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Our January 21st, 2015, Technology Salon examined the role of technology in addressing structural discrimination in the US. We were hosted by the Brooklyn Community Foundation (BCF), whose Director of Community Leadership, Tynesha McHarris, served as a lead discussant. Courtney D. Cogburn Assistant Professor of Social Work at Columbia University and Senior Advisor to the International Center for Advocates against Discrimination (ICAAD), joined as our second discussant.

Our discussion covered various angles, as summarized below, related to the central point of structural discrimination and racism.

Discrimination has multiple forms.

It can be observed at an individual level and in exchanges between people, but we shouldn’t reduce discrimination to a problem of an individual’s beliefs and behaviors, said our first lead discussant, Courtney. Rather we need to look at it as a complex whole that is embedded into structures and culture, and as a set of historic discriminatory patterns that produce systemic social disadvantage. “If we focus at the individual level, we will focus on individual accountability and individual solutions. Instead of looking at the systemic issues, we’ll encourage individuals to try harder, to be smarter, to stop being criminals. We’ll look at those who turn out OK as being exceptional,” she said.

“’I’m not racist’ doesn’t mean ‘I’m anti-racism.’ I don’t need you to like me, I need you to hate racism,” she continued. Interpersonal relationships won’t end structural and social disadvantage. This issue is also bigger than simple socio-economic status. So ending poverty won’t eradicate racism. In our society, there are two sides of the coin – discrimination or privilege, advantage or disadvantage. Our roles and our accountability here depend on how we came out in the coin toss.”

Empirical data on racism in the US are troubling.

As Courtney outlined:

  • Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be rejected or receive worse terms on a loan — even when they have comparable financial backgrounds/risk to Whites
  • White men earn roughly 15% more than Black men with comparable education and experience
  • A White male with a felony conviction is more likely to be hired than a Black male with a clean record — all other factors being the same
  • Black women with a college degree have higher risk of premature/low birth weight than every other racial/ethnic group across levels of education
  • Even when accounting for various socio-economic status factors, including quality of health insurance: Blacks have an early onset, worse progression and premature death; they are more likely to be amputated and less likely to receive pain medication; and mothers exposed to discrimination while pregnant have higher stress hormones, which transfer over to their newborn children
  • Black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by a police officer. And Black men, our discussant argued, are also more likely to have their deaths mocked, for example, in the case of Trayvon Martin Halloween costumes and the Mike Brown musical.

In the US we fail to frame this as a human rights issue.

If we observed a similar situation happening elsewhere in the world, we would consider it a human rights issue, commented one participant. How can we change the debate in the US? Another felt we need to move the debate within the US from offering ‘charity’ to talking about ‘justice.’ “We need to talk about privilege and power, and philanthropy is about both – it’s older White men making decisions about money that impact the lives of people of color.”

Can technology help?

Social awareness and empathy are critical, as are data and equity-based policies, noted a discussant. Social awareness can help people see beyond their own realities. That might help more people to support equity-based policy. But we also need data in order to document discrimination. “If you don’t have an empirical base, people say ‘that’s just you, you’re playing the race card, Black people are just more violent.’ So we need data to show patterns of violence and discrimination in order to tackle this at the systemic level.” Newer technology can play a role with helping people empathize and with collecting data and visualizing patterns.

In the past several months, videos and hashtags have played a critical role in documenting racist incidents and engaging people and helping them to empathize, said a lead discussant. State violence and police violence are not new, but people are talking about them right now. “We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the #BlackLivesMatter movement was run by Black queer women. They are not being recognized for this, yet it’s been trending all over the world. At the same time, it makes me want to cry. I need a hashtag to tell the world that my life, the lives of Black people matter? Just having to state that is problematic.”

Amplifying stories, such as is happening in the ‘Serial’ podcast, which has caused a case to be re-opened, is another way that technology and media have addressed racism and built empathy through mainstream and social media. Gaming may also be a way to help people empathize, said another participant. Efforts are also being made to use virtual reality technology (oculus rift) to help people empathize with situations that they cannot personally experience. YouTube has been a powerful space for helping bring issues of structural racism and State sponsored violence against certain groups into the public eye both nationally and internationally.

“I’m from Cleveland,” noted another participant, “and I’ve been in touch with organizers working on the Tamir Rice case. Technology in that instance has been so helpful in organizing a disorganized city. We’re talking about Google groups and list serves being used in similar ways to how women used list serves and yahoo groups to organize post-Katrina relief. So technology can include even the bare minimum. Email is so powerful to organize mass amounts of people. The NY Justice League is also doing a lot of this kind of work.”

Tech can also help with transparency and credibility. “We found that putting data up on a website helped us to be credible and more transparent – it also gave us strength, backing and encouragement. We posted video narratives backed up with data, and this became part of our outreach and a focus for wider discussions about structural discrimination and issues like the criminal justice system and school suspensions,” commented one person.

Collecting and visualizing data is another arena where technology is useful in the case of structural discrimination, noted another participant, giving the example of hate crimes. “The New York Police Department only has reports of between 7 and 9 thousand hate crimes per year, yet the Department of Justice records up to 290k hate crimes. That is a data gap. We’ve argued that the absence of data is a structural issue. How can the State protect what it has no knowledge or record of? Tech and better data could fill this gap. Communities could report hate crimes through an app either directly to the police or to an NGO/civil society organization as a liaison if they felt uncomfortable reporting directly due to fear of the police.” Better tracking could help put more resources into preventing and following up on hate crimes.

We also need to be better at translating data for people and building empathy around it, said a discussant. “I think we have enough data. We know what’s going on. The issue is translating data across spaces. How can we create a collective body of data? And then there’s a big problem with framing of the issues. I can tell you all day long that Blacks are more likely to die early or be shot by the police, but if that doesn’t fit within your frame or align with your thinking, the data won’t matter.”

Obviously, tech can’t do it all!

“We can’t ask tech to do the work that our minds and hearts have to do,” said one person.

“In Ferguson, right after Mike Brown was murdered, I was close to the people running the Ferguson Action website. I watched a team of communications and web people trying to figure out how to talk about this with America. They were trying to make it compelling enough so that the world would respond to the death of a child, and that broke my heart a little.” People responded to Ferguson because of raw images of young people resisting that shocked us out of our senses, she added.

“We need organizers, lawyers, and communications strategists in this fight. We can’t expect for tech to take the place of work of courage, of seeing the world as it is, and knowing we have agency to change it. Without that website, without that hashtag, however, would the world have known what was happening?” she asked. “Technology and branding brought it to national and world attention.”

Despite that, however, young Black men are still getting shot. It’s still repeating itself. We need to open minds and hearts because there are fundamental beliefs that our media, our literature, our stories are cemented in. Changing minds and hearts is the work we still need to do, she commented.

Tech may divide communities and limit participation

As much as technology can help to support to organize people around human rights and social justice work, tech can also divide communities, noted one discussant. “In East New York, [during a consultation process in Brooklyn], we found that those who feel the most comfortable and confident using tech have been at an advantage when it comes to pushing for their opinions about what is happening in our communities. So they end up having a greater amount of participation in development processes in Brooklyn.” Often new ways of participating in these debates don’t take into consideration that many older people would prefer to find out about things through a flyer and to participate face to face or in community meetings. There are also people with disabilities and recent immigrants who tend to be left out as government starts to become e-government and consultations are more often conducted online.

