I’m going to open my essay with a bit of self-exposure. These things aren’t really secrets, but some context places me into a broader story.
I’m the child of two Army parents, and spent at most two years at any one school, and have several cities play home at various points in my life. I’m a small business owner, and have made my living with WordPress in some form or another for the past eight years. I’ve had some struggle with feelings of depression for as long as I can remember in my life. I am a gay latino living in Orlando, FL. Those last few points have defined more of my internal life than I’d really care for in the past few months. We’ll get to that later.
I’d been doing web development since high school, where I was fortunate enough to go to a school that taught basic programming. The dot com bubble may have been on the verge of popping, with web companies still riding high, but courses in public schools hadn’t yet caught up to that industry.
Throughout high school and college I both worked on websites for myself, friends, and a few paying clients. WordPress had not yet entered my life, and would not until the Spring of 2008 when I wanted to move my personal blog from a manually managed list of links with some basic PHP thrown in to something more robust. It helped that I was tasked with creating a new website for the company that I was working for, despite that being no part of my regular job description, or compensation for that matter.
Fast forward a few years, and in 2011 I discover that the forums that I was going to for help were populated by real people, something I’d come to know as the WordPress community.
This community was tireless, knowledgeable, patient, and generally filled with the can-do attitude that attracts people to roll up their sleeves and get to work. My kind of tribe.
Over the course of five years, a variety of web tech conferences, close to 100 meetups, and around thirty WordCamps and counting, I’ve built up a group of friends and partners that have been my hangout buddies, sounding board, business associates, and support network all in one.
In those five years I’ve had a few ups and downs in my life. I’d moved jobs a few times, went from doing side freelance work in the evenings to working for myself full time, uprooting house about five times, and started and stopped a variety of partnerships. I’ve continued to make new friends, both offline and on, that I would count among my closest confidantes. The WordPress community has been a big driver of my personal, social, and professional life and I am forever grateful for that.
This group of people is as varied as any I could hope for. We’re not perfect (no one is), but we’re generally more willing to hear out opposing ideas, have frank discussions on topics that would be uncomfortable or unheard of with other groups, and represent a diversity that makes me proud to be a community member.
The things that I might be discriminated for in real life are not only accepted, but are normalized in a way that makes me feel comfortable being myself. This includes being able to share and have shared experiences outside of the expanse of my meatspace network, as well as the safety that comes with the knowledge that I am not alone. I can’t be alone when I can commiserate with a group of like-minded loners.
On 12 June, less than three months ago, life in Orlando was shaken. We became the latest of a list that threatens to grow to every community in America that has to contend with the fallout of a mass shooting. Pointing out that the attack occurred on Latin night at a gay club is apparently overtly political when describing the event as a multi-faceted hate crime and terrorist attack. So be it. Someone tore a portion of my community up and altered the fabric of my life.
My immediate response the day of was to worry about any other young latin gay men that I know that could have been at that club. I was also scrambling for information on volunteer efforts that may or may not have been available. Rumors circulated that the federal ban on blood donations among gay men had been lifted at some blood banks, which later turned out to be false. I was able to stew in outrage that the very people affected would be unable to offer lifesaving help to those who desperately need it, not just in Orlando but across the country.
My outrage turned to anxiety in short order. The story was dissected for weeks, and still frequently comes up in conversation. On more than one occasion I’ve had to excuse myself from those conversations, turn off the TV, or shut my laptop and walk away. I can’t claim any specific trauma, or even a feeling of “that could have been me” as I don’t frequent night clubs, but that could be any of us in some way.
Staring into an abyss for too long can make you think that the void is all that exists.
One redeeming moment throughout that ordeal was the outpouring of support from around the world, and our community pulling together to help the families of victims, and to unite in a strength that comes from our network but does not exist in any one person. Over the course of 24 hours I received dozens of calls, texts, tweets, and messages in various other forms asking if I specifically was ok. The majority of those touch points came from members of the WordPress community, who ostensibly owe me nothing and that I may interact with in person once a year at a conference, but who have a kinship that unites us.
I’m reviewing this essay while sitting at my favorite coffeeshop. I’ve been coming here for twelve years now, almost as long as I’ve lived in Orlando. The coffee is great, but that’s not the only reason that I come in. As soon as I got here the owner greeted me with a hug, and the barista knew exactly how I like my coffee. The owner randomly thanked me for being dependable and a constant that she didn’t have to worry about being trouble, as something always comes up when running a small business. That’s definitely a sentiment that I can agree with.
While I don’t agree with her observation that, “David is always happy” (see prior revelation of lengthy stretches of discouragement and dispiritedness), I understand the need for constants in your life.
Those people that will be there for you, even if you don’t always know it.
Whether that’s a shoulder to lean on, a mentor when you’re stuck, or even a bright smile or online greeting for no reason than to share happiness, the amount of effort required to improve the lives of others can be as simple as the congeniality and cordiality that you would like others to afford to you.
One of my favorite things about WordCamps and WordPress meetups are the number of people that come out without financial compensation just to share their knowledge. I have the most fun helping with a workshop, teaching a group to do something that I myself had taught to me. We all needed some help to get where we are, and I don’t consider it an obligation, but an opportunity when I get to help others.
I have an ask with my essay. Be a pillar of support for your community. Not everyone is comfortable with putting themselves out for judgement, but everyone has moments of weakness.
Everyone is walking a path that you may never see when talking with them or following their lives online.
I ask that you make it clear to everyone that you are available if you are needed. You may not think that you can do anything to help, but even a sympathetic ear can be a lifeline that can come at the most important moment of need. I’ve been kept relatively sane by the community that started as a way to help me scrape together websites, and has become one of the driving factors of my life.
It’s only fair to continue paying that forward.
If you’re ever in Orlando, come get some coffee with me.