As we’ve all learned by being in robotics, being a part of FIRST means being a part of a greater community. Joining a team means joining a family of skilled people whom you will learn to cherish over the build and competition seasons. Going to just one competition, volunteering at just one outreach event, or mentoring just one team can introduce you to many opportunities to meet new people. However, this raises the question, how do you define your community? Are you part of a team, a region, a nation, or FIRST itself? How does your exposure to certain people affect certain things like diversity? What types of communities have the greatest, or at least the greatest potential, effect on those things, and is it for the better or the worse? These questions have many answers, but I believe one answer, however simple, may be the most interesting one: the differences between a school supported team and an independent one.
It’s not an often thought about comparison, but it is nonetheless an interesting one to think about. It would seem to be reasonable to assume that there would be differences in how you meet people: school team members are already going to school with one another and likely already know each other, whereas independent team members could be complete strangers to one another. However, it’s difficult to draw conclusions about something as broad as two massive groups of FIRST. There are plenty of other reasonable illations you could draw from the subject, like how FIRST in schools will actually bring together some students who wouldn’t have met had they not been in robotics.
This isn’t to say any side has its own advantage in diversity; in fact this is quite the contrary, but both kinds of teams are diverse in their own way. On the one hand, school FIRST teams have the opportunity to bring together students who will create bonds in the months ahead of them. This allows people to widen their exposure to people to create a diverse environment. On the other hand, independent teams comprised of different schools have the opportunity to bring people from multiple different environments together. This other way of bringing people together also allows for people from different environments to become a part of the FIRST community, so it would be wrong to disparage that by comparing the diversity efforts of different types teams.
Through writing this, I’ve had to think a lot about how different experiences in FIRST can affect its overall diversity. While I may have introduced this as a comparison, upon further reasoning, anywhere I go that is FIRST related, whether it be an offseason or regional event, a large or small team, or a school or independent team, I can safely say that FIRST has created a diverse environment for its members. There may be differences in how you create that environment, but FIRST has a history of bringing people together no matter the community. School teams and independent teams are just one comparison in how people define their FIRST community and how they each have their own methods for creating diverse environments, so I can certainly say the conversation about how teams achieve diversity is far from over. Diversity is something that has to be consistently worked towards, but from looking at how different teams achieve it, we can learn what it means to be part of the FIRST community.
It’s a serious understatement to say there’s a lot that goes into transitioning. And for every anticipated hurdle, there are unexpected challenges that come along. One such challenge is the awkwardness of associating with acquaintances when you’re mid or post-transition.
For example…friends from other robotics teams that you only see at competitions.
Imagine this: you’re at a competition, and you approach a team’s pit to say hi to friends you made the last time you competed with this team. Maybe you were on the same alliance or shared parts or just got to talking about scouting in your downtime. You hang out every time you compete together, but you don’t really talk outside of that. Since the last time you saw them, you’ve come out as trans and started transitioning. You’ve started going by a different name and pronouns and changed your appearance. You go up and say hi, and they greet you excitedly….by your dead name. This is uncomfortable, but you have the option to let it pass if your transition isn’t something you want to address. Until one of your teammates comes to get you for help with something and calls you by your preferred name. Suddenly, your friend from another team has all these questions, and you’re in a difficult position where you’re more or less forced to come out.
Being trans isn’t all that someone is, but it’s often forced to the forefront of their identity because of the conflict between who they are and who they used to be. This is especially prevalent when it comes to interactions with people who aren’t privy to all the intimate details of your day to day life.
I began socially transitioning in my senior year of high school, but robotics was always somewhere where I was walking on eggshells because of the climate of my team. Because of this, I wasn’t out to most of the people I associated with at FIRST events. Fast forward a year, and I’m an active alumnus of the program and still volunteer at events. Without the pressure of my team, I’m no longer in the closet and exclusively using my preferred name and pronouns. Because of this, paired with the fact that hormone replacement therapy has started to take effect, I’m finding myself having these conversations more than I ever have before. Being forced to discuss your identity under any circumstances can be awkward and uncomfortable, but it is especially so when it’s unexpected and out of your control.
After going through this same song and dance enough times, I’ve gotten it down to a science. Here are the six pieces of advice I have for maneuvering these encounters more comfortably.
Being mid-transition is awkward and uncomfortable and challenging. You have to face unwanted attention for just being yourself. But it shouldn’t limit you from doing the things you love or seeing people that matter to you. You’ll always have to be coming out to someone…just don’t let those interactions define how you live your life.
