Archive for the ‘participation’ Category

The July 7th Technology Salon in New York City focused on the role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in Public Consultation. Our lead discussants were Tiago Peixoto, Team Lead, World Bank Digital Engagement Unit; Michele Brandt, Interpeace’s Director of Constitution-Making for Peace; and Ravi Karkara, Co-Chair, Policy Strategy Group, World We Want Post-2015 Consultation. Discussants covered the spectrum of local, national and global public consultation.

We started off by delving into the elements of a high-quality public consultation. Then we moved into whether, when, and how ICTs can help achieve those elements, and what the evidence base has to say about different approaches.

Elements and principles of high quality public participation

Our first discussant started by listing elements that need to be considered, whether a public consultation process is local, national or global, and regardless of whether it incorporates:

  • Sufficient planning
  • Realistic time frames
  • Education for citizens to participate in the process
  • Sufficient time and budget to gather views via different mechanisms
  • Interest in analyzing and considering the views
  • Provision of feedback about what is done with the consultation results

Principles underlying public consultation processes are that they should be:

  • Inclusive
  • Representative
  • Transparent
  • Accountable

Public consultation process should also be accompanied by widespread public education processes to ensure that people are prepared to a) provide their opinions and b) aware of the wider context in which the consultation takes place, she said. Tech and media can be helpful for spreading the news that the consultation is taking place, creating the narrative around it, and encouraging participation of groups who are traditional excluded, such as girls and women or certain political, ethnic, economic or religious groups, a Salon participant added.

Technology increases scale but limits opportunities for empathy, listening and learning

When thinking about integrating technologies into national public consultation processes, we need to ask ourselves why we want to encourage participation and consultation, what we want to achieve by it, and how we can best achieve it. It’s critical to set goals and purpose for a national consultation, rather than to conduct one just to tick a box, continued the discussant.

The pros and cons of incorporating technology into public consultations are contextual. Technology can be useful for bringing more views into the consultation process, however face-to-face consultation is critical for stimulating empathy in decision makers. When people in positions of power actually sit down and listen to their constituencies, it can send a very powerful message to people across the nation that their ideas and voices matter. National consultation also helps to build consensus and capacity to compromise. If done according to the above-mentioned principles, public consultation can legitimize national processes and improve buy-in. When leaders are open to listening, it also transforms them, she said.

At times, however, those with leadership or in positions of power do not believe that people can participate; they do not believe that the people have the capacity to have an opinion about a complicated political process, for example the creation of a new constitution. For this reason there is often resistance to national level consultations from multilateral or bilateral donors, politicians, the elites of a society, large or urban non-governmental organizations, and political leaders. Often when public consultation is suggested as part of a constitution making process, it is rejected because it can slow down the process. External donors may want a quick process for political reasons, and they may impose deadlines on national leaders that do not leave sufficient time for a quality consultation process.

Polls often end up being one-off snapshots or popularity contests

One method that is seen as a quick way to conduct a national consultation is polling. Yet, as Salon participants discussed, polls may end up being more like a popularity contest than a consultation process. Polls offer limited space for deeper dialogue or preparing those who have never been listened to before to make their voices heard. Polling may also raise expectations that whatever “wins” will be acted on, yet often there are various elements to consider when making decisions. So it’s important to manage expectations about what will be done with people’s responses and how much influence they will have on decision-making. Additionally, polls generally offers a snapshot of how people feel at a distinct point in time, but it may be important to understand what people are thinking at various moments throughout a longer-term national process, such as constitution making.

In addition to the above, opinion polls often reinforce the voices of those who have traditionally had a say, whereas those who have been suffering or marginalized for years, especially in conflict situations, may have a lot to say and a need to be listened to more deeply, explained the discussant. “We need to compress the vertical space between the elites and the grassroots, and to be sure we are not just giving people a one-time chance to participate. What we should be doing is helping to open space for dialogue that continues over time. This should be aimed at setting a precedent that citizen engagement is important and that it will continue even after a goal, such as constitution writing, is achieved,” said the discussant.

In the rush to use new technologies, often we forget about more traditional ones like radio, added one Salon participant, who shared an example of using radio and face to face meetings to consult with boys and girls on the Afghan constitution. Another participant suggested we broaden our concept of technology. “A plaza or a public park is actually a technology,” he noted, and these spaces can be conducive to dialogue and conversation. It was highlighted that processes of dialogue between a) national government and the international community and b) national government and citizens, normally happen in parallel and at odds with one another. “National consultations have historically been organized by a centralized unit, but now these kinds of conversations are happening all the time on various channels. How can those conversations be considered part of a national level consultation?” wondered one participant.

Aggregation vs deliberation

There is plenty of research on aggregation versus deliberation, our next discussant pointed out, and we know that the worst way to determine how many beans are in a jar is to deliberate. Aggregation (“crowd sourcing”) is a better way to find that answer. But for a trial, it’s not a good idea to have people vote on whether someone is guilty or not. “Between the jar and the jury trial, however,” he said, “we don’t know much about what kinds of policy issues lend themselves better to aggregation or to deliberation.”

For constitution making, deliberation is probably better, he said. But for budget allocation, it may be that aggregation is better. Research conducted across 132 countries indicated that “technology systematically privileges those who are better educated, male, and wealthier, even if you account for the technology access gaps.” This discussant mentioned that in participatory budgeting, people tend to just give up and let the educated “win” whereas maybe if it were done by a simple vote it would be more inclusive.

One Salon participated noted that it’s possible to combine deliberation and aggregation. “We normally only put things out for a vote after they’ve been identified through a deliberative process,” he said, “and we make sure that there is ongoing consultation.” Others lamented that decision makers often only want to see numbers – how many voted for what – and they do not accept more qualitative consultation results because they usually happen with fewer people participating. “Congress just wants to see numbers.”

Use of technology biases participation towards the elite

Some groups are using alternative methods for participatory democracy work, but the technology space has not thought much about this and relies on self-selection for the most part, said the discussant, and results end up being biased towards wealthier, urban, more educated males. Technology allows us to examine behaviors by looking at data that is registered in systems and to conduct experiments, however those doing these experiments need to be more responsible, and those who do not understand how to conduct research using technology need to be less empirical. “It’s a unique moment to build on what we’ve learned in the past 100 years about participation,” he said. Unfortunately, many working in the field of technology-enabled consultation have not done their research.

These biases towards wealthier, educated, urban males are very visible in Europe and North America, because there is so much connectivity, yet whether online or offline, less educated people participate less in the political process. In ‘developing’ countries, the poor usually participate more than the wealthy, however. So when you start using technology for consultation, you often twist that tendency and end up skewing participation toward the elite. This is seen even when there are efforts to proactively reach out to the poor.

Internal advocacy and an individual’s sense that he or she is capable of making a judgment or influencing an outcome is key for participation, and this is very related to education, time spent in school and access to cultural assets. With those who are traditionally marginalized, these internal assets are less developed and people are less confident. In order to increase participation in consultations, it’s critical to build these internal skills among more marginalized groups.

Combining online and offline public consultations

Our last discussant described how a global public consultation was conducted on a small budget for the Sustainable Development Goals, reaching an incredible 7.5 million people worldwide. Two clear goals of the consultation were that it be inclusive and non-discriminatory. In the end, 49% who voted identified as female, 50% as male and 1% as another gender. Though technology played a huge part in the process, the majority of people who voted used a paper ballot. Others participated using SMS, in locally-run community consultation processes, or via the website. Results from the voting were visualized on a data dashboard/data curation website so that it would be easier to analyze them, promote them, and encourage high-level decision makers to take them into account.

Some of the successful elements of this online/offline process included that transparency was a critical aspect. The consultation technology was created as open source so that those wishing to run their own consultations could open it, modify it, and repackage it however they wanted to suit their local context. Each local partner could manage their own URL and track their own work, and this was motivating to them.

Other key learning was that a conscious effort has to be made to bring in voices of minority groups; investment in training and capacity development was critical for those running local consultations; honesty and transparency about the process (in other words, careful management of expectations); and recognize that there will be highs and lows in the participation cycle (be sensitive to people’s own cycles and available time to participate).

The importance of accountability

Accountability was a key aspect for this process. Member states often did not have time to digest the results of the consultation, and those running it had to find ways to capture the results in short bursts and visually simple graphics so that the consultation results would be used for decision making. This required skill and capacity for not only gathering and generating data but also curating it for the decision-making audience.

It was also important to measure the impact of the consultation – were people’s voices included in the decision-making process and did it make a difference? And were those voices representative of a wide range of people? Was the process inclusive?

Going forward, in order to build on the consultation process and to support the principle of accountability, the initiative will shift focus to become a platform for public participation in monitoring and tracking the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Political will and responsiveness

A question came up about the interest of decision-makers in actually listening. “Leaders often are not at all interested in what people have to say. They are more concerned with holding onto their power, and if leaders have not agreed to a transparent and open process of consultation, it will not work. You can’t make them listen if they don’t want to. If there is no political will, then the whole consultation process will just be propaganda and window dressing,” one discussant commented. Another Salon participant what can be done to help politicians see the value of listening. “In the US, for example, we have lobbyists, issues groups, PACs, etc., so our politicians are being pushed on and demanded from all sides. If consultation is going to matter, you need to look at the whole system.” “How can we develop tools that can help governments sort through all these pressures and inputs to make good decisions?” wondered one participant.

Another person mentioned Rakesh Rajani’s work, noting that participation is mainly about power. If participation is not part of a wider system change, part of changing power structures, then using technology for participation is just a new tool to do the same old thing. If the process is not transparent and accountable, or if you engage and do not deliver anything based on the engagement, then you will lose future interest to engage.

Responsiveness was also raised. How many of these tech-fueled participation processes have led to governments actually changing, doing something different? One discussant said that evidence of impact of ICT-enabled participation processes was found in only 25 cases, and of those only 5 could show any kind of impact. All the others had very unclear impact – it was ambiguous. Did using ICTs make a difference? There was really no evidence of any. Another commented that clearly technology will only help if government is willing and able to receive consultation input and act on it. We need to find ways to help governments to do that, noted another person.

As always, conversation could have continued on for quite some time but our 2 hours was up. For more on ICTs and public consultations, here is a short list of resources that we compiled. Please add any others that would be useful! And as a little plug for a great read on technology and its potential in development and political work overall, I highly recommend checking out Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology from Kentaro Toyama. Kentaro’s “Law of Amplification” is quite relevant in the space of technology-enabled participation, in that technology amplifies existing human behaviors and tendencies, and benefits those who are already primed to benefit while excluding those who have been traditionally excluded. Hopefully we’ll get Kentaro in for a Tech Salon in the Fall!

Thanks to our lead discussants, Michele, Tiago and Ravi, and to Thoughtworks for their generous hosting of the Salon! Salons are conducted under Chatham House Rule so no attribution has been made in this post. Sign up here if you’d like to receive Technology Salon invitations.

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Our April 16th Technology Salon Brooklyn, co-hosted with the Brooklyn Community Foundation (BCF) and AfroLatin@ Project explored the issue of tenant rights within the wider context of structural discrimination. We aimed to think about how new technology and social media might be a tool for helping community organizations to support Brooklyn residents to know their rights and report violations. We were also curious about how better use of data (and ‘big data’) might help housing rights activists and community organizations to more successfully engage residents and advocate for change.

Our lead discussant was David Reiss from Brooklyn Law School, who provided an overview of the wider housing market and challenges in New York City as well as information on some applications that are helping landlords do a better job of keeping properties up to standard. We also heard from Tynesha McHarris (BCF) and Amilcar Priestly (AfroLatin@ Project).

Brooklyn: lots of cool, lots of inequality

Kicking off the Salon, one discussant talked about the essence of Brooklyn. “What do you think of when you hear ‘Brooklyn’?” she asked. “It’s incredibly ‘cool,’ yes. But it’s also incredibly inequitable and there is incredibly inequality, mainly for people of color.” Brooklyn is the hub of New York’s tech industry, yet it’s also where tenants are being displaced, harassed and finding it difficult to live. “We want to see how tech can be used as a tool for, not a tool against,” she said, “how can we support folks to understand, advocate and organize around their rights, how we can use tech to organize in as well as across communities, because these issues don’t just affect some people, they affect all of us who live here.”

She noted that technology is a tool with potential, and donors could be funding projects that use tech to help organize and advocate on tenant rights, but there is insufficient evidence to know how to approach it. To date technology has not really been part of the bigger picture.

Another discussant talked about the housing market as a whole in New York City, citing that there available affordable housing has not kept up with the huge influx of population over the past several years. “Technology will not fix the underlying problem,” he noted. “It can’t expand the supply of affordable housing.” The real potential for technology is more in helping protect the rights of current tenants.

Some examples of how tech is supporting housing rights include applications and portals aimed at improving communications between landlords and tenants, so that problems can be more easily reported by either side, and record is kept of complaints, he commented. Incentives for landlords include free advertising of their units on the site and some reduced legal fees for things like rent stabilization approval. An interesting aspect of these sites is that the data can be analyzed to see where the largest number of complaints are coming from, and in this way patterns can be found and identified. For example, who are the bad landlords? Other sites offer lots of data for those who are interested in purchasing units, and this same type of data could be repurposed and made more accessible for lower-income and less technologically savvy residents.

One participant noted that gentrification and policing are very connected. “As we talk about legal rights and landlord-to-tenant conversations,” she noted, “we need to also bring in aspects of policing and racial justice. These are closely linked.“ As neighborhoods gentrify, newer residents often call for a greater police presence, and this can lead to harassment of long-time residents.

What other roles could technology play in strengthening existing work?

Connecting people and organizations

Lots of community organizations are working on the issues of tenant rights and gentrification, and there is a desire to build a network across these organizations. Tech could help to bring them together and to support stronger advocacy and organization. People don’t always know where they can go for help. One idea was to map organizations in different neighborhoods where people can go for help on housing issues. People also may think that they are the only tenants in a building who are having trouble with a landlord. Improved communication via tech might help let residents know they are not alone and to reduce the fear of reporting and speaking out about housing violations. One idea was to use the new system of NYC neighborhood domains to provide local information, including housing rights and specific information on buildings and their histories.

Transferring tactics from one movement to another

We’ve seen the huge role that mobile video has played in raising awareness on the issue of police violence, noted one discussant. “Technology has become a very powerful tool for communication and accountability, look at the case of Walter Scott (who died at the hands of a volunteer policeman). The young man who filmed Scott’s death knew just what to do. He pointed his camera and captured it. How can we transfer this kind of action over to the housing movement? How can we get people to use their cameras and record housing violations and landlord harassment?”

Offering new, potentially more effective ways to report housing violations

Tech can offer different dissemination channels for different people – for example, in Detroit the elderly are particularly vulnerable to housing violations, said one Salon participant. One organization encourages people to report housing harassment via SMS. They included a call-back option to cater to older people who did not feel comfortable with SMS. Stories are also an important part of campaigns and public awareness, noted another participant. Sandy Storyline created a way to share text plus a photo via SMS for those who wanted to communicate stories but who were offline. This type of application could serve as a way of keeping record of housing violations, when/where they are reported and what the outcomes are.

Tracking housing violations

One way that tech is already helping is by tracking whether public housing buildings have heat and water. Sensors are attached to the buildings, and the information is sent to journalists who then write stories when building violations happen, mentioned one Salon participant. This could be accompanied by text messages out to residents of these buildings to inform them of the status of their building. Knowing that they are not the only ones noticing problems could help residents feel more confident about speaking out and confronting bad landlords. “It’s information that says to someone: ‘this message it not only for you, it’s for everyone in your building, and here is the number you can call to get support or if you fear retribution for reporting.’” Media attention puts pressure on landlords and can help bring violations to light and make people feel safer reporting them.

Encouraging local politicians to get involved

A study in Kenya found that youth tend to bypass local politicians and pay more attention to national government and governance. Similar trends are found in the US where although local political decisions may impact more directly on residents fewer are involved in or aware of local political processes than national ones. Tech could play a role in helping connect residents to local representatives who could take action to support fair housing, address bad landlords, and support longer-term solutions as well. Some local political offices have been very open to integrating technology into their work, said one participant, and these offices might be good places to think about partnering on initiatives that use technology to better connect with their constituencies.

Tracking and predicting trends and population movements and displacement

Mapping and big data sets are providing investors with incredible amounts of information on where to purchase and invest. How can organizations and advocates better use this information, not just to identify movement and displacement and conduct research on it, but also to predict it, prepare for it, and fight it together with residents? How is information that data scientists and research institutes have, as well as open data sets on New York City used by local organizations, some wondered, and where could it be better brought to bear? “Rather than coming up with parallel studies, how can we advocate for more and better open data from New York City on housing?” asked one participant.

Other recommendations

Don’t forget about the legalities of videotaping and sharing

Some people and politicians are pushing to make things like police videotaping illegal. This happened recently in Spain with the so-called “Citizen Security” law that has made it illegal to videotape a police officer in some cases. One discussant mentioned that some US Senators are also trying to restrict the rights of citizens to film police, and that advocates of social justice need to fight to keep these rights to document authorities.

Use the right technology for the audience

One participant noted that you can create great apps with all kinds of data and patterns, but the question is more about who will access and use them, and who is benefiting from them. Wealthy white men and already-privileged people will likely find it very simple to find and use the information and these applications, giving them an advantage in terms of finding good apartments at lower prices, with good landlords. The best way to reach lower income people, he said, as personally experienced from working on political campaigns, is knocking on doors and reaching out personally and directly. “We need to see how to marry community organization and technology.”

Understand the landscape

In order to understand what tech tools might be useful, it we need to understand the communication and technology landscape in which we are working. Though Salon participants mentioned the importance of certain print publications, community radio stations in various languages, and increasing use of smart phones by young people, no one was aware of any current and widespread information on the information and communication habits of residents of Brooklyn that could help to target particular outreach efforts to different groups who were at risk of housing violations.

SMS is not a silver bullet – and trust is key

SMS can be extremely accessible, and there are many examples where it has worked very well. But experience shows that SMS works best where there are already strong networks in place, and trust is hugely important. One participant cautioned, “People need to trust where the text message is coming from. They need to know who is sending the text.” SMS also has limits because it is hyper local. “You won’t find it working across an entire Borough,” said one participant.

Local organizations are key

Along with the issue of trust is the critical component of local organizations. As one participant reminded us, “especially faith-based organizations – temples, churches, mosques. They know everyone in the neighborhood and what’s going on. They tend to know how to walk a fine line on local politics.”

Youth could play a role

Because youth around the world, including in Brooklyn, tend to be up on the latest technology, they could play a role in helping parents and grandparents with housing rights violations, especially in communities where older people are not comfortable with English or where they may fear the police due to undocumented status or other past experiences. One idea was bridging the technology and age gap by engaging young people, who could help older people find out about their rights, legal support services and where to find help. Some research has shown that young people are starting to rely on technology as an institution, said one participant, with technology and online institutions replacing physical ones for many of them.

Be careful about creating demand without adequate response capacity

As with any tech project, creating demand for services and informing people about the existence of those services is often an easier task than building and sustaining the capacity to provide quality support. Any efforts to generate greater demand need to be accompanied by capacity and funding so that people do not become apathetic or feel that they’ve been tricked if they report a violation and do not receive the support they expect or were promised. Previous experiences with service providers or legal institutions will also impact whether people trust these efforts, even if they come through new channels like technology.

Figure out how community organizations and technology partners can work together

An important thing to work out is what a relationship between community organizations and technology partners might look like. “Community organizations don’t need to become technology experts, we could partner and work together on resolving some of these challenges,” said one participant, “but we need to figure out what something like that would look like.” In some cases, community organizations in Brooklyn have low capacity and extremely poor infrastructure due to limited funding, commented one participant. “How can we reach out and engage with them and ask if they are interested in working with tech partners? How can we find out from them what tech would be supportive for them in their work?”

Think about short and long-term efforts

It will be important to look at both supporting residents and community organizations in the immediate term, and thinking about how to use data and information to help address the long term and the wider structural issues that are playing a role in housing rights violations and differential impacts of the housing situation on specific groups, for example, the elderly and people of color. It’s also important to try to address some of the root causes – for example, as one participant asked, “Who is funding predatory landlords? Who are the investors in these vulture funds?”


In conclusion, participants expressed their interest in continuing discussions and a desire for greater participation by community organizations in future Salons. The hope is that the Salon can help to connect community organizations and those in the tech space in order to work together to address some of the issues that Brooklyn residents face.

If you’d like to join us for our next Salon, sign up here.

Many thanks to the Brooklyn Community Foundation for their fabulous hosting and AfroLatin@ Project for helping make the Salon happen!




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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.

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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.





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I first attended PopTech in 2009, and I had very little idea of what I was getting into. I had never heard of “design thinking” and though I had been working with technology and social change, I was new to the wider field of “innovation.” So PopTech was pretty mind-blowing for me. I remember meeting a couple of guys from Frog Design early on, and I ended up kind of tagging along to what they were doing a lot of the time (they were very cool about it). It now cracks me up that back then I had never heard of Frog.

Though terms like “interaction design” and “user interface” and “human centered design” were brand new to me in 2009, I do remember being surprised that the idea of working to design things together with users was seen as innovative. Design thinking can be magical, but in many ways it looks a lot like participatory development. There were very few international NGOs attending PopTech in 2009, but clearly it was a space where NGOs could learn a LOT and where grassroots and community centered organizations could share their knowledge and experience with community engagement and participation. (I’m glad to see that “hybrid” is the topic for 2015, and I hope that more of that kind of hybridization happens!)

I’m pretty sure I’ve come a long way since 2009. I’m no longer very impressed by product inventions – I’m more excited when someone is able to innovate through a whole cycle, rather than just invent a product. And that process requires a lot of thought to things like logistics and ecosystems.

Wikipedia says it well:

Innovation differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of a better and, as a result, novel idea or method, whereas invention refers more directly to the creation of the idea or method itself. Innovation differs from improvement in that innovation refers to the notion of doing something different rather than doing the same thing better.

But that’s another blog post….

So, what did I learn at PopTech 2014*?

I like humility. The stage is a hard thing to manage for some people (including myself). I noticed this time around at PopTech that I didn’t pay as much attention to the super polished speakers and the ones with lots of inspirational quotes. The theme was “rebellion” and I liked the people who didn’t necessarily think of themselves as rebels, but who were just doing their thing. I liked hearing the stories from those who seemed less accustomed to the stage, who didn’t have a Ted-Style hero story, and who seemed a bit uncomfortable in the limelight. When it comes to social change, I believe that humility is a key ingredient. Being true to a mission through and through is critical whether you are working in a non-profit or as a social entrepreneur. It was great to see folks on stage who are living their ethics through their work.

Peter Durand’s illustration of Anil Dash’s talk.

I like ethics. Speaking of ethics, I also liked the talks that emphasized the hard questions around leadership, reflection, agency and privilege. A big shout out to Anil Dash, Parker Palmer and Courtney Martin for that. Their time on stage emphasized the importance of the values behind what we do, the problem with egos (both in Silicon Valley and in social impact work) and the way egos get in the way of social impact and progress. Palmer also talked about contemplation, and that it’s not necessary to do meditation to be contemplative. (This is great news for me as I have a hard time with yoga and sitting still in general, and things like capoeira and running work better for me to clear my mind.)

Good facilitation is like good user interface design. I ran into Matt, one of the ‘design’ folks I met at PopTech 2009. I loved how he explained working on a user interface for Xbox: “You have to anticipate the users’ needs and be there for them when they need help, and then get out of the way as soon as possible.” It sounds a lot like good facilitation – whether of a workshop, a community development process, or learning – and maybe even a little like good parenting of teenagers.

It’s OK to take time out for yourself at a conference. At my first PopTech, since I felt out of my element, I felt awkward when there were times I was standing alone with no one to talk to.  Perhaps thanks to all the books and articles on introverts and extroverts over the past few years, this time around I realized it was ok to sit out sometimes (I’m a bit of an introvert). So at this PopTech, I purposely found time to sit by myself for a few minutes to think, or to go for a walk or a hike and to just be on my own or be a bit quiet for a while to regenerate. It made the socializing more enjoyable and helped me to keep my mental and social balance.

It’s OK to not ask people what they do. One of my favorite conversations at PopTech was on the way home from the closing event, on the bus. I was out of energy and tired of hearing my own voice, so I just asked the person next to me to please not ask me what I did or where I was from, and could we just have a normal conversation? Luckily I was sitting next to Peter Durand, (master illustrator) and we had an amazing chat about all sorts of things, including what we both did, but in a much more roundabout way.

It’s OK to chuck the elevator speech. In addition to getting tired of hearing my own voice, one of the reasons I dread the “what do you do” question is that I don’t exactly know how to explain what I do. I tend to change my explanation according to whom I’m talking with. Not to mention, I do a ton of things, and they are hard to explain, so I am always looking for an entry point that might resonate with the person rather than a one liner. It was great to hear Courtney Martin talk about the idea of a “portfolio career” as something her mother had and something that she has as well. A portfolio career is when what you do doesn’t fit on a business card because you do so many different things, or because there is not really one description that fits all the things you work on. I love this – as it felt like permission to never try to come up with an elevator speech again.

It’s OK to have a vocation rather than a job. Another point that resonated with me was the point about having a vocation over having a job. There has been plenty of debate in the development community about this, and I always land on the side of development work and community organizing being a vocation, not just a job. Some say that development work should be seen as a profession, and it doesn’t matter how development workers live outside of the job, but I’ve never been comfortable with that idea. I believe that values, ethics, and ego need to be in check and well-aligned if a person wants to get involved in socially oriented work. Vocation goes further than a job, and it’s a combination of the set of values and beliefs you bring to your life’s work. It’s what you do because you just can’t not do it, as Palmer noted.

It’s OK to go to a conference just to learn and connect (but it has to be the right conference). Attending something like PopTech is luxury – I’m well aware. If you are trying to convince someone to pay for a conference, normally you have to justify it with some goals or “return on investment.” But when I go to conferences with specific goals in mind, or when I’m told to go anywhere with an “ask,” I tend to leave empty handed after some awkward interactions. When every conversation is seen as a way to “get something” I tend to be stressed, and every interaction feels engineered rather than natural. I end up with much better results when I go without an agenda and when new ideas form together with someone else based on an authentic conversation or experience. Because PopTech is the “right” kind of conference for learning, and it’s set up to help people make real and in depth connections, it’s fine to go without any agenda other than learning, sharing ideas, and meeting people.

So once again, tons of learning at PopTech and above all, great people and connections. I hope I can make it back sooner than in another 5 years!

*and this will all probably sound incredibly naive when I read it in 2019…

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It’s been two weeks since we closed out the M&E Tech Conference in DC and the Deep Dive in NYC. For those of you who missed it or who want to see a quick summary of what happened, here are some of the best tweets from the sessions.

We’re compiling blog posts and related documentation and will be sharing more detailed summaries soon. In the meantime, enjoy a snapshot!

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My Regarding Humanity co-founder Lina and I have been talking about the effectiveness of “hashtag activism” for a long time now, and every week there is something new to say or learn from. We took the plunge and published where our thinking is this week – though it’s sure to change by next week. (Thanks to Alex Lee and Winter Schneider for their research and writing support!)

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I’m still grappling with whether hashtag activism and “slacktivism” in general are more important for changing perceptions and behaviors of the individuals who participate in them (which is where many marketers and social media guru types look for impact), or if they should be measured based on their effectiveness in terms of resolving the problem that the hashtag is aimed at addressing. I’m guessing if a hashtag does both, that’s when it’s really found the sweet spot. I’m also thinking that in order for it to do both, it probably needs to involve the people who are directly impacted by the issue and/or people who can actually do something about the issue (these could be one and the same in some cases).

Some say that small acts of online activism (and slacktivism) open the door to a greater feeling of individual agency, which then increases political engagement and more meaningful/more active social cause participation in the future. But I wonder if this is true when the social cause is one that does not directly touch upon the life of the person participating. Does engaging in serial online hashtagging along the lines of #bringbackourgirls make an individual more prone to taking on meaningful action at some point? Or does the hashtag engagement need to relate to something more locally addressable (eg., something the individual could directly impact) in order for it to lead to meaningful action? As we note in our article, some research has found that when it comes to global causes, people have very short attention spans and they move on to a new topic once the complexity of the situation is apparent and they understand their individual inability to make any real difference.

I’m curious about how having “skin in the game” impacts on a person’s feeling of agency and on the impact of hashtag activism at both the personal level and at the level of wider social and political change. I wrote something about this a few years ago (Activism vs Slacktivism: It’s about context not tools), and I wonder whether spontaneous hashtags that spring up and help create critical consciousness and form movements and build cohesion within them (a la #iftheygunnedmedown or #myNYPD) are more effective than those created by marketers/advocates with particular engagement goals in mind.

And anyway, what do I mean by “effective?” I suppose it’s all relevant and that, like any tool, a hashtag can be used for ton of different things and maybe I’m comparing apples and oranges here. There will be different measures of success with different hashtags – some for branding, some for fundraising and some for deeper social change and political engagement. Maybe my thoughts and feelings about hashtag activism are just reflecting my wider viewpoints on the kinds of change that I find valuable, and those usually doesn’t have much to do with building an organization’s brand…

And in the end, why do I spend time debating the value of hashtags!? Surely that’s a kind of slacktivism in its own right.

Oh, hashtags.

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