Hi friends, fellow Wikimedians,
[Apologies in advance, this note is very long, and written in my native
English speaker style. Normally I try for shorter and more ESL friendly,
but it was hard to do this time. Thank you for indulging or at least,
It has been my life’s joy and pleasure to be a part of this movement with
you for the past seven years. I came into the Wikimedia movement as a
believer in open culture, open source, and free knowledge. I leave my work
at the Foundation today knowing the Wikimedia movement stands for those
things, and something even greater.
To be a Wikimedian is to embrace humanity’s curiosity and fallibility, our
generosity and irascibility. It is to look across a world that we’re told
is divided -- by arbitrary borders, linguistic conquest, fear of the
unfamiliar -- and instead see our common interest. It’s to know that we are
each flawed, unreliable narrators, and to believe that the best remedy to
our intrinsic failings is to patch our individual flaws with our collective
In the spring of 2016, I shared a pizza in Berlin with (our then-future,
now former, board chair) Christophe Henner. We were attending Wikimedia
Conference one month into my role as interim executive director, and had
just finished a challenging day of plenary meetings that brought us
together as a community in catharsis. Christophe was a candidate for the
Wikimedia Foundation board. He asked me, “What are we here for?”
I didn’t know what he wanted me to say, so I just told him what I thought.
“We’re here to make the world better.” It was a cliche answer, but true for
me. He laughed and leaned back in the chair. “Yes.”
This has always been what I read into the unstated part of our vision.
“Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the
sum of all knowledge.” This is a spectacular, inspiring, aspirational
ambition, but it is also missing something critical. For the past seven
years, I have imagined this world every day. And every day, I have asked
myself, “Why?” Why does free knowledge vision matter? What happens then?
What change have we effected in the world?”
Even after I leave, I’ll keep asking myself this. And as you continue your
work here, as colleagues, as contributors, as volunteers, I ask all of you
to ask yourselves as well -- with all that you do, and all that you
contribute, and all that you build. What are we here to do? Do our values,
our structures, our practices, and our constructs serve our purpose? And
how do we ensure they remain as alive and vital as our projects and vision?
The former president of Wikimedia Chile, Marco Correa, would say, “The
knowledge may be neutral, but the act is not.” I always understood him to
mean that while our projects endeavor to serve the most accurate,
verifiable, and neutral knowledge, our movement has never been impartial.
We have always stood proudly for a set of values: freedom of inquiry,
expression, and assembly, the right to privacy and memory, and the
foundational value and dignity of every human. We have defended them under
duress and must continue to do so.
We should never lose sight of how revolutionary the act of producing free
knowledge is in the first place. I’ve always been struck by the myriad
motivations that bring people to this movement. There are those who write
their language into the future, their identity into public consciousness,
who use our projects to grapple with historical injustice. There are some
who edit Wikipedia because an act of fact is itself an act of
self-determination in places where information is used to suppress and
If we let ourselves believe that we’re simply a free encyclopedia, we risk
losing sight of the power and possibility of our work. Knowledge has always
been a tool of power -- great empire and wealth have been built with its
service, and great injustice has been done in its name. The very idea of
liberating knowledge from power, decoupling it from access and wealth, and
placing its construction, utility, and value in the hands of every person
on the planet is fundamentally radical.
Wikimedia itself is a radical act. It is a verb, a constant action of
interrogation, revision, and evolution. It upends history, it challenges
the status quo. It is the confidence to ask ourselves why we believe what
we believe and whether our knowledge may change in the future. It is the
conviction to defend our values against pressure and threat, while robustly
debating among ourselves whether those values continue to serve the world.
It is the humility to cooperate, collaborate, and learn from others.
Someone asked the other day, “what is the biggest challenge Wikimedia
faces?” My answer was the same as on my very first day. Our biggest
challenge is ourselves. Our success, our complexity, our size -- it could
be easy to believe that we’ll endure forever on our current momentum, to
see ourselves as a website rather than a global movement, or to accept that
our knots are too knotty to ever properly unpick. It is often easier, and
more comfortable, to swim in the eddies of incremental evolution rather
than face the urgency of collective change.
But we carry out our mission against great odds, and it is essential that
we are clear-eyed about both the risks and the opportunities. There are the
challenges of competition and scarcity: We operate in one of the most
heavily capitalized and competitive sectors in the history of civilization
(digital technology), we provide one of the most valuable (yet
nonrivalrous!) assets of humanity (knowledge), we aspire to serve the
entirety of the world equitably, despite all of the ways in which the world
itself builds implicit and explicit barriers to that goal.
There are also the opportunities, which are themselves a form of challenge.
