Rosy Schechter to GeoHipster: “Be kind to yourself.”

Rosy Schechter is a human being who has been fortunate to channel her love of learning and desire to improve the world into a tapestried professional practice. This path has most recently led her to lead Amateur Radio Digital Communications (ARDC), a private foundation that both provides free IP address space to the international amateur radio community and makes grants to support amateur radio and digital communications science and technology. Prior to joining ARDC, she ran a nonprofit that focused on open sourcing data related to cannabis plants (Open Cannabis Project) and another nonprofit that connected people all over the world to learn about how to make open source maps (Maptime). A large portion of her career has also centered around educational and technical writing; she’s written curriculum on HTML, CSS, and Javascript basics, edited a guidebook for communities in Ghana wishing to exercise land tenure rights, copyedited a book on the science of tattooing, ghostwritten articles on the science of cannabis, and diagrammed how the patent system works with cannabis plants. Though she now roams the West Coast with a root in Portland, OR, she originally hails from Atlanta, GA, where she got her MS in Digital Media at Georgia Tech and a BA in Philosophy at Georgia State University. 
Twitter: @RosySchechter

Website: bethschechter.com 

Rosy was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: You founded Maptime in 2013. How did that come about? Was Maptime your first encounter with the geo crowd?

A: It all started at the 2013 State of the Map US conference. I was working in business development at the one and only Stamen Design, a boutique data visualization and design studio in San Francisco. Aside from being my first State of the Map event, there were two events that stood out: meeting Alan McConchie (Maptime cofounder and amazing human, who I’ll talk a bit more about shortly) and a striking talk by Alyssa Wright on the dismal number of women contributing to OpenStreetMap – 3%, and only 1% of open source contributions overall. This lack of female contribution had a negative effect on the data, and thus the overall map. For example, there were a variety of different accepted attributions for bars, brothels, and nightclubs, but a proposed attribution for childcare was rejected, though a tag known as `baby_hatch` remained. It made no sense and was clearly the result of a lack of contribution from non-white males. I wanted to change these numbers, which meant learning more about the technical details of mapping myself.

A few weeks later, I invited some friends over to Stamen for snacks and beverages and to work on Javascript tutorials for mapping. There were only a handful of us, and Alan was one of them. A brilliant cartographer with a knack for teaching, he had recently started working at Stamen and was happy to be our resident expert. Camille Teicheira, also a coworker, helped organize. Everyone had lots of fun, and we decided to do it again the next week. And then the next week. And then the week after that!

Before we knew it, word about our little get-together started spreading. In SF, suddenly we had a waiting list for this event that we called Maptime (which is just what it sounded like: time for making maps). Our soon-to-be-friend Lyzi Diamond in Portland, OR, wanted to start a chapter there, which became known as MaptimePDX. Thanks to these co-founders – Alan, Camille, and Lyzi – talking to their friends and tweeting the tweets, folks from all over the country and even internationally heard about us and wanted to do similar meetups in their city, including Washington DC, Berlin, and New York City. Just like that, Maptime was born. 

Q: We met at the 2015 State Of The Map conference in NYC, where you gave a passionate presentation about Maptime to a packed room. Your excitement was contagious. Tell us more about Maptime.

A: I remember! At that time, Maptime had exploded to be something like 40-50 chapters all over the world. And it really was exciting. I had never been a part of a phenomenon like that, and it was incredible and beautiful to me that there were people all around the world who just wanted to get together and learn about making maps, who shared a love for cartographic art and science and had a desire to share knowledge. I am still in awe at how quickly it spread. People stepped in to volunteer on our website (like Rafa Guitierrez), help with our code of conduct, fill out our resources and learning page, and, in a delightfully participatory way, make the whole thing happen. 

Q: At the 2016 SOTMUS in Seattle you gave another passionate talk (I have watched the video many times). In your summary you say “the truth is, [Maptime’s] success has come with a heavy load, one that has challenged my ideals around volunteerism, open source projects, my duty as a founder, and who I am as a human being.” What happened between 2015 and 2016?

A: Thank you. This is one of my favorite talks, and it means a lot to me that you like it and have watched it so many times. It was also one of the hardest – up until that point, most of my talks had been happy and enthusiastic or some kind of how-to. This one touched on some darker subjects, and I wanted to speak to them honestly.

Between 2015 and 2016, I moved from San Francisco to the deep suburbs of Portland, OR. Frustrated with the cost of living and our dismal chances of ever owning property in the Bay Area, we bought a relatively large house on a third of an acre. The summer was great – we were getting settled in our lovely new home, the sun came up early and set late, I worked and gardened. But then winter set in. We didn’t have many friends in Portland yet, we worked remotely, and it rained all the time. I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t realize just how hard it would be. Plus, I had moved from a tiny apartment in the Mission to a three-story house. Cleaning became a part-time job in a way that I didn’t enjoy – still don’t, but now there are roommates to help share the load. At the same time, my mom was having some severe health issues, the same ones that brought about the end of her life in 2019. I had already been feeling a little burnt out when I moved to Portland, but suddenly I was incapable of keeping up with Maptime. 

