What does #BlackAssCaucus’s message have to do with technology? Everything.

Reflections on technology after Netroots Nation’s 2018 Conference

Oren Robinson
Aug 10, 2018 · 5 min read
On Saturday, Aug 4th 2018, #BlackAssCaucus activists challenged a progressive conference to do better.

I joined Progressive Coders Network in Spring 2017 to explore how technology could contribute to social justice organizing.

The first thing I fell in love with about PCN was the Code of Conduct. And then I joined a video meeting scheduled to welcome me to the community, along with others who joined around that same time. The new recruits and I all introduced ourselves, met three of the dedicated volunteer community managers, and talked about what we wanted to accomplish together.

I was hooked. As someone with a tech and open source background, it was so refreshing to join a community based on building real human relationships, not just emails and issue queues. This is a human-centered, community-minded approach to open source.

That vision was also what excited me about attending Netroots Nation 2018 — the conference whose name originates from an early portmanteau of “Internet Grassroots.” I just got back from New Orleans at the conference, where I got the chance to show up at about 20 sessions, including the fantastic MoveOn, ProgHackNight & ProgCode Panel but three additional conversations stood out that I wanted to highlight.

Three Moments from #NN18

But first a preface: You know that old saying “Work smart, not hard”? The topics I’m highlighting below all fall under that heading. Since technology can scale and automate ideas (and real impacts), I think there’s a moral imperative to consider the impacts of all technology projects. These panels explored how to address this challenge, so our technology really does help us get more free and advance social justice.

Official page: Digital Sanctuary: Engineering Tools and Models for Racial Justice

1. Panel on Digital Sanctuary

This panel brought together tech workers from various backgrounds to explore some critical concerns around technology: “problematic values that underpin the internet ecosystem, developing new advocacy models for racial justice, and defining our own narratives.”

I was particularly moved by one panelist questioning what to do about platforms like Twitter and Facebook, that cause so much harm, but are still heavily used by progressive campaigns online. Indeed, many of the Big Tech giants, particularly Google, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon offer some services used by progressive groups, but their business models are primarily based on selling personal information to advertisers.

In contrast, what would a digital sanctuary look like, and how would we build it? How might we create totally new online spaces that don’t capitalize off of personal data? One awesome answer I heard from panelist Bex Hurwitz, is “co-design” — creating new tools and platforms only when following the leadership of most-impacted communities. That’s an idea I’m committing to exploring in my own technology projects at Include People.

Official Page: Avoiding the Savior Mentality: Strategies for Accountability in the Movement

2. Conversation on Fighting the Savior Mentality

This panel brought together community champions and leaders from New Orleans, along with a journalist who did investigative reporting post-Katrina — one of the few accounts of Katrina’s aftermath I had read in detail prior to Netroots.

A theme explored in both those investigations and this panel was the fallacy of the Savior Mentality: the deeply-held and revered belief that the right person at the right time can know what’s best for everyone else. Especially when that one person “looks the part.”

The flip side of that fallacy is the reality: that all throughout history, the most notable and valuable victories for freedom and justice are hard-fought through the long, slow, human work of organizing. It’s a perspective on history that is often entirely discounted or misunderstood by historians and newspapers.

Here was a grounded, authentic conversation of amazing, brave people who learned to how to trust community more deeply (which often means challenging assumptions about your own roles and relationship with community) and how to build power in the process of rebuilding home.

It’s a reminder to me that no matter how great a software project might be, what we need to believe in and fight for is that our products are used by humans to get free. That process looks primarily more like a circle of friends coming together than it looks like any user interface.

Speaking of the savior mentality…

Candidates, candidates, candidates.

If it’s communities (and not singular heroes) who fuel victories, then it’s communities who also win elections, not candidates. But everybody loves candidates!

  • Exhibit A: “In the 2016 general election, policy issues accounted for 10 percent of the news coverage — less than a fourth the space given to the horse race.”
  • Exhibit B: In recent years, presidential hopefuls crowd the stage at Netroots Nation. It’s a great opportunity to get audience reactions from a cross-section of progressive activists and organizers from across the country.

This year was not the first time that issues took a back seat to candidates in one specific, major way: plenary sessions were almost entirely composed of keynotes or panels comprised of candidates and electeds, while all the issue-focussed panels happened in breakout sessions, where literally 22 sessions took place simultaneously.

Living Up to Our Own Ideals

And so Netroots Nation made a mistake this year that they have made before. Netroots scheduled related panels on racial justice to competing breakout sessions — Even as one featured session this year highlighted how it’s important to talk about how the one percent pits communities against each other based on race.

And so, racial justice in competing breakout sessions made the conversation optional to conference-goers, and set people up to have fractured, partial conversations with fewer attendees.

3. Enter #BlackAssCaucus

There are several news stories about how a group called #BlackAssCaucus formed to address these issues, and led a peaceful action demanding better in front of the entire conference.

When these seven activists requested the audience stand up to indicate support, I was one of the thousands of people in the room who said I would not attend next year’s conference unless these demands are met. Even if you didn’t attend this year, I hope you take this stand too.

So what does this have to do with open source software?

Absolutely everything.

The software industry and the open source movement have contributed tremendously, while executives and tech workers alike are far more homogeneous than end user communities.

As we think about human-centered open source, co-design, and community leadership, I look to #BlackAssCaucus as an example of what we need to be doing here in technology: ensuring that we listen to, trust, and center the voices most excluded and most impacted by technology products.

Include People

Tech for community organizing

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