My team recently celebrated the conclusion of our fourth year in FIRST by sending off a group of eight seniors. Looking back on the original group of 17 or so students who joined as rookies, I took note of the exceptional talent of the team. The coach who started the team scoured the school for the best and the brightest students who he believed had the proper knowledge in mechanical, electrical, and software engineering. Our school, a private school with a decently difficult entry exam, is fairly competitive when it comes to engineering and mathematics departments; over the past four years, our team has acquired multiple fantastic people who do excellent work in their fields. With our alumni going into engineering fields at prestigious colleges, it would be safe to say that our robotics team values academic proficiency.
But as you’ve all heard at every competition you have been to and as you’re about to hear again, FIRST isn’t just about the robot.
With the robot as priority number one on our team, various fields such as logistics, spirit, and marketing are strictly volunteer based. Existing members of the team find time to work on these fields, but they aren’t as valued on the team as the robot is, so they are not often as proficiently done as they could be. The coach searched the school for the scholars in only specific fields, but because robotics is just seen as building a robot, the team became focused strictly on that, which brings me to my issue.
Reflecting on the original team as well as even our current team, I realized that the team isn’t exactly as diverse as it could be. Less than a quarter of the team are women, only two people (including me) are LGBTQ+, racial diversity is only barely okay, and there are no nonbinary students. In addition, there were no LGBTQ+ students on the team until I joined two years ago, so there is definitely more that could be done about diversity on our team. I didn’t really expect this because coming from a progressive and diverse school, I would expect the robotics team to have a little more diversity, but nobody seems to value it. It’s not that our team has any hatred towards anyone — in fact my team is very accepting of me and the other student — but the team’s image is not one of a diverse group of people.
When starting a rookie team, you become desperate to build a robot, which is what my coach did. Because of this, the search for students didn’t extend to the different fields it could have. FIRST isn’t just about the robot, but our original team didn’t know that. FIRST has many different opportunities that attract people from all walks of life, expanding the capability to be a diverse community, but when starting or joining a rookie team, not everyone knows about their diverse potential.
To solve this issue, I recommend improving your team’s outreach. Outreach is how our team started; the coach went around our school and found the scholars in engineering that would make good team members, but this could be improved. Improving outreach includes advocating to people that FIRST has so many other things to offer other than the robot. Try to get people interested by telling them about fields like marketing, community service, education, and many more opportunities. Advertise FIRST for what it really is: a family composed of various professions and expertises. This isn’t to disparage my team or other rookie teams that prioritize the robot, because that does open the opportunity for some talented individuals to join the team. What I’m saying is that mentality doesn’t offer as much diversity as a team could have. In short, my point is when starting or joining a rookie team, make an effort to emphasize diversity from the start. Make clear to people that FIRST isn’t just about the robot, and you’ll ultimately get more people interested in robotics. Again, I don’t want to diminish the efforts of teams like mine who prioritize the technical aspects of FIRST, but a more diverse environment will only be achieved by reaching out to more people in different professions and the rookie years of a team are often the best times to achieve this goal.
Happy Pride Month!
Once again, it’s June which means it’s a great time to attend pride festivals, remember our history, and advocate for our future. Here at LGBTQ+ of FIRST, we’re excited to keep building our organization and visibility throughout FIRST programs. It may be the offseason, but we’re keeping busy with administrative streamlining, getting ready for brand new staff members, and gearing up for FIRST seasons to start right back up again.
This month, look forward to learning about our past, our present, and our future. Keep an eye out for individual stories, as well as some talk about our community as a whole!
Thank you for supporting us and we look forward to a whole month of love, equality, and of course, pride!
Your LGBTQ+ of FIRST Staff
Ambassador applications are open year round. Representative and Admin applications are open for the month of May 2018!
This year, we’ve made a few changes to our structure. Ambassadors are now only responsible for outreach, such as handing out pins and brochures at competitions. Representatives will take a larger role in content creation and organization, and the position is now open to alumni, volunteers, mentors, and other involved FIRSTers!
All of our documentation is in the process of being updated – but we wanted to make sure that you could apply right after Championships! If you have any questions, please contact us.
Decisions will be received by the second week of June at the latest.
Join us on Thursday, April 19 anytime from 11:30 – 12:30 in GRB Convention Center, Room 330B! Meet other members of LGBTQ+ of FIRST and engage in interesting and insightful discussion!
About LGBTQ+ of FIRST
LGBTQ+ of FIRST is an organization dedicated to raising awareness and acceptance of LGBTQ+ participants in FIRST Robotics. LGBTQ+ of FIRST was started to spread visibility of the LGBTQ+ community within FIRST and help teams become safe spaces for their members.