Though I didn’t want to admit it, I eventually opened up about what was going on with the Maptime board. It turned out, to my surprise, that they were also feeling it. At that point, it had been well over two years since Maptime started. In SF, we ran events every week and then every other week. When Lyzi moved to town, she started a Maptime in Oakland, just across the Bay. All of us had been running events, organizing around the international growth of Maptime, and working our regular jobs. Even though Stamen was supportive and gave us some time to work on it, it was still a lot. As a project that ran free events run by volunteers, it was bound to happen. 

The board decided to step down and pass the baton to a new board, which we announced at the talk you’re referencing. And amazingly, I still see bits of Maptime activity glimmering in my email and around the internet, which makes me very happy.

Q: A lot has changed in your life since 2015, including your name. Care to share details?

A: Sure! Career-wise, Maptime taught me that I really loved writing curriculum and how-tos. So the next job I took was as a curriculum writer for a delightful company called Skillcrush. I eventually decided to try the freelance life out, which gave me some flexibility that I’d been craving. During those early days, I rented a little art studio and started painting. One of my favorites is this 8’ x 4’ quail – Queen Quail, or Inky

It was during this time of freelance that I got involved in the cannabis industry and once again got to put my nonprofit chops to use. Sadly, though I met a bunch of wonderful people on that journey, it ended in heartbreak. It was around then that my mom passed away (not long after her mother, my grandmother) and my relationship took a big hit. I describe that time – 2019 – as my Bad Country Song Year. It was one difficult thing after another. It felt like the entire house of my being had been shaken in an earthquake, and all that was left was scaffolding. For me, it made 2020 and a global pandemic feel easy. That’s how bad it was. 

As it often goes, those times of great destruction are also a time of growth. In addition to taking on practices like prayer and meditation, I also decided that it was time to do something I’d wanted to do since I was a kid: take a different name. I was experimenting with the name Rose when one day I was out to lunch with a friend. When I walked up to his table, he greeted me with “Hey, Rosy!” A lightning bolt of delight ran down my spine. Needless to say, the name stuck. I love it. I also love how often people tell me that they love my name, that they had an aunt or grandma or truck or boat with the same name (likely spelled Rosie). It brings me endless joy. 

The last name I had a harder time settling on – I tried on Moss and Wolfe (the latter being an homage to my mom and her love for wolves). But ultimately, on the 2021 autumnal equinox, I came back to Schechter – my atavistic root. 

So, these days I go by Rosy Schechter, with no penalty to family or friends who still call me Beth. I practice Iyengar yoga daily, which helps to treat an autoimmune disorder (Graves’ Disease) and keeps depression at bay. My relationship is solid. And to top it all off, I have a job that I absolutely love. It’s been a journey, and I am so grateful to Be Here Now.

Q: Currently you are the Executive Director at Amateur Radio Digital Communications (ARDC). How did you end up in that field? What do you like about it? What are your daily duties?

A: My first job working with a nonprofit was actually Burning Man Project, when I was an admin for them as they transitioned from LLC to 501(c)(3) back in 2012. Then there was Maptime. Though we never became an official 501(c)(3), Maptime was the first nonprofit I ever ran. Later, I would run an organization called Open Cannabis Project (OCP). A board member from OCP, John Gilmore, who also sits on the board of ARDC, reached out to me after its founder, Brian Kantor, died in 2019. A tiny nonprofit that had suddenly come into an endowment unexpectedly needed someone to lead it. Knowing nothing about amateur radio, I gave it some thought and then signed on to the adventure in July of 2020. Since then, I’ve helped ARDC get organized operationally, build a small but mighty staff, and together distribute over $10 million in grants, gifts, and scholarships. 

The running joke about being an Executive Director is that it’s a continuous spectrum of “Other duties as assigned,” all while making sure the ship runs smoothly. It’s a challenge, but one that I enjoy. I would dare to say I even love many things about what I do. First, I love being in a philanthropic role: there are few greater pleasures than providing funds that can help make someone’s dreams come true. Second, like with maps, amateur radio and digital communications provide endless room for learning. Since coming on board, I’ve had to learn about the FCC spectrum and regulations, internet routing, packet radio, satellites, and so much more. I also love that we’ve created a culture that offers room for human-ness and flexibility. 

Q: I know of more than a few people who left the geo industry. Some cite burnout or other reasons, others just move on quietly. This topic is dear to my heart, as I must admit the thought has crossed my mind. Why did you leave? Is the cure for burnout workload reduction, or must one change roles/jobs/fields?

A: Leaving maps was hard, and to be honest, I miss it on the regular. That said, I am also someone who craves learning many different things. Through Maptime, I learned that a big chunk of what I loved was curriculum development and documentation. I got to then do a bunch of that work at Skillcrush. Craving more topics, I did even more freelance technical writing work: documenting mapping applications, editing guidebooks on land rights and the science of tattooing, and diagramming how cannabis patents work. So, part of my leaving has nothing to do with being over maps so much as it had to do with wanting to keep learning and trying new things. 

As someone who has been burnt out and is currently not burnt out, I can tell you what works for me:

  • 32-hour workweek
  • Plenty of time for creativity and volunteerism
  • Iyengar yoga!
  • Eating healthy food
  • Taking time off 
  • Spending time with friends
  • Opportunities to learn and try new things, at my job and elsewhere

As I write this, and reflect on the fact that this list reflects my current reality, I recognize that it’s a privileged place to be. That said, as some of my former colleagues know and former managers may lament, I have been advocating for a 32-hour workweek since I had my first office job. I really and truly believe that it is the key to keeping people healthy and happy in their jobs. 2021’s Great Resignation has taught us that people are no longer standing for work environments that lead to moral injury and burnout. If we actually treated people like people, then maybe they wouldn’t want to leave. Maybe we wouldn’t have a healthcare shortage. 

Q: What are your thoughts on change in general? You say “It’s OK to move on”. Is change a goal unto itself, or means to an end?

A: What are my thoughts on change? You mean the one constant that exists in the universe? My thoughts are that I’m fine with it, or else I will be run over by it. 

In all seriousness, change is necessary. A friend of mine, who is training to be a spiritual director, recently shared with me the idea that stagnancy is the root of all illness. I believe this, for our bodies, our lives, and our societies.

That said, I’m learning as I get older that commitment is just as important as being able to surf the waves of change. Otherwise, it’s too easy to be in a state of constantly starting over, which can be detrimental mentally and financially. These days, when I go to try something new, I treat it as an experiment and make a commitment to do it for a certain period of time. Why? Because I’m going to suck at it at first, and some work is required to not totally suck at it. So this year, for example, I’m committed to finishing a screenplay I started working on with a friend. Perfect is the enemy of done, and done feels really good.

Q: Do you miss geo? Do you see yourself returning to the geo field?

A: I do miss geo, and I’m open to coming back. Right now, however, I’m really loving working in philanthropy, so I’ll likely stay here for a minute. 

Q: Do you consider yourself a (geo)hipster? Why/why not?

A: I’m probably more of a Geo-Hippie. I am literally wearing tie-dye leggings as I write this, with Tarot cards and a singing bowl directly to my left. 

Q: I love what you say in your Seattle talk: “It takes sunshine to make a rainbow, but it wouldn’t be possible without rain.” So rain’s not all bad? Sometimes you don’t even want an umbrella.

A: Well, after living in Portland, you just kind of get used to rain and living in boots and a rain jacket for 6-8 months out of the year. And after living in drought-country California for a spell in 2021, I can tell you, not only is rain not bad, it’s essential. Literally and metaphorically. If I hadn’t had my Bad Country Song Year, I would not have found the spiritual and physical practices that have led to my current state of well being. It’s not like my life is perfect, far from it. But I have tools now and a deep appreciation for my life that I didn’t have before that year. I also have an even deeper appreciation for the people in my life – family, friends, colleagues, community – who have supported me or offered patience during the harder times. It’s really humbling. 

Q: If you had to give one piece of advice to our readers, what would that be? 

A: Oh that’s hard. One piece of advice? I’m going to have to give you two that go together.

First, practice accountability. When you are accountable for your actions, it helps your soul feel whole and radiates outward to your home, work, and community. That person you said you would call but didn’t? Call them. Feel bad because you always wanted to write a screenplay / learn Tai Chi / get back to painting? Find a class and go to it. Wish you had done something differently when you were in a relationship with your now ex partner? Find a way to make a living amends. 

There are many ways to keep yourself accountable, and the key is finding what works for you. Shameless plug – here’s a worksheet that I created and use to help me keep on top of my commitments. I’ve shared it under a Creative Commons license, so feel free to modify and share with attribution! I have a friend I meet with weekly, and we each go through our lists. It’s really helpful to have someone to report your progress to, and who can help motivate you when you inevitably fall behind.

Which brings me to the second bit of advice: be kind to yourself. We are all human, and we all make mistakes. There is no magical handbook for how to be perfect that some people got and you didn’t get. No one got the book, no one is perfect, and anyone who thinks they are needs therapy. If you make a mistake and you can learn from it, it’s not a failure – it’s a lesson. Only if you are kind to yourself can you give yourself the strength to keep learning, which is truly one of the greatest joys in life.

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