes down to a very primal, and perhaps selfish answer: I find them beautiful. I like the idea of adding beauty and art to myself. Creating art that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Being able to support and advertise for a local artist. Aesthetically, I find them pleasing and they make me happy.

Part of what I find delightful about my tattoos isn't just the pure design, but the meaning. Having a permanent beautiful reminder of the things I value in the world is something I find irresistibly compelling. Every time I look at the lines on my arm, really look at them, I am reminded of the commitment I have made to foster sustainable change in the world. I remember how lucky I am, and that whatever troubles I have in life are likely not as important as they seem in the larger scheme of things. This is a permanent feature that will serve as a reminder of my values, and a touchstone to my ideals around helping others and always asking how we can be, and do better.

I latched onto the idea of tattoos for this project is because everyone always wants to know about your tattoos. It seems counter-intuitive at first that people would ask you about something that seems so personal. But they do! All the time!!

Actually, I am banking on people doing this.

Actually, I am banking on people doing this.

I get to answer by talking about causes that I love and care about. It opens a door to engage with people about philanthropic giving and charity. I get to start the process of destigmatizing talking about our giving by telling people how important I think charity evaluation is and how much money we've raised. When people ask about my tattoos they are usually either people who are interested in tattoos and body art, or people I'm only acquainted with who are trying to make conversation. In both cases it is a great way for me to introduce EA ideas to people who likely haven't heard of effective altruism yet.

The placement of my tattoos is intentional; they wrap around my right forearm. This means they are usually the first thing you see when I stick out my arm to shake your hand. They are how I great the world and introduce myself. I feel like I am weary my ideals on my sleeve. Which is scary at first, but empowering, and yes, beautiful.

Body art is a way of claiming yourself. It connects your thoughts and your existence to your body. You look at a tattoo and remember talking about it, picking colors, drawing it, looking at pictures, staring in the mirror, trying to decide if this was ‘you’. You remember that moment wondering who ‘you’ is exactly.

Being Low(er) Income In Effective Altruism

There have been a series of discussions on EA forums about representation of minorities and marginalized groups. I will be writing several posts about this topic.

One proposed way to increase donations and charitable giving is to destigmatize discussions of money and giving. We do this because when we discuss our behavior with others it creates a standard of conduct within our communities. When we review and examine our charitable donations it reminds our friends and family the importance of giving and creates a norm around increasing donations as well as support and praise for giving. The goal being to create a culture of positive reinforcement and praise. So we are working on building a culture that is OK talking about money because we believe that this has the potential to do a lot of good, even though it may be uncomfortable at first.

But these discussions can be super uncomfortable if you know you can't donate at that same level. So it becomes easy to see why going to a meet-up or discussion where people are talking about how to donate large sums of money is something people of lower income would avoid.

A few months ago at an EA meetup, the question was asked if everyone in the group was a tech worker. At the time I didn't volunteer being the only non-techy in the room. One because I was interested in other people's response, but mainly because I was overcome with my latent desire not to draw attention to myself. I also had a suspicion that had I thrown my hand up I would have gotten questions about what I do (which I don't think is very interesting), or worse *eep* why I'm not earning to give.

The several people in the room that know I don't work as a programer, or anywhere around the tech industry, also didn't volunteer that I wasn't 'one of them.' This experience was interesting, not just because of my amusement at my own shyness, but because it exemplifies something that I've heard others mention about being around a lot of effective altruists. The group has a tendency to be be mostly homogenous in nature, which can be ostracizing for those that don't necessarily fit.

Most of the male, techy, analytical types that inhabit the EA space have very high earning potential. More than that, they start out with at pretty good pay rate. The Seattle group is mainly late 20s, early 30s working professionals. Which means most of our members are already earning a good salary and even earning to give, while comfortably paying off what student debt they have.

I do not fit this mold.  Read: I'm broke.

I earn a decent salary now for an entry level admin job. But I graduated college as the market crashed in 2009. I have debt with high interest. I have the support of a great family, but we have always lived paycheck to paycheck. I chose to work in a field that does not pay well. I live in an expensive city. All this culminates to mean that every month I run my finances through the calculator. It means that frequently my bank account reads $3 for a day or two before my paycheck. It means I have to budget in coffee dates and doctor visits.

When I’m surrounded by people I know earn enough to give away 10% of their income and still not sweat buying dinner for 7 people I feel out of place*

All this means that I am fairly consistently thinking about money. Not always stressed about it, but always thinking about it. I have the running tally sheet of expenses in my head, that gets pulled up every time someone suggests we grab dinner. It means I have a small constant drain on my thought process, on my decision making abilities, and my emotional stability.

It means that every time I organize a meet-up for EA I have to worry about who is paying for snacks. It means that I feel guilty eating dinner I know someone else paid for, even though I know the expense has very little impact on them. It means that I carry cash to pitch in whenever possible. This is partially because I fear standing out among my EA group*, but mostly because when you are lower income you value and count money closely.

And that seems like the main difference. I feel each dollar spent, even when it isn't my dollar.

When I'm surrounded by people I know earn enough to give away 10% of their income and still not sweat buying dinner for 7 people I feel out of place. I am in awe of being able to do that. I feel fully the fact that this simple difference puts me at a disadvantage to those around me*. And I wonder how to relate to these people I am supposed to be organizing, motivating, and advising.

I'm well aware of my own privilege and I know I not nearly as bad off as most low income people in this country. But the fact that I can feel so out of place at EA meetings, given the relatively low difference in income between myself and my peers, I realize that truly low income individuals would likely not feel comfortable in our group at all. And that makes me inexplicably sad.

As a culture we have a tenancy to brush over economic diversity when discussing inclusion. Sadly, I think this is because it is closely related with ethnic and racial diversity. Also because we just don't like to talk about money. I believe that effective altruism can feel very exclusionary to those of lower economic status, and that this group is incredibly underrepresented within EA (for a discussion of why homogeneity is detrimental see my previous posts about diversity).

So we naturally don’t socialize with people that spend above our means.

One reason why EA is lacking economic diversity is because we tend to naturally separate ourselves based on class; as I illustrate in my experiences above, it feels icky to not be able to keep up. So we naturally don't socialize with people that spend above our means. But this distinction, this other-ness becomes clearer and more prevalent when hanging around effective altruists because we value talking about money and how much we donate.

But this means we are missing a huge chunk of donors! Because people of lower income donate lots of money. Like this ineractive map, most of these references focus on percentage donated, which actually works out to slightly less money than the donations by larger donors. But the inclination for altruism seems stronger in lower and middle income individuals (perhaps because we feel each dollar spent). It may be worth considering that it is easier to convince someone who is already donating to change their charitable giving than it is to convince someone to start giving, or give more.

Perhaps beyond diversity, it may be more effective to be wooing lower income donors.

So I decided I would start raising my hand, and raising it higher. Now when the question goes out in groups if everyone is a tech worker I swing my hand up and practically yell "I'm not!" When I was talking with people about plans to attend EA Global I explicitly mentioned that money was my limiting factor. Even though it made me cringe each time I said it. Of course no one minded, and it meant I got some support from friends. But that isn't why I said it.

I point out my lack of money to other EA people now, not for myself, but for those who are not there. Those that have either felt excluded from, or never even heard of, EA specifically because of their income level. I own the fact I am lacking in funds so that our community stays cognizant of the fact that not everyone who cares about effectiveness is a well-off tech worker. Because lots of people can't meet for coffee twice a week to discuss cause prioritization or AI risk. Because $10 a week on coffee is just too damn much. Because Lyft rides are expensive y'all! Because $400 for a conference registration can be hugely prohibitive (a gigantic shout out to everyone who has supported the scholarship program!).

I hope that my uncomfortable declarations of my economic status lead more of us to be inclusive, and creates space for our group to grow into including more economic diversity.

Because diversity is good!

And low income donors give a larger percentage

*Please note that feelings of inadequacy expressed are not due to discriminatory acts of members of my group, or EA members in general, but are more accurately attributed to societal pressures and my internal dialog. In no way has anyone ever explicitly made me feel unwelcome, more that society tells us that our value is closely tied to our wealth.

Seattle Effective Altruist’s “Be Excellent To Each Other” Policy

A few people from the EA community have asked for a copy of the Seattle EA "Be Excellent To Each Other" policy (ostensibly our behavioral contract). Elizabeth posted it to her blog a while ago, but I thought it bore repeating. Mainly because I think it is a great group policy, but also because I think it is just an excellent piece of writing, and she deserves some good credit for it.

I think my favorite is the second paragraph.

It is the goal of Seattle Effective Altruists that all members feel safe and respected at all times.  This does not preclude disagreement in any way, we welcome differing points of view.  But it does preclude personal attacks, unwanted touching (unsure if a particular touch is wanted?  ASK), and deliberate meanness.  This policy applies to all members, but we are conscious that some people have traveled a more difficult road than others and are more likely to encounter things that make them feel unsafe, and are committed to countering that.

If you are wondering if something you are about to say follows the policy, a good rule of thumb is that it should be at least two of true, helpful, and kind.  This is neither necessary nor sufficient, but it is very close to both.

If you find something offensive (including but not limited to: racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, etc) or it otherwise makes you uncomfortable (including but not limited to harassment, dismissal, unwanted romantic overtures), we encourage you to speak up at the time if you feel comfortable doing so.  We hope that all our members would want to know that they have said something offensive.  If you do not feel comfortable speaking up at the time, please tell a membership of the leadership (currently John, Elizabeth, and Stephanie) as soon as possible, in whatever format you feel comfortable (in person, facebook, e-mail, etc).   Depending on the specifics we will address it with the person in question, change a policy, and/or some other thing we haven’t thought of yet.

If someone tells you they find something you (or someone you agree with) said offensive, you do not have to immediately agree with them.  But please understand that it is not an attack on you personally, and quite possibly very scary for them to say.  If you did not mean to be offensive, express that, and listen to what the person has to say.  if you are a bystander, please convey your respect and support for both people without silencing either.

If you did mean to be offensive, leave.  Deliberate personal attacks will not be tolerated.  Repeated non-deliberate offensiveness will be handled on a case by case basis.

SEA is not in a position to police the behavior of our members outside our meetings and online presence (e.g. the facebook message board), and will not intervene normal interpersonal disagreements.  But if you feel unsafe attending a meeting because of a member’s extra-group behavior (including but not limited to threatening, stalking, harassment, verbal attacks, or assault), please talk to the leadership.  We will not have group members driven out by others’ bad behavior.

This is a living document.  We can’t foresee all possible problems, or remove the necessity for judgement calls.  But we hope that this sets the stage for Seattle Effective Altruists as a respectful community, and encourage you to talk to us if you concerns or suggestion

My additional two cents. Particularly when you are talking about controversial or sensitive topics.

My additional two cents. Particularly when you are talking about controversial or sensitive topics.