Before Gayle Karen Young joined the Wikimedia Foundation as the Chief Culture and Talent Officer she thought of Wikipedia as simply an online encyclopedia. “I considered Wikipedia a website and I was only familiar with English Wikipedia, so I thought it was an online reference source and didn’t realize at the time it was a movement,” Gayle said. Now, she understands the way people access and create free knowledge on the internet and the impact that Wikimedians have on that process.
“Knowledge is a prerequisite for social change,” explains Gayle. “Access to knowledge has to be a foundation of that. When you look at places in the world where conditions are not there for people to thrive, it usually has to do and starts with a lack of access to information and ideas by a given group or party.” This knowledge disparity and its social justice implications is something that she is passionate about and it was one of the primary attractions for her about working at the Wikimedia Foundation.
At her first Wikimedia Chapters Conference, she realized the global nature of Wikipedia and the impact the movement was having around the world. “I found the first chapters’ meeting utterly fascinating, it’s like a miniature United Nations. You’ve got Wikimedia Bangladesh, Wikimedia India, Germany, and France and seeing all these different individuals and the individuals representing entities coming together to figure out how to function better on behalf of an entire movement, and that was really cool,” she explained. “Wikimania was similarly a joy, in getting to meet contributors and entities beyond the chapters structure who are as key to the movement.”
Gayle is enamored of the passion that Wikipedians demonstrate. “People really care about getting information out there that is good…and that intellectual rigor and generosity are fundamentally based on the best parts of us as human beings,” she said. Although not an editor herself, when she finds the time in her busy schedule, she expects to edit topics related to psychology, philanthropy, and global human rights—three areas she is passionate about.
She also credits the altruistic nature of Wikipedians in maintaining the accuracy of Wikipedia and the minimal amount of vandalism on the site. She goes on to explain, “There have always been, in every age, repositories of knowledge that have been tended over and cared for and supported by small groups of people that really care about that. People fundamentally care about preserving [knowledge] and people are fundamentally motivated by learning.” Whether it’s the Library of Alexandria or the private libraries of ancient Rome, the people behind these repositories of knowledge were passionate about preserving information for future generations; however, Wikipedia is taking this notion one step further and making knowledge available for free to anyone with internet access.
As the Foundation’s Chief Culture and Talent Officer, Gayle works to create a dynamic culture within the organization where people can thrive and make greater contributions. She wears many hats in her role from “ship’s counselor” to working on leadership development and strategy work. She explains, “My job is to tend the environment so that people in the organization can function well.” She works tirelessly to create a positive environment where Foundation employees are free to be themselves and flourish, and recognizes that this work has a long arc, that it takes time and tending year-over-year to sustain that.
When Gayle started at the Foundation, she immediately felt at home and “in some ways I feel like these are my people.” As a big Star Trek fan, she compared the feeling she got watching the movie Galaxy Quest, a spoof on Star Trek, to the people behind the Wikimedia movement, “I remember sitting in the audience and watching a scene in the movie where a bunch of folks are at a space convention and I was like ‘these are my people’ and in a sense I feel like these are my people here.” She finds “the integrity, the commitment, mostly the sheer quirkiness” to be motivation behind the movement, but “there is no wrangling of the quirkiness, my job is to support it.”
Gayle’s background, education in psychology and her training as a Zen Buddhist, help her “meet people where they are,” which she finds useful to her role in understanding where other people are coming from in a given situation. She has always appreciated that there is more than one perspective available and points out that “you can’t take for granted that one viewpoint of the world is right.”
With such a multicultural employee, consultant, and volunteer base, Gayle approaches her job from multiple perspectives. “If I came at it from just a woman’s perspective, or just a Chinese person’s perspective, it doesn’t respect all the things that you carry into a conversation,” she explains. “I need to bring the multiple sides of me and the lenses that those carry to the front to see with.”
It’s this approach that she credits with helping the Foundation make wise decisions about its future. “We need to fundamentally mature as a movement and as an organization without losing the passion and without losing the energy and the commitment to the mission,” she said. “Organizations can be like giant icebergs, leaders are like tug boats, they will have a massive impact in steering this massive thing in the right direction, but you shouldn’t run afoul of it – and culture eats strategy.” As the Foundation grows and matures, it’s Gayle’s role to stretch and support the people behind the movement without steering the iceberg off course.
Interview and profile by Alice Roberts, Communications Intern