Pru Waldorf on how digital networks can support the grassroots refugee sector

Our Impossible Minds series profiles the individuals who are building new possibilities for the future across technology, design and culture.

Pru Waldorf is living testimony to the power of ordinary people who refuse to stand by and do nothing. Moved by the worsening refugees crisis in Europe, she gave up a successful career in media and advertising in the summer of 2015, to help to establish Calais Action, a grassroots organisation providing funding and aid to stranded refugee communities. She spent an intensive year working on the Greek island of Samos before co-founding weareone:collective to facilitate projects allowing for refugee creative expression and self sufficiency.

Pru’s latest project is HumanKind, an app being developed in partnership with Impossible and Code Your Future.

What is the objective behind HumanKind?

HumanKind is a new digital platform and intelligent web app designed to increase the flow of resources and skilled support to the grassroots refugee sector. It also matches verified organisations with suitable individuals who want to help by lending their skills or time.

Why does the current refugee support system need to be challenged?

The grassroots refugee support network is fantastic and adaptable and we have achieved a huge amount in the last 3 years despite having no previous experience. However there are a number of issues.

We need to be better connected to share our skills and limited resources in order to support each other, build capacity and increase our collective impact — making us better at helping the people we are all working to support.

Increasingly, as the refugee crisis has dropped from the public consciousness — due to a lack of news reporting — we have seen a decline in support. There is less funding flowing into the sector and we are receiving less donated items. Less people are looking to volunteer, mainly because financially and physically it is not sustainable long term in such challenging conditions. There is also a lack of specifically skilled volunteer support. As volunteer groups have become more formalised, for example by registering as charities, we have needed to develop our working practices and carry out activities such as creating websites, developing media strategies, keeping detailed charity accounts, applying for funding, getting legal advise and undergoing specialist training. All of these things carry great costs and the need for skilled volunteers to help us in these areas is very great.

There is also the issue of the network becoming a little closed off, an echo chamber which operates largely within closed Facebook groups.

This app is an attempt to open up the issue to a wider socially aware and engaged audience, encouraging people with skills and resources to sign up and be part of the solution, rather than sitting on the sidelines wondering what they can do to help.

We want to create a dedicated space where those people can go in order to access the groups who need their help and sign up to give assistance in a stress free manner which fits with their own lives and schedule.

HumanKind team, photography by Laura Lewis

Can you talk us through how HumanKind works and who you collaborated with to make it happen?

HumanKind is a collaboration between Code Your Future and weareone: collective and it is built using the Impossible people app as a technological framework. The web version has been built by talented graduates of the Code Your Future program who are themselves refugees and asylum seekers in the UK.

It is a digital platform and social media network that allows both individuals and verified groups to register and create profiles. Groups can posts their needs and opportunities and individuals can engage with their posts and offer their services or solutions. It works on a very simple ‘offers and asks’ premise and the algorithms will ensure that these posts are matched with the most relevant individual interests and will show up in their chronological feed.

For example if I am a youth worker and I want to see opportunities which are relevant to my interests or experience, I would select youth, community and social work filters and I will only see posts tagged with those filters in my personal feed.

It gives users the peace of mind that all groups are registered and verified manually to confirm that they are legitimate and this gives volunteers peace of mind to offer their funds, resources or time to support them.

Another advantage is that the platform in a non profit entity. We will not sell data, compromise vulnerable people or try to sell them stuff. We will simply connect them in a very clutter free and simple environment which is built specifically for this purpose.

Furthermore it creates opportunities for training and employment for people who are refugees and asylum seekers here in the UK as they are working on the build with Code Your Future.

Did you come across any challenges throughout the process?

Funding has been a big challenge. It is always difficult to encourage people to fund something which doesn’t offer immediate results. People want to give funds directly to support refugees — i.e to give money to a charity which buys tents or shoes and of course this is a worthy cause!

We believe we can have a far greater impact by investing in long term, meaningful solutions to the issues. New technology can improve connectivity and increase the capacity and reach of small groups working with refugees, strengthening them, making them more effective and inevitably enabling them to be better at what they do.

Are there any other individuals or groups leading change in this grassroots refugee sector?

Solidarity With Refugees are brilliant at bringing together refugee support organisations and helping us all work under one coherent banner.

The Refugee Youth Service (RYS) and the Refugee info Bus are both great. RYS deliver essential mobile services to young people who are detained in camps or living homeless on the street or in temporary accommodation all over Europe. They give them access to youth services and psychosocial support and make child protection referrals. They are especially supportive of unaccompanied minors who often have little access to help or information. Refugee Info Bus give people access to the internet and to resources, tools and information relevant to the country they are in and advice and support on how to access services there.

I also love ArtOlution for the artistic psychosocial work they do with marginalised communities all over the world. We partnered with them last year on a creative project in a refugee camp in Greece and the energy and positivity that they bring to their projects is rare and infectious. They brought some much needed positivity to what was an otherwise barren and soul destroying environment.

Our partners, the brilliant Code Your Future are very inspiring. They are the only project which teaches coding to people who are refugees, asylum seekers and stateless people in the UK .Their invaluable work creates genuine education and employment opportunities for people who are marginalised and have few routes into skilled work here in the UK, even if they are incredibly well educated and talented.

HumanKind team, photography by Laura Lewis

What do you want to see for the future of HumanKind, what impact do you want it to have?

Our goal is to provide a solution for refugees and volunteers who are struggling with the current system. We surveyed over 200 UK registered refugee support groups and projects in the UK and found that they are all struggling with the same issues: being under-resourced and under-funded, lacking skilled volunteers, feeling disconnected from other groups and not knowing where to find information or training.

We also surveyed over 100 individuals who considered themselves to be ‘engaged with the refugee crisis’, ‘socially aware’ and ‘compassionate’ , but who had never volunteered in a group working with refugees. They told us that they didn’t know where to find groups or see opportunities, were worried about small groups being unchecked and online content being out of date, sensationalist or too shocking. We hope that HumanKind can be the one-stop shop people are looking for.

HumanKind is currently running a Beta version here and is also in the process of launching a partnership with Kinsu insurance.