AmbitioUS Director Cate Fox on the Future of Web 3.0 and Inclusion
By Cate Fox
Eight in the morning seemed an odd time for a dance party but the music was on, and the lights were pulsing purple and blue in a largely dark cavernous convention center hall. The man sitting next to me in the folding chairs had his computer open and was writing code. Others around me were on their phones.
Spoiler alert: there was no dancing. That was probably for the best.
Instead, we were treated to a series of conversations that featured mostly white men expressing concerns about how our personal data is owned and commoditized by third parties and that Web3 and Blockchain technology provided a remedy that would liberate us from oppressive corporations and regulatory bodies. This emerging economy, referred to as decentralized finance (defi for short), we were told is the key to freedom and personal liberation. Our team was at its first Blockchain industry conference — billed on its website as “The cultural event of the year.” We knew we would be out of our comfort zone, but it was actually feeling a little closer to the Twilight Zone.
Just a month previous to this conference, we were walking around a predominantly Black neighborhood that had organized into a collective in Jackson, Mississippi, as a way of exerting self-determination, self-reliance, self-respect, and self-defense as gentrification and cultural erasure encroaches. Cooperative New West Jackson has built a community and an economy that protects and celebrates threatened cultural identities. Later that week we stood on the sacred ground of a Civil Rights monument, Historic Clayborn Temple, with its Executive Director Anasa Troutman and talked about the fact that when the Black community of Memphis gathered here for the historic Sanitation Worker Strike in 1968 it was not just peoples’ identities that were under threat but their physical safety as well.
There is a through-line to more recent events, to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Freddie Gray, of shoppers at a Buffalo grocery store, and people attending a Bible study in South Carolina just to name a few. There certainly are identities at risk not just theoretically but literally. In that way, the conference felt like it was operating in a parallel universe. Race was not mentioned at all until the third and final day toward the end of the last plenary session. The fact that the vast majority of thought leaders presenting to the thousands of Web3 builders, developers, and investors in attendance did not appear to come from those cultural communities should give us all pause about how much repair and justice is possible when key voices and perspectives are missing from the conversation.
Not only that but the insider love language that is designed to bond early adopters and boosters of defi to one another (and break the thumbs of those of us outsiders who show up to these conferences and have to search up what each of these terms mean), is full of problematic language (i.e. whitelist — a list of allowed or trusted individuals, computer programs, or cryptocurrency addresses versus blacklist — a list of banned or excluded entities suspected of bad behavior) — which creates more barriers to entry.
While the days were full of aspirational visions that defi would be the equalizing economy that Web2 was supposed to be, it felt like many of the problematic structural problems of our traditional finance system (known in the defi space as tradfi) are simply replicating themselves as power consolidates and the risks are unevenly distributed to those with the most to lose in this supposed decentralized system. Not to mention all the troubling issues related to fair labor practices and worker protections that are intentionally missing. It is hard to imagine the same type of thinking that created these problematic systems is going to be the kind of thinking that solves the problem.
Which leads us back to Nia Umoja at Cooperative New West Jackson, Anasa Troutman at Historic Clayborn, and many others in the AmbitioUS portfolio who bring together BIPOC communities to create new systems that promote ownership, resiliency, and power.
Their willingness to lead change against hard odds and sometimes against harder hateful history testifies to the truth of something the late writer Langston Huges said, “I have discovered in life that there are ways of getting almost anywhere you want to go, if you really want to go.” What a wonder it might be if this new economic system was more willing to set a braver, less stark course, one where the future of finance was openly committed to welcoming and liberating all.
Cate Fox is the Director of AmbitioUS, a national initiative of the Center for Cultural Innovation, that is focused on strategically shifting economic power and opportunities to BIPOC communities and artists