We see more people connected around the globe, more communities in search
of knowledge, more languages represented, more need for trustworthy general
knowledge, and sharper, more urgent questions of power, representation, and
agency. We see an increase in appreciation for the value of knowledge in
society, and for the importance of facilitating agreement on even the most
contentious of issues. Whether we make the most of these moments will be up
If we are to meet these moments, we will have to find new strengths. We
must be more clever, more bold, simply better than we have ever been. We
must be uncompromising in our generosity, and adamant in our excellence. We
must be more expansive, abundant, and inclusive. We should grapple with the
ways in which we have failed in the past, including instrumentalizing
participation and recapitulating exclusionary canons at the expense of
truly global representation. We must cherish our integrity and
independence, while also understanding our interdependence.
In recent years, our movement has begun doing just this. We’ve been
reconsidering our definition of “community” and “contributor”. We’ve been
interrogating our understanding of what knowledge is, how it is
constructed, and who is represented. We have been pushing for participation
and enfranchisement of underrepresented geographies, languages, and
demographics. We have been asking ourselves whether the paradigms of
encyclopedic notability and verifiability can sustain our mission, growth,
and relevance. We have been exploring what of our current work and
practices might need to evolve in order for us to meaningfully live into
our mission of every single human.
We have been asking questions not only about our knowledge in Wikimedia’s
ecosystem, but about the means by which we realize our mission. We have
always been committed to open architecture and code, but those commitments
have been passive -- common tools, common rules. What does it mean to be
actively open? To go beyond protocol to practice, from standard to value?
How do we ensure that our technical infrastructure and experiences enable
participation, agency, and ownership by everyone, everywhere? How can our
projects lead in privacy, security, and openness by the light of their
In a very real way, this is all in our hands, and in the hands of anyone
who might seek to participate. Our projects are not owned by anyone, but
they are owned by all of us. They are edited, on average, 350 times per
minute, representing the opportunity, every moment of the day, to be a work
in progress -- to aspire to better versions of our movement, our projects,
of ourselves. To change in response to the world around us. Wikimedia
changes as we do, and change is what we make of it.
This is a constant invitation -- and obligation -- to make and remake
ourselves. Do the values that served us from our first day compel us to our
future? Are the decisions that we make, as staff, as volunteers, as
movement leaders, as community members, in service of our purpose? How do
we adapt our work for the world we live in while maintaining our vision for
the world we seek? What are we growing toward? What are we here for? What
is the point, the purpose, of free knowledge?
The answers to these questions may change, but the way we arrive at those
answers should not. We are first and foremost a community, and we should
arrive at our answers through open dialogue and consultation. We can’t
bypass the difficult bits, we must go through them to build the lasting
parts. And the only way we can do that is by committing, to consistency,
communication, and continuation of difficult discussions such as those
raised through movement strategy — questions of power, agency,
decentralization, and autonomy. It is in seeking the answers to these
questions that we will find the ways in which our movement will thrive.
We must see one another as mutual stewards and allies, finding the means to
disagree while valuing one another as people united in common purpose. We
should practice compassion, courage, and kindness for one another and
ourselves, and accept imperfection in the spirit of evolution. As staff, we
must show our volunteer colleagues respect as full partners. As volunteers,
we must return the sentiment to staff of the Foundation and affiliates. We
should break bread together, solve problems together, and see one another
To be a Wikimedian is to place your faith in the goodwill of people you’ve
never met. It is to believe in the power of an idea to connect a community;
to be an incorrigible humanist, wise to our failings but returning each day
to do better. It is to believe in human generosity, curiosity, and general
good sense. We not only seek to do the radical thing of making knowledge
freely available, we trust the world to use it well. To contribute in good
faith, to read us critically when needed, to donate to keep us going, and
to criticize us when justified.
We place our confidence in the world, and they place it back in us. We
serve as stewards, anticipating that our work must support and sustain free
knowledge as a public good for decades to come. We forge ahead against the
implacable odds, and we somehow keep moving. We throw our lot in together,
bind ourselves in our success and failure, and accept that our progress is
a work in progress. We believe that we can change the world, because we
already have. 
I am grateful to you all for this time we have had, and the ways in which
your passion, empathy, and determination have expanded my world. I have
been fortunate to make lifelong friends with many of you, and believe there
are still many friendships ahead. I am leaving the Foundation; I am not
leaving the movement. I’m easy enough to find on the internet, but for all
things Wikimedia you can find me on wiki at User:Maherkr or Telegram. I’m
also at katherine.maher(a)gmail.com.
We are so fortunate to live in Wikimedia’s glorious moveable feast. It’s
taught me that there is rarely goodbye, just until we meet again.
See you 'round the wikis!
 Sure, there have been moments of exhaustion, exasperation, and
heartbreak, but those aren’t for right now. And anyway, they’re entirely
overshadowed by that bounteous joy.
 And as of the end of today, this is officially just another Wikimedia
essay! YMMV. Thanks for reading!
Katherine Maher (she/her)
Wikimedia Foundation <https://wikimediafoundation.org/>