We need to better understand technology used by and against our communities

“In doing research in Bed-Sty with young people of color on their social networks and tech use, I realized that I had a lot of assumptions about youth culture, mobile technology, and community relations, and they’ve all been challenged. As researchers, we need to continually ask ourselves how tech can help us document discrimination. We need to look at the hardware, the digital artifacts, the hashtags that help us to locate culture and document conversations,” said one person.

“These young people are on platforms I’ve never heard of,” she continued. “They are negotiating their identity spaces in ways I’ve never heard of before. I’m always asking ‘What are you doing? What does that mean?’ I’m asking about ethical and privacy issues and surveillance. I’m less interested in what they are doing when they are online or on their phones and more concerned about how their community is being watched from the outside and how that connects to what they do in their online spaces. There are lots of video cameras in their neighborhoods. They’ll ask me: will the police see my text messages? There is a concern and an acknowledgement of surveillance via social media and tech.” Another participant shared some detailed research on access to and use of technology among low income New Yorkers conducted by her organization.

What about teaching Black youth to code?

Some participants felt that efforts to teach Black and Latino you to code are critical to resolving structural discrimination. “One of the biggest economic justice issues in our country is young people of color not coding,” said one participant. “Coding lets you create things and you can generate income just by people downloading your app.” Currently the vast majority of coders are White and Asian males, and schools don’t tend to teach brown and black kids how to code, they said.

Others pushed back at this idea. “Young ppl I’m working with are not creating apps. They are trying to figure out how to use tech in their day-to-day lives – to create a resume, to find a job. We should be thinking about what are the possibilities and the challenges of having these devices in our communities. How do they constrain or offer support?” commented one person. Another noted “Access to tech is not as simple as ‘Do you have access to a computer and some will power.’ The problem is that systematically for the first 15 years of a young Black man’s life he gets the message that he is worthless. It’s not just parents, it’s teachers, it’s television, and it’s the structural issues. We need to also create environments that encourage Black youth.”

One discussant said that the default response is to point out individual success stories and to put effort into helping individuals who are disadvantaged, “but how about working more to shake things up at the top and hold the privileged and advantaged more accountable? Rather than ‘How do we help these poor kids,’ we should be asking, ‘how are we helping remedy this at its source?’”

These are social justice issues, commented another person. “So yes, teaching 10 year olds to code is great. But the problem is that this is a structural problem that hits 80 year olds, 60 year olds, 40 year olds, and 20 year olds. There is no quick fix. We need to continue to organize. And apps are not the real structural and systemic change that we need. We need to also talk about funding. There is no funding for a radically different way of thinking. It will take time. But how to put money behind big ideas?” she asked. “Can we seed and support more entrepreneurial work with youth in our communities? Is there a tech opportunity there? Can we use technology to link people to a tenant protection fund and to connect them with tenant rights information and eviction support? What would all that look like and how can we make it happen?”

The Brooklyn Insights report synthesizes input from individuals and community organizations across the boroughs and sets out priorities .

The Brooklyn Insights report synthesizes input from individuals and community organizations across the boroughs and sets out priorities.

We need more participatory design and cross-disciplinary teams

“Are the people we are trying to help at the table with us when we are designing?” asked a participant. “And can we do a better job of helping designers and coders to empathize with the people they are designing for? Can we get people out of their boxes and will they be willing to work in an environment where they feel consistently uncomfortable with their own privilege and power?”

“Are there places besides Tech Salon where these conversations are happening?” asked another person. Participants noted that there are hackathons but felt that normally they don’t lead to much in the way of real change. Doing a hackathon for and by a particular user community and tying developments into services that will still be there on Monday was one suggestion for remedying this gap.

Others asked how we could bring together multi-disciplinary teams that combine a deep knowledge of and experience in a community with social science, data science, law, and the social media capacity to help people empathize. A number of organizations present at the Salon are working with and/or conducting research in communities in Brooklyn or around issues of structural discrimination. Others specialize in creating technology for low-resource communities, and some are funding or otherwise supporting wider efforts to reduce structural discrimination. There was interest in continuing this discussion and addressing together some of the structural discrimination issues felt in Brooklyn communities and in the wider US.

Take a look at the BCF’s Insights report, which summarizes results from community consultations with over 1000 Brooklyn residents and numerous community organizations and offers a good overview of the core issues that Brooklyn communities are facing. And join us for Technology Salon Brooklyn, in collaboration with the Brooklyn Community Foundation, where we’ll meet (in Brooklyn) to discuss some of the issues raised and the role of technology in addressing or exacerbating them.

Thanks to ThoughtWorks for providing breakfast for us and to BCF for hosting! If you’d like to attend Technology Salon Brooklyn or Technology Salon New York City, sign up here to receive invitations!

For our year-end Technology Salon in 2014, we asked lead discussants Felicity Ruby, long-time activist and currently ThoughtWorks’ Director of Global Internet Policy; Abi Weaver, Director of the Global Technology Program at the American Red Cross; and Laura Walker Hudson, CEO of Social Impact Lab (SIMLab), to share their hopes and fears for 2015. We also heard from Salon attendees.

7 hopes for 2015

Below I’ve organized the Salon discussion into 7 aspirations for our sector or 2015. Keep an eye on these themes, and if you have ideas that weren’t mentioned at the Salon, go ahead and add them to the comments section!

1) Continued pushback on mass surveillance

The war against journalists, activists and whistle blowers (referred to by Felicity as ‘the JAWs of change’) continues. Many are still behind bars or in exile (including, Barrett Brown, Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden) because of their deployment of technology to provide information that is in the public interest. In addition, the right to encrypt has been weakened and it is feared that the pushback against mass surveillance may lose strength in 2015.

Hopes for 2015 are that the world will focus more on addressing the injustices exposed by these individuals rather than on punishing them for exposing information. It’s also hoped that encryption tools will be preserved so that financial transactions and relationships that rely on trust and confidentiality can be kept in confidence. Lastly hope was expressed that citizens and organizations will unite and coordinate more effectively in the coming year and continue questioning and pushing back against mass surveillance.

One participant commented that in some countries that are just coming on line, Internet will be accessed via Wireless spectra that are let by countries to mobile operators. He hoped that structural elements that support the current culture of surveillance will be eliminated as digital inclusion expands to more countries and that national governments will stand up for citizen rights to privacy.

Another participant noted that technology is increasingly being used for militarization, targeted assassination programs and disposition matrices. He feared that police forces in the US and beyond would continue in this direction. The hope is that the level of public protest against police militarization grows, and that the 2014 movements to stop racist policing will lead to lasting change and a reduction in structural discrimination against people of color and minority groups in the US and globally.

2) Balanced public and private benefits of (big) data

There is positive potential in big data, for example: tracing diseases, expanding financial services, predictive analysis and conflict prevention. However there has been growing concern over bias in big data and the potential for abuse, discrimination, privacy breaches and corporate exploitation of personally identifiable information. The hope for 2015 is that a balance will be struck around the collection, use and sale/sharing of these data, and that policies are put in place to push for collection of fewer data, better encryption, deletion of data after usefulness has expired, improved data privacy and better protection standards.

It is also hoped that there is movement toward individuals owning and bartering with their own data and having more of a say on how personal data are used. Currently, many revenue models are based on free services in exchange for personal data, and alternative models are needed. One hope is that there will be more clarity on exactly how companies are using and sharing/selling personal data, more awareness around privacy and a move towards participatory and balanced opportunities for people to knowingly provide certain data in exchange for free hardware or software.

Salon participants also hope that people will begin to vote with their online habits and stop using services that are exploiting their personal data, and that creative minds will develop revenue and business models that do not depend on selling private data. In addition, it is hoped that adoption of free, open source and encrypted software will grow, thereby helping to ‘re-decentralize’ the Internet.

Perhaps in 2015, the establishment of boundaries and some conditionality will create a win-win situation that would balance the issue of ‘power’ when it comes to the benefits of big data and individual rights to control how personal data are used. This could lead to better frameworks for humanitarian and non-profit organizations who find themselves in the difficult situation of being asked to provide and/or authorize the use of other people’s data. Lastly, third party, neutral organizations and entities may emerge that could hold or manage data and serve as data brokers for vulnerable groups, for example during crisis situations.

3) Ethical data and technology protocols and policies

As more NGOs set up data systems and host platform, more organizations are becoming ‘data holders’, yet many do not know the legal implications of holding data, according to a Salon discussant. Fears are that ‘meaningful’ and ‘informed’ consent will continue to be quashed with the advent of constantly changing technologies and that organizations will not have the capacity or wherewithal to keep up. Hopes are that more organizations will realize that they need to establish responsible and ethical data protocols and policies and will put the time and resources into proper training of staff and management regarding the risks of digital data collection, storage and use.

While it is seen as positive that donors are encouraging open data, geo-located data, and digital data collection, there are also fears that lack of understanding of the risks will lead to a data disaster that harms those whose data are shared and impacts negatively on those doing the sharing or funding the program that requires it. It is hoped that in the coming year, there is a higher investment in learning and guidance for donors, management, grant writers and frontline staff to achieve a better understand of how to protect people’s privacy and mitigate risk. Salon participants hope that in 2015  we will discover the sweet spots where the benefits of greater openness are balanced appropriately with the amount of risk experienced by those providing their data.

One participant noted that the politics and ethics of cellphone data record (CDR) analytics will be at the forefront in 2015 and the discussion will shift. To date, It’s been focused on the risks to individual privacy, yet the conversation is expanding to ‘group privacy’ and questions of power, empowerment, and data literacy. It is hoped that we will have an answer to the question: ‘What is an ethical approach to using cellphone data?’ by the end of 2015. It’s also hoped that the term ‘private sector data’ is challenged, since the data are actually individual data harvested by the private sector.

4) Greater inclusion of low-resource populations and of community groups

One lead discussant shared her hope that enterprises and entrepreneurs developing new initiatives would pay more attention and work more closely with populations that have fewer resources in 2015. Many large-scale enterprises are not willing to look at the humanitarian implications of new technologies until they’ve been tested in the ‘developed’ world, she noted. A hope is that the larger private sector technology companies will develop more technologies specifically aimed at benefiting low-income consumers rather than focusing first on higher-income consumers as they normally do.

Another hope is that the excitement of humanitarian organizations will rise to match the enthusiasm of communities around the world who are eager for new technologies. A fear is that humanitarian workers will shut down community enthusiasm due to a fear of the complex, assumptions that communities are ‘not ready’ for new technology, privacy concerns, and/or skewed media portrayal of some technologies, for example unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – also known as drones.

Participants also fear that legislation will not foster inclusion in the case of some technologies. Though UAVs have been successfully used by some local groups for taking imagery during and following disasters, some governments are beginning to require pilot licenses for flying UAVs. Many small companies, community organizations and individuals cannot afford pilot licenses. One hope is that inclusive policies will enable community access to UAVs, and that these policies will be accompanied by community education around UAVs so that their use for community-based disaster preparedness and response is enhanced.

Other hopes include hardware improvements to allow 3D printers to become more affordable, faster and better able to serve mass needs rather than being limited to custom or small-batch manufacturing. Improved battery life, alternative power sources, and alternative networks were also mentioned as a key area in which to focus so that technologies become increasingly accessible to low-income or remote populations with little access to the grid or existing networks.

Lastly, participants hope organizations will focus more on understanding local habits and behaviors (for example, those around mobile money, remittances, and use of airtime minutes as currency) rather than parachuting in and setting up new systems based on something designed elsewhere.

5) A way out of the ‘innovation valley of death’

Participants at the Salon fear that the notion of ‘innovation’ will continue to be too technology focused and that innovation challenges would continue to incentivize some of the wrong things. Donors have been trying hard to fund risky innovations and to use ‘venture capitalesque’ models, said one discussant, and these may not be the right approach in our sector. Another noted that trendy innovation challenges tend to draw those who can do a lot with $50k, yet many of these smaller organizations and social entrepreneurs are not able to take their efforts to scale without broader partnerships with larger organizations or governments who have greater reach, yet innovation funding and grand challenges don’t seem to take this into account. A big gap in funding is the ‘innovation valley of death’ between ‘pilot project’ and ‘optimization at scale’ and Salon participants hope that in 2015 there will be better funding opportunities to support movement though that middle phase.

Fears include a continued donor tendency to see ‘innovation’ as something shiny and fancy rather than supporting new or combined approaches that implementors believe are the best for resolving a challenge. Some participants worry that programs and ‘solutions’ are being handed down and scaled simply because donors say so, rather than because they are really the best ways to address a particular problem. Given how difficult it can be to communicate why something is innovative, one discussant hoped that the field of ICT4D might join together and find ways to fund some of its own initiatives rather than being dependent on donor funding. This might allow implementors to think more about innovative processes and ways of working rather than shiny devices and implementing specific ‘solutions.’ The hope is that as a wider field, we can push towards innovation as process and practice, and achieve fundamental shifts in how we work and how we collaborate.

Scale was another topic Salon participants hope will be discussed more critically and re-imagined in 2015. The definition of scale requires a closer look because scale has different characteristics for different contexts and situations. The ‘black box’ between invention and optimization came up again, with one participant recommending this document which explores the space between these two stages in more detail.

6) More focus on monitoring, evaluation and learning

A discussant commented that the contribution of technology to goals within programs and projects is not well teased out or shared. She fears that our lack of sharing and learning in meaningful ways is holding back the sector. In addition, as noted here, it’s difficult when those working at the project level are asked to prove at the sector level what is working, where, when and why. Determining causality for a particular technology tool or process is complex and difficult – if not impossible — but the hope is that in 2015 we can develop better ways to understand the contribution of different ICT tools and platforms to development goals.

Another hope is that better local level monitoring of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will happen in 2015. The SDG global consultation process used social media to source input for the SDGs, and it will also be important to engage communities in monitoring and evaluating the results of efforts made to reach the SDGs.

One participant mentioned that technology is enabling new kinds of research and outreach to people that development agencies had no way of reaching before. Her hope is that new groups and more individuals, especially populations who are often marginalized, will be able to access services and support because technology helps to reach and connect them. In addition, her hope is that that social media will continue to enable like-minded people and organizations to find one another to engage and learn as peers. Another participant hopes for more institutional sharing and openness so that different organizations can work more closely and share their methodologies, processes and innovations without a competitive angle.

7) Greater humility

Finally, an overall hope for more humility from the ICT4D and wider development and humanitarian sectors was voiced. We heard things like: Let’s not sashay in…. Let’s stop parachuting products and solutions in…. When local people have their act together and are moving ahead, let’s not try to co-opt, own or control it…. Let’s change the paradigm and stop using the terms ‘developed’ and ‘developing’…. Let’s learn to better support and ask people what they need and if/how we can help…. Let’s listen…. Let’s get out of the way…. Let’s take a closer look at our privilege and power…. Let’s call each other out when we see power and privilege being abused…. Let’s work together to change our sector.

Yes, let’s!

 

This post was contributed by J. (Tales from the Hood

I was pleased when Linda put up her latest post. There’s a lot of opinion in the blogosphere lately about what white people need to understand or not understand, helping us get in touch with our “privilege”, etc. A lot of it is really excellent.

Something that I have struggled with personally, and have seen my white male demographic comrades also struggle with, though, is: What, then, are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to act? I don’t feel privileged, but okay—I still am. I get it. Privilege acknowledgedCheck. But now what?

In his excellent piece Douchebag: The white racial slur we’ve all been waiting for, Michael Mark Cohen notes that “White racial slurs are not common in our colorblind age because they don’t work on people who posses white privilege. When they do work, like “redneck” or “cracker,” it’s a matter of class politics…. Rich white men enjoy the invisible power of being just people. Normal, basic Humanity. Everyone else gets some version of discrimination.”

Now, I don’t want to be a “douchebag”— who would? But somehow, calling taxation of the rich “the douchebag tax” rather than “class warefare”, seems, well, academic and not very important in the grand scheme of things. That’ll win me a few smiles of affirmation in the coffee room, but doesn’t give me much guidance for getting through the day in a racially diverse neighborhood or ideas on how to support change to happen.

So for posterity, for those basically decent white guys who “get it” but are unsure how to act when the conversation around them heats up, here are the rules I try to live by:

This is not about you. If you find yourself entering discussions with a lengthy expose of where you grew up, what your socioeconomic status was, whether your upbringing somehow set you on a path for racism or not-racism… yeah, you may want to reconsider your approach. Process your own issues as needed, but don’t bring them into this conversation. Why? Because this conversation is specifically about the rights and needs of other people.

No one is immune. It doesn’t matter where your origins lie, generations back; it doesn’t matter that your great, great grandfather was or wasn’t a plantation owner. It doesn’t matter if all of your friends are of another race/culture/ethnicity. It doesn’t matter if you’re in an interracial or cross-cultural relationship. No one is immune from making mistakes, not even you. Don’t try to pretend otherwise. If you make a mistake — maybe you use an offensive term or fall back on a convenient stereotype — acknowledge it, give a sincere apology, and move on.

No one’s holding your responsible for the sins of others. Don’t get all defensive, like, “I never hit/choked/shot/raped/owned any black people… so back off!” Fine, you probably didn’t, but that’s not the point, and in the vast majority of cases you’re not being personally accused of those things. The important thing is to acknowledge that those awful things did and still do happen, and then take steps to change that. Too often we use our lack of specific personal culpability as a reason to disengage from the issues of race inequality overall.

[Editor’s note from Linda: The larger issue here is “structural racism,” or “systemic racism.” Learn about what that means, don’t take it personally, and use your vote, voice and behavior to help remove/un-do/change it. Read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece to get a really deep understanding of how structural racism has affected black people in the US over the years and continues today.]

No token gestures. Don’t collect friends of other colors. Don’t go all over-the-top with moral indignation on your Facebook page. No blasting Salt ‘n’ Pepper while cruising in your Prius. No ostentatious displays of confessing your privilege. Just be normal: Look people in the eye when you speak to them. If you’re friends with people of other racial and ethnic backgrounds, express support and solidarity if it’s appropriate to do so, but don’t go all earnest emo. Join protests — definitely — solidarity is critical in order to move these issues forward and achieve structural changes. But don’t make it about you and your needs. Understand that your vote on local issues may accomplish much more than your signboard. And, no — don’t ever wear an “I Am Trayvon” T-shirt.

Don’t use somebody else’s asshattery to justify your asshattery. Newsflash: Literally every community on the planet has members who are jerks. Just because there was that one time, back in 1987 when some black guy was a jerk to you, doesn’t give you carte blance to cling to stereotypes or act like a jerk toward others. This is just basic.

Understand that people get emotional. Some people go ballistic just at Starbucks. Or Walmart. Can you even imagine what it must be like to be on the receiving end of literally generations of racial discrimination? It should surprise no one that tempers flare, voices get loud, and pronouncements become extreme.  Dude, just let people express themselves. Not everyone is a professional orator. Don’t try to deflate or invalidate it. Don’t feel as if you have to nit-pick or respond to everything. Which leads to…

Know when to shut up.

Don’t play the victim. You know how everyone thinks we can’t dance or “don’t have rhythm”? Yeah, just let it go.

So, here’s a good post called “Dear White Protesters” from Tam who writes on Tumblr as Young, Gifted and Black. It’s aimed at white folks protesting the grand jury decisions on the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases and in general at white people who want to be allies in the struggle against structural violence and discrimination against black people and racist policing.

Tam specifically talks about the protests that happened in Berkeley on December 6th, writing:

Screen Shot 2014-12-12 at 9.15.14 AM

I was so happy to read Tam’s post, because I was in Berkeley last week, too, and the protesters were assembled in front of the police station down the street from where I was staying. I went over there around 6.30 because I wanted to join in, and I was missing the protests in New York because of travel. At that point in the evening, the situation was peaceful. The cops were lined up in front of the police station in riot gear, and people were calmly standing around or sitting on the ground singing, “Which side are you on? Which side are you on?” Later, I hear, the protests got crazy and there were rubber bullets, tear gas, windows smashed with skateboards, and tasers.

As I arrived to the police station, however, it was people milling around, getting ready for a ‘die in.’ They started lying down in the street. And I was not sure what to do. I wanted to support the movement and guessed that I should also lie down. But the protest seemed a bit ‘off.’ I hardly saw a black person there. The sign saying “Fuck the Police” covering the body of a hipster white girl lying in the street felt about as real as when middle class white people rap along with the 1988 N.W.A. song by the same name. (OK, confession. I do that. But not in public, and not to make a statement.)

Anyway, the whole thing made me feel confused about what I and others were doing there, so I left, feeling that maybe I was just getting old. I felt like I was not doing enough, but I also felt unable to participate in something that seemed somehow false. As I walked over to the BART station to catch a train, I couldn’t help but notice the group of older black homeless men at the park a half a block away from the police station. I couldn’t help but think of the black man with a shopping cart that I witnessed police harassing earlier that week on a suburban side street in Berkeley. None of them were engaged with this student protest. And I couldn’t help but feel awkward for the protesters who in their zeal to protest, somehow seemed oblivious to their surroundings and their privilege.

It’s possible that later on the protest became different and more diverse, and in that case I will retract these words and feel better, I guess. But I was glad to read Tam’s post. I was having a hard time unpacking my own reactions to the Berkeley protest, and Tam’s analysis illuminated what was wrong. It’s important to have allies in all struggles, but allies need to learn to take a back seat, understand their role, and follow the lead of those whose struggle it is.

Tam gives advice on how:

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As Franchesca Ramsey also says: “An ally’s job is to support.” Watch her video (below) on how to do that, and read Tam’s full post for some good insight.

Ramsey’s 5 Tips for Being a Good Ally include:

1. Understand your privilege.
2. Listen, do your homework.
3. Speak up, not over.
4. Apologize when you make mistakes and learn from them.
5. Saying you’re an ally is not enough.

Lastly, a few months ago I read this post about Imani Henry and Equality for Flatbush, who organizes people (of all colors) in the community where I live around issues of gentrification, racial tension, and discrimination against black and brown people by law enforcement. Henry says many of the same things (read that whole article too – it’s really insightful).

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There are a lots of places for white people to listen and learn how to be better allies, and opportunities to put that learning into practice. Understanding our own privilege is a critical task, and it’s hard. These are all lifelong learning pathways, and as Ramsey says, we’ll make mistakes. It’s part of the process of changing and shifting the balance of power to a more just one. It won’t happen overnight, but we shouldn’t give up just because we feel awkward and uncertain.

So go to protests, get involved, know and exercise your rights to dissent and assemble, show solidarity. This movement needs everyone to get on board. Like Fannie Lou Hamer said: ‘Nobody’s free until everybody’s free’. But as white people, we need to think through our participation, join as allies, and avoid making it about us.

 

 

 

 

AnthropologyThere’s a popular saying amongst the tech and development crowd that 10% of an ICT4D initiative is the tech and the rest is…. well, the rest. I’ve recently heard a modified version that says 5% is the idea and 10% is the business model, and the other 85% is…. well, the rest. The ‘rest’ is mostly made up of people, culture, context and the stuff of anthropologists.

At the Slush conference in Helsinki in November, I joined a short ‘Fireside Chat’ with Tanya Accone (UNICEF) and Mika Valitalo (Plan Finland) about the importance of that other 85-90%, which Tanya referred to as ‘peopleware’.

Tanya kicked off the panel by asking people to think about how much time they’d dedicated to the technology of their start-up idea or their tech solution – the hardware and the software – and to then ask themselves how much time they’d spent on the people component. “People are what will make or break your idea,” she said. When it comes to mobile adoption, for example, we are seeing an exponential adoption pattern all over the world, and people are driving that. “I bet every single one of you at SLUSH hopes to see that curve in your future.”

She went on to note that conventional wisdom is that ‘content is king,’ however a key takeaway from her work in the mobile and social entrepreneurship space is that content been deposed by context. For example, when working with the U-Report project in Liberia, lessons from other countries where it had been rolled out were incorporated, but they had to be contextualized to make them work in Liberia. This involved talking and working directly with youth to ensure that the programming could be adapted properly.

Screen Shot 2014-11-29 at 4.34.47 PMMika agreed that ‘peopleware’ is a critical consideration. “I’ve witnessed this 10:90% ratio several times when co-designing and supporting projects using technology for social impact in African countries,” he said, and told the story of working on enhancing birth registration in Kenya, where the slow and manual flow of information between people and the government seemed to be a key challenge that could be tackled with use of mobiles and computers and applications.

“However, the deeper we dug the more varied the challenges seemed to be. We realized that people might be reluctant to register children when local practices were not in sync with the existing legislation. For example, if men are marrying girls under the age of 18, they might not like the idea of birth registration as it would prove a girl’s age. People living near the Kenya-Tanzania border might not want to be identified as being from one or the other country, because being unregistered may allow them to move back and forth across the border more easily and receive some type of benefit or commerce opportunity.

Even with a functioning mobile phone and app in their hand, people will weigh multiple aspects based on their personal situation before taking action. So, spending enough time with end-users and trying to see the world through their eyes as much as possible is crucial, especially when working in places that are not familiar to you. This may sound self-evident, but I’d encourage everyone keep this top on the list.”

Screen Shot 2014-11-29 at 4.28.39 PMI shared two of the key points from the Technology Salon earlier in the week on the topic of start-ups and social impact: a) the importance of partnership and collaboration (eg, people), and b) knowing the local context — not just the technical landscape, but people and culture.

These two aspects were really highlighted for me when I was working on a project in Cameroon that trained youth to use mobile phones to make short videos that they used to organize and advocate for change in their communities and more broadly. The donor was a large mobile phone manufacturer who assumed youth would use their higher-end phones to create the videos. The youth, however, were much more familiar with simple phones like the Nokia 1100. The phones we purchased in order to get good video quality had too many layers and folders and features. So we ended up getting some Flip cameras, because what we really needed was a push and shoot video camera, and this design was a better fit for low-income rural youth who had limited experience with technology.

We also realized that though the training was set up for youth, community adults were really interested in learning to make videos too. So we had to find ways to engage them so that they would not feel left out and so that we could ensure their continued support for the youth’s efforts. This meant we had to spread our resources out a little further than we had imagined, but we saw it as necessary. In all these processes we had to balance the context and reality on the ground, the expectations of the youth and community, expectations of our local partners, and those of the donor.

Tanya added that achieving success with social impact sometimes means rethinking your business model, because you’re in pursuit of the double dividend of financial return and social impact. She gave an example in Burundi where only 3% of the population has access to the electricity grid. “You would think it’s a market ripe for alternative energy solutions. But many businesses avoided it because their existing retail and distribution models simply would not work in that context. It took deconstructing and reconstructing business models to create something that does work — a network of microfinanced microfranchises operated by village-level entrepreneurs.” Now the families use robust, fast-charging LED lights recharged through a pedal-powered generator, a system that also recharges mobile phones. 

Another aspect is understanding the value proposition, she said. It would seem to be basic business, but all too often well-intended initiatives forget this and rush in with a cheaply-made solution. “In the process, they trample over the basic human dignity of their target consumer or beneficiary.” She suggested keeping in mind that people with limited resources are among the most discerning consumers because they don’t have disposable income. They are cost conscious, and equally, they are looking at value for money and return on investment in the durability, feature sets and total cost of ownership of everything they buy and value. This means that more energy-efficient chips, better battery technology, and robust handsets are important to economically challenged users.

Tanya also noted that ‘base of the pyramid’ users are no less style-conscious or aspirational than consumers in general, so “don’t disrespect them by skimping on the design and delivery of your solution. And like you and me, consumers in marginalized communities seek enjoyment and entertainment and fun too. Music has huge pull and potential… and don’t forget that pay-as-you-go comes with data!”

Screen Shot 2014-11-29 at 4.29.41 PMMika shared an example where the technology that was introduced carried almost too much power with it. In this project, a mobile phone was loaded with videos and connected to a portable projector. Daycare workers and parents were able to watch good childcare practices from model early childhood care and development centers. “What we found out was that using new technology not seen before sometimes amplified the message so much that caregivers wanted to discard what they already knew and replace it with what they saw on the screen from the model daycare centers.” Though the project showed the power of tech, unintended consequences may come up at the intersection of software, hardware and ‘peopleware’.

Mika talked about another project in Uganda that supported parents’ involvement into school activities. Plan realized that men were more willing to come to parent-teacher meetings once they introduced a mobile SMS service through which they sent invitations. The technology lowered the threshold for men to participate in issues they might have previously considered ‘women’s issues’. These subtle dynamics in the local context can have a big influence on how an innovation works, he noted.

Mika’s takeaways for startups and innovators were that civil society organizations might offer good synergy for co-designing, testing out and distributing products and services. “I’ve seen startups getting needs and ideas from the ground through NGOs, and then innovating products and services together. For example we produced a start-up mobile data gathering tool called Poimapper based on the needs coming from our frontline staff. We did on the ground pilots and product development in Kenya with actual end users who gave crucial feedback to make the service work well. Peopleware matters and partnering with NGOs can help startups to get it right,” he said.  “INGOs often have a wide presence around the world, and they are on the ground in communities and the surrounding society. They know quite a lot about peopleware, participatory methods, and community engagement. Then again, they don’t necessary have the same agility and fast innovation processes combined with new business models that startups are often good at.  So, my advice to NGOs is to go and meet startups and visa versa.”

I added that it’s important to understand who has access to and control of devices, and to ensure that a product or service is valuable to people in the long-term. So first — Who owns the phone? Who controls it? Often the story is that everyone has a phone but you may find that some people own 2 phones, some don’t have any. You may find that the people you least expect to have phones have them or can access them, and those you’d think would have a phone don’t. This is critical especially when working with girls and women who typically have lower access and control – and of course you should be sure the project is including girls and women!

Screen Shot 2014-11-29 at 4.31.42 PMAlso, you may be working with people who have very little disposable cash – but if your application or idea saves time and money and meets a real need, they may be willing to move their resources from one thing to another. For example, using solar for light and charging up phones can save money and time as well as eliminate the health risks of kerosene lamps. However, you need to make sure that what you offer is a long-term and sustainable change. When people have limited resources, they’ll be hesitant to invest in something new if they are not assured that it will be available, sustainable and cheaper in the long term.

Lastly, as Mika said, partnering with non-profits can offer start-ups a way to reach communities, because some non-profits are quite well-known and respected by the community (though of course, some are not too!). But ethical non-profits will not risk their reputations on ideas that they do not believe in, that are unconvincing, or that seem to take advantage of the poor. Start-ups will need to have clear ideas and evidence that a proposition is solid, because most non-profits have a low tolerance for risk and failure and (one hopes) a higher ethical standard than a basic money-making operation.

Tanya closed us out by summing up the key points:

  1. People are your critical success factor. “People” include your end-user as well as those that you may be partnering with.
  2. Context is king! Understand the social dynamics, know who owns and controls the device, know what people spend money on.
  3. Build a better business model.
  4. Understand the value proposition — Figure out how your application/tool/innovation can help save precious $ and time.
  5. Understand your partners — Remember that brand and reputation are very important to non-profits, and they don’t like risk.

Thanks to Tanya and Mika for co-collaboration on the Fireside Chat and this blog post!

IMG_5689Technology Salon Helsinki kicked off as part of Slush, a fantastic start-up and technology event that takes place with about 10,000 people every Fall in the Finnish capital. Slush added a social impact stream for the first time this year, making it a good fit for Technology Salon. Plan Finland organized the Salon and Netlight hosted.

Our topic for this Salon was broad – how can technology increase social impact? – but lead discussants (Jussi Hinkkanen of Fuzu, René Parker from rLabs, and Mika Valitalo of Plan Finland) brought inspiring personal stories, fundamental questions, practical experiences, challenges and questions that made for an intimate and lively conversation that incorporated expertise from everyone in the room.

The discussion raised a number of key points for social impact start-ups and those working in the development space:

1. Making a direct contribution to social impact is a prime motivator. Most people in the room who considered themselves to be entrepreneurs or who felt they were working with a ‘start-up’ or ‘social innovation’ mentality had tried different pathways before landing on their current one, yet had found them unsatisfying due to bureaucracy, lack of agility, unsustainable efforts, systems not based on merit, and feelings of not being able to input into or control decisions. “Do I want a job where I’m comfortable, well-paid and getting accolades for the supposed social good I’m doing, but where I know I’m not having any real impact, or do I want to be somewhere that I’m paid less but I’m actually doing something worthwhile?” summed up one participant.

2. It’s not clear how to best achieve social impact at scale. There was some disagreement in the room regarding whether it was better to work outside of the system to avoid the above-noted problems with corporate social responsibility efforts, governments, multi-laterals and international development agencies, or whether it was imperative to work with those institutions in order to achieve longer-lasting impact at scale. Questions were also raised about what is meant by scale. If we help communities to demand better government services through some kind of innovative approach, that can also lead to a scaled impact and more resources and social good coming into a community, even though the scaled impact is not so directly attributable. The big question is how to achieve scale yet remain locally relevant and contextually sensitive.

3. Keeping a social impact focus is a challenge. It’s critical to think about both social impact and sustainability from the very beginning, participants agreed. A social impact start-up, like any business, needs to pay salaries and other costs, so it needs a good business model that brings in enough revenue. “If you do not show revenue and growth, you will drive off investors,” said others, “and then your start-up won’t grow.” Yet those in the lowest income bracket will not have the highest capacity to pay for services, and donors often have policies prohibiting them from funding profit-building entities, even if they start off as non-profits. Ensuring that investors have a social impact motivation so that the mission of the start-up does not skew as it grows can also be a challenge. This area is being somewhat addressed by ‘social impact investing’ however, “as a start-up entrepreneur,” said one participant, “you know that next phase investors don’t like it if you have an impact investor already on board, so that makes it difficult to get further funding.” This all poses real challenges for start-ups.

4. Social good is in the eye of the beholder. Everyone will say that their company is values-based and that it’s ‘doing good’ but who decides on and judges the social function of a company? “Maybe one way is to see if it motivates Generation Y,” said one participant. Another pointed out that one company might be doing something that is perceived as ‘socially good’, but it might have a very small impact. Whereas another company might be doing something not perceived as ‘socially good’ (say, selling clothing) yet it has embedded strong values, good business ethics, pays workers well with good benefits, doesn’t pollute the environment and contributes to local economic growth in a large way. People won’t think of the second company as doing social good even if its social impact is greater than the first company. The idea of social impact is largely in the mind of the beholder, concluded one person, it’s in the psyche.

5. Staying true to social impact values in the long-term is difficult. As one discussant noted, keeping the social impact mindset requires constant consideration as to whether you are doing good with and for your employees, but you also need to ask the community that you are serving what they think. “It’s easy to say you are doing social good, but if you go directly to ask people in the community whether your initiative is doing what it says and if it’s having a good impact, you’ll see it’s not easy. When an investor comes along who wants to change things, you always have to go back to look at who you are, how you started, how a particular change will impact the organization, and how it will impact on the thousands of people who rely on you.”

6. A sustainable business model helps bring autonomy according to one discussant. A start-up can remain agile and make its own decisions if there are no donors or external funders. Having its own sustainable revenue stream will allow it to stay true to its vision and to community needs, or at least provide enough to cover staff and operations costs. However, partnership and collaboration are key. “You have to work with other people whether you like it or not. If you are working as a social impact start-up, you’ll need to partner with those already working in the community, and work with everyone to bring in their part. Just because there is a community out there somewhere, you can’t assume that they don’t know what is happening or that they don’t know anything. You need to partner with these local groups and work with the existing community context and structures.”

7. An innovative business model trumps innovative technology. Many of the places where non-profits are working and where people may think about ‘social good’ start-ups are those where the market doesn’t work and people have very few resources. Yet these are the very people we want to support the most in terms of social impact, said one discussant, so how can we do it? Targeting solutions and payment for different parts of the markets might be one way, for example, offering a solution to the segment of the market that can pay and in that way extending the services to those who cannot pay. “The most innovative thing here is the business model, not the technological solution,” advised another person. “And if you really listen to people and you build according to people’s needs, you may uncover needs as well as new markets and business models.” Your services will need to keep evolving over time, however, as people’s needs and the context changes. “You need to go there and spend time with people in order to deeply understand their needs, their contexts and their behaviors.”

8. People won’t think like you think. Another participant quoted activists in the disability movement “Nothing about us without us,” saying that start-ups should follow that mantra also. All the really bad examples of NGO, government, development or corporate failures have been when people are looking top-down or outside-in, she said. “When you think ‘since those people are poor, they have nothing, they will really want this thing I’m going to give them,’ you will fail,” she added. “People everywhere already have values, knowledge, relationships, things that they themselves value. This all impacts on what they want and what they are willing to receive. The biggest mistake is assuming that you know what is best, and thinking ‘these people would think like me if I were them.’ That is never the case.”

9. There is space for various approaches. You won’t want one single product or service to monopolize, said one person. “There are roles and limitations for different entities in any community. There are some non-income generating things that can and need to happen, and that is actually fine. It used to be a charity and welfare mentality, but now we think markets will solve everything. Neither extreme is correct. We need to have space for various partners and efforts.” At the same time, there needs to be space for different partners at different stages in time. It is important for the various partners to understand what their role is. Emergency support is good in an immediate post-conflict stage, for example, but then humanitarian organizations need to step aside and open space for other actors when a community or country moves to a more stable development and growth period.

10. It’s difficult to find investors for social impact in ‘the South.’ The perceived risk in investing in start-ups that want to ‘go South’ or start-ups already based in ‘the South’ makes it hard to find investors. “Finnish investors are myopic,” said one person. “Finland has already provided examples of how companies can access these new opportunities and also have a social impact. Spending power has skyrocketed in some countries. If investors looked properly, they would see the potential of making more money in some of these vast markets than they can in Europe or Finland,” noted another person. The risk is indeed greater due to various elements in some of these countries, added one person. “It’s like courtship – you can’t go after people who are not in your league or not right for you. But if you find the right investor who understands the risk as well as the significant potential returns, it can be a great marriage.”

11. NGOs and start-ups can be great partners. They can come up with ideas from scratch, or they can partner later in the process. NGOs can take advantage of start-up applications and services, whereas the start-ups can find new customers, build a portfolio, do field-testing and get feedback on what to improve with their idea. In addition the two have a lot to teach each other, said one discussant. “NGOs can learn a lot from start-ups about how to operate. They should be learning how to think about iterative improvements, pivoting and changing quickly, failing fast and learning fast.” Start-ups can also learn from NGOs. “Some NGOs are quite good at participatory practices, knowing the community well, collaborating at multiple levels with various stakeholders, communities and governments.” In addition, community-based organizations know the community very well and often work together well with start-ups and NGOs.

12. Pacing and timing can make collaboration tricky. The pacing in these different organizations and partners is quite different, however, and that causes friction and frustration. But even large multi-lateral agencies can be helpful for start-ups who want to gain entry into different countries or communities because they are well-known and because they can provide an ethical and legal framework that helps protect the start-up from making big mistakes due to a lack of understanding of these key elements. NGOs can also serve as a kind of infrastructure upon which to build start-up efforts. Lack of NGO and donor agility however sometimes causes efforts to fail. Hybrid models of funding that can enable start-up-NGO collaboration are needed. One discussant emphasized the importance for start-ups to generate their own funding on the one hand while seeking donor funds for some things too, but never doing anything for a donor that is not part of the organizations core mission.

13. You need to lose the ego. In every sector, egos and brands get in the way of social impact. Start-up founders have egos too, and the start-up personality may often be one that wants the spotlight, or in order to obtain funding the start-up may need to act in a particular way, and this can be detrimental. “For social impact work, we need to think about catalyzing something, not being the center of it. We need to help bring snowballs to the top of the hills, and then let them roll down on their own without branding,” recommended one participant. “We hear that 60% of mHealth initiatives die before they thrive. They are isolated, with little connection and interface with one another. We need more platforms and sharing, less egos and brands.”

IMG_5690Next Technology Salon Helsinki. Plan Finland is hoping to continue convening in Helsinki. If you are interested, sign up to get invitations at Technology Salon!

I’d also recommend attending Slush next year – especially if you like high energy, high-tech, Helsinki and lasers! I’m sure next year’s impact stream will be as good or even better than this year.

Thanks again to Plan for convening and sponsoring the first Salon, to Slush for including it as part of their Social Impact Stream, and to Netlight for hosting at their beautiful offices!

The first two and half years that I lived in San Salvador, back in the early ‘90s, I didn’t work. I spent my time adapting, perfecting my Spanish, and learning from my mother-in-law how to cook, wash clothes, and take care of a house and family the Salvadoran Barrio way.

The other thing I did was read. I’d read anything I could get my hands on, often finishing a book in a day or two if my supply was plentiful.

A few months after I arrived, however, I had run out of things to read and was getting a little bored. By then my husband had started working as a mechanic in the shop where he had apprenticed as a teenager. We were not taking trips out to the beach or hanging out on the patio anymore, and I had mastered much of the housewifely chore learning. I was looking for something to do with my time and my attention turned to finding books.

Aside from the newspaper, reading was not something that anyone I knew in San Salvador did. Most of the people in the Barrio, including those in my new family, had not studied past 6th or, in some cases, 9th grade, nor did they have extra cash for things like books. (A Finnish friend who lived for a few years in El Salvador once said that she had loved visiting Suchitoto, a town outside the capital, because, “Linda, I saw people sitting around reading! And it wasn’t the bible!”)

I realized that finding books was going to be a challenge. There were no bookstores in downtown San Salvador, which was the extent of my range of movement at the time. So I asked my husband if there was a university anywhere, because certainly they would have a bookstore.

Y vos, ¿quién te crees? Who do you think you are?” he asked, pointing his chin at me, a little surprised at my question. “You think you can just waltz into a university campus and go in their bookstore?”

I didn’t know what to say.

So I asked what the problem was. Why couldn’t we? He explained that people like him, people from the Barrio, didn’t go to universities, and that if poor people went where the fufurufu (Salvadoran slang for wealthy, snobby, fancy, powerful people) lived, the police would chase them out. If as kids he and his brother had dared to walk into places where they didn’t belong, he said, the police (which was, at that time, the feared military police) would want to know what they were doing there and they’d be in big trouble. So they didn’t go to places like that.

With the idea of going to a university bookstore ruled out, he suggested that we go to “La Hispanoamerica,” a school supply shop downtown, to see if we could find something there. I was in luck — Hispanoamerica had a shelf full of classics in Spanish and even some in English, so I started browsing. A clerk quickly came over. She was annoyed that I was behind the glass counter touching the books.

“What book are you looking for?” she asked. “I don’t know, I’m just looking,” I answered. “Pues sí,” she said, “but which one are you looking for?” I answered again that I wasn’t sure, I just wanted to see what they had. By then she was even more exasperated. “Yes, but what is the title? Which book did they tell you to read? Give me your reading list and I’ll find the books for you.”

At this point I understood that this was not a place where people browsed to find something to read, it was a place you came to buy the books that you had been assigned to read. Foiled again.

I felt sheepish for not understanding the situation, and my husband was a little embarrassed by my walking behind the counter in the first place, and because the clerk seemed to think I was an idiot. “You can’t just walk behind the counter,” he told me. I felt like again he was asking me, “Just who do you think you are?” So I ended up not buying anything.

Instead, I asked my mother if she could send me books. She was running an auction house in Indiana at the time. So she would find and send me whatever used books came along that she thought I’d like. (She’d also send me envelopes full of newspaper clippings a couple of times a week. I like to think of this as the original Twitter. :))

These books ranged from romance novels to best sellers to biographies. I’d go to the post office a few blocks away downtown and spend the entire morning standing in lines, filling out paper work and waiting for signatures, purchasing colorful tax stamps at the bank and returning to the post office so that the clerks could wet and affix them to the boxes and mark them with government seals. It was an education in how the bureaucratic system of the country worked, learned through the simple act of picking up a box of used books.

I didn’t have much choice, so once I finally had them back to the house, I read them all. I remember reading a fascinating biography about a woman named Nora Barnacle, the wife of author James Joyce, a famous (I then discovered) Irish author.

At that time in my life, I never imagined that I’d end up one day having a job where I could travel the world. I wasn’t even able to get my hands on a copy of James Joyce’s books at that point, much less think about visiting his home country of Ireland.

***

Last week, however, there I was in Dublin, where Joyce did much of his writing. Before leaving home, I grabbed a copy of his book Dubliners from my college-aged son’s bookshelf for the trip. I figured it was high time I finally read some Joyce. Dubliners is a set of short stories written by Joyce when he was only 25 years old, just slightly older than I was when I was milling around San Salvador looking for books, and learning how to live in the Barrio. The stories focus on ordinary life in Dublin in the 19th century, after the city had weathered a long decline. They talk of grimy children, tenements, poor sewage systems, and a working class that struggles to make ends meet. The comparisons with Salvadoran barrios are easy to make.

At dinner in a nice restaurant with friends one evening last week, something triggered me to tell my tablemates the story of finding books in San Salvador, and how it had made me examine my own privilege and to consider the limits that my husband had set for himself as someone who identified himself as being ‘poor’ and ‘from the Barrio.’ How often we self-marginalize because we feel like we don’t belong, or because a dominant class or culture sets clear boundaries that we are not supposed to think about crossing. These boundaries become strong mental and physical barriers and deter us from entering both the spaces and places of the privileged.

Because humans are adaptable, however, these can be learned and unlearned. I discovered, for example, that I wasn’t supposed to do certain things in San Salvador because of the class that I had married into or because I was female, and I altered my behavior. When I moved back to the US, I re-learned things I had unlearned in El Salvador about what women should and shouldn’t, can and can’t do. Similarly, over time, my (now ex) husband learned that he could do things that he thought he wasn’t supposed to. He ended up returning to finish high school, and eventually went on to get a university degree. This was in part because he started to believe that he could, part because universities became more accessible, and part because I had started working and we had a little more money to allow him to pay fees and to work less.

I think about this experience a lot in the work I do, because I’m often working with or writing about marginalized groups and ways to improve inclusion. How can we help people overcome self-imposed barriers? What should institutions and social spaces look like physically, culturally and attitudinally, so that they can be inclusive? How do girls and women in particular self-exclude, and what kinds of wider environments are needed to reduce gender exclusion? I know that these barriers can be unlearned and overcome, but not without some work, support and effort on different fronts, including from those institutions and spaces that are excluding.

***

Book of Kells

Yesterday a friend from the Dublin dinner conversation emailed me while I was sitting in a little coffee shop, getting some work done. He was over at Trinity College at the Book of Kells exhibit. “Was only here for a few moments when I thought of you and your book story,” he wrote. So I met him there to see it. The Book of Kells is a very old bible, from 800 a.d.. It is housed in a glass case, and it’s full of gorgeous illustrations in amazing color. Upstairs from the Book of Kells itself is a library full of other old books. They are all roped off or encased in glass, physically off limits like the ones at the Hispanoamerica and the university bookstore that we were not supposed to go into back in El Salvador — yet for slightly different reasons.

Afterwards, we went to grab a quick lunch. We wandered down a small street where I had spied a sign that looked to me like it said ‘Daily Bread.’ “Let’s see what they have,” I said. (Oh, my terrible eyesight!) The shop was actually a pub called “Davy Byrnes,” but no matter, it was 3pm and they were still serving food. In fact, inside there were a lot of people having an early happy hour and lively conversations. We ordered some hearty food.

My friend ate quickly and ran off to catch his flight. I stayed around to finish my lunch and decided to order a glass of wine, as the atmosphere was warm and friendly (and inclusive!). In the process of eating, I knocked my knife off the table and onto the floor. It clattered loudly and landed in right between the feet of an elderly man with a cane sitting next to me. I apologized and leaned over to pick it up.

“A harrrr!” He turned to me and laughed loud and long, perhaps a bit tipsy from the port he was drinking. “Soooo! Now I’m gonna trow a pen at you!” he said, and reached into his vest pocket while wiggling his eyebrows and staring at me intently with watery pale blue eyes. He cackled like a pirate and threw a pen onto the floor near my feet.

I was being a bit slow, so he explained. “The pen is might-ier than the sword! Ha ha ha ha ha!”

He was ripe for a good chat, and I was enjoying the banter. “Don’t miss the Joyce exhibit while you are here,” he told me. I said that in fact, I was reading Dubliners but had barely cracked the book open yet. “Ah, he said. Dubliners is easy. Now Finnegan’s Wake, that’s the one that’s hard to crack!”

He went on to tell me some short stories of his own, riddled with the kind of swearing that you might expect from a feisty old Irish man you find in a pub. He finally leaned on his cane to get up and head home, leaving behind his book from the Joyce exhibit and his cap. The bartender assured me he would be back to get them.

As I settled up my bill, I asked what was the story of the pub, since it was unlike any other I’d ever patronized. Strangely enough I learned that Davy Byrnes, the pub we’d randomly wandered into, is famous for its association with Joyce. He spent time there, wrote there, mentions said “Davy Byrnes” in his books, and it’s been known since 1889 as Dublin’s most famous literary pub.

It’s weird how people, things and themes wander through your life and come together at points you never expect. The question “Who do you think you are?” has stuck with me, for better or worse, and it pops into mind at different times. “Who do you think you are? Do you think you can just walk in there and…?” It’s a good one for examining privilege, or on the flipside, exclusion.

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