David Notkin

Remembering a geek feminist ally: David Notkin, 1955-2013

This is a guest post by Debbie Notkin, who is the chair of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award motherboard, a co-organizer of WisCon, and a science fiction and fantasy editor and reviewer. She is also the writer (with Laurie Toby Edison) of Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes and (with Laurie Toby Edison and Richard F. Dutcher) of Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes. She blogs at Body Impolitic and on Dreamwidth.

No marginalized group can move forward without allies, and all of us have the opportunity to be allies as well as need allies. So it behooves us to look at what high-integrity, committed ally work looks like. And that’s why I want to tell you about my brother.

When David Notkin’s son Akiva was about two years old, he was fascinated by all games played with balls. (At 15, he still is.) We were on a family vacation together when David and I walked with the toddler past a ping-pong table, and Akiva instantly wanted to see what was up. I asked David why he thought Akiva was so much more interested in balls and ball games than his older sister Emma. David said, “I don’t know. We treated them exactly the same; it must just be something about him.” Having heard this from dozens of parents over the years, and rarely finding a productive response, I just let it go.

Years later, unprompted (if I recall correctly), David told me that he was no longer sure that was true. He had started to spend time with and pay attention to the serious feminists who advocate for more women in technology and the STEM fields, and he had done some listening and some reading. He said, “I think it’s perfectly possible that we responded to Akiva’s interest in balls differently than we would have if it had been Emma.” I had, and still have, very little experience with anyone changing their mind on these topics.

Melissa McEwen at Shakesville differentiates between what she calls the “Fixed State Ally Model” and the “Process Model,”

In the Process Model, the privileged person views hirself as someone engaged in ally work, but does not identify as an ally, rather viewing ally work as an ongoing process. Zie views being an ally as a fluid state, externally defined by individual members of the one or more marginalized populations on behalf zie leverages hir privilege.

The kind of shift that David made about his son’s interest in ball games is as good a step into the Process Model as any.

In this flash talk, given at the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) Summit in Chicago in May of 2012, we see more commitment to process in ally work.

In this talk, David says nothing about what women want, how to bring women into the field, or really anything about anyone except David. Instead, he describes the reasons to take another step on an ally’s journey, and advocates a way for teachers and professors to take that step, by voluntarily stepping into a learning situation where they are in the minority. As he says in the opening frame, he’s in a room full of brilliant women. As he doesn’t say, he knows he has nothing to tell them about being female, or being female in the computer science world, or anything else about their lives. What he can share is his own efforts to understand what it’s like to be marginalized, without taking on the mantle of the marginalized.

The NCWIT talk came in a deceptively optimistic period for David; he had spent the end of 2010 and virtually all of 2011 in cancer treatment, and his scans were clean … until June. In February of 2013, a few months after David’s cancer had spread and he had been given a terminal diagnosis, his department held a celebration event for him. Notkinfest was a splendor of tie-dye, laughter, and professional and personal commemoration. I hadn’t really followed his trajectory as an ally and mentor to women and people of color, and I was amazed at how many of the speakers talked about his role in making space for marginalized groups.

Anne Condon, professor and head of the Department of Computer Science at the University of British Columbia told a longer story about Mary Lou Soffa, (Department of Computer Science, University of Michigan), who couldn’t be there. Dr. Condon said,

Mary Lou is a very prestigious researcher in compilers and software engineering, and probably the most outspoken person I know. Once a senior officer from a very prominent computing organization proudly unveiled a video about opportunities in computer science. Now in this video, all of the people profiled were white males, except for one little girl.

Mary Lou in true fashion stood up and she did not mince words as she told this senior official what she thought of that video. When she was done, there was total silence in the room. And then one voice spoke up, questioned the choice of profiles in that video and spoke to the importance of diversity as part of the vision of this organization.

And that person was David Notkin.

The speaker list at Notkinfest, aside from Dr. Condon, included somewhat of a Who’s Who in increasing diversity in computer science, including:

  • Martha Pollack, soon to be Provost for Academic and Budgetary Affairs, as well as Professor of Information and Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan, who has received the Sarah Goddard Power Award in recognition of her efforts to increase the representation of and climate for women and underrepresented minorities in science and engineering.
  • Tapan Parikh, Associate Professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and the TR35 Humanitarian of the Year in 2007. (check out his TedX talk on representing your ethnic background).
  • Carla Ellis, member and past co-chair of CRA-W, CRA’s Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research , past co-chair of the Academic Alliance of NCWIT. On her web page, Ellis says: “In my retirement, I will be pursuing two passions: (1) advocating for green computing and the role of computing in creating a sustainable society and (2) encouraging the participation of women in computing.”

Notkinfest was David’s next-to-last professional appearance. Here’s what he said at the open reception:

It’s important to remember that I’m a privileged guy. Debbie and – our parents, Isabell and Herbert, were children of poor Russian Jewish immigrants, and they were raised in the Depression and taught us the value of education and how to benefit from it.

Mom, especially, taught us the value of each and every person on earth. I still wake up and – You know, we have bad days, we have bad days, but we have plenty to eat and we have a substantive education, and we have to figure out how to give more back. Because anybody who thinks that we’re just here because we’re smart forgets that we’re also privileged, and we have to extend that farther. So we’ve got to educate and help every generation and we all have to keep it up in lots of ways.

When I spoke at his funeral, not three months after Notkinfest, the main thing I did was repeat that plea.

One thought on “Remembering a geek feminist ally: David Notkin, 1955-2013

  1. M

    I took one of Professor Notkin’s classes in undergrad. It always amazed me how much he cared about his students. One of my favorite memories of him was in an elevator a few weeks after his class ended, when he said “good job on your final exam!” When I thanked him, he said “no, thank *you*” Whenever I saw him around the university, he would always greet me with a smile. These sort of interactions were the norm for this amazing man. This is exactly why he is so good at thinking beyond himself when it came to being a strong ally. He is an inspiration.

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