Omidyar Network
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Omidyar Network

A Seat at the Table: Eliminating barriers for youth organizers in the responsible technology movement

By Andrew Brennen and Emma Leiken, Omidyar Network

As members of the California Assembly, industry representatives, and civil society leaders were debating a legislative effort that would shape the future of young people’s safety online, an unexpected voice joined them in the room. Taking advantage of her summer vacation, 19-year-old Emma Lembke was in Sacramento representing a critical but otherwise unrepresented stakeholder: young people themselves. Joined by her peers, Emma Lembke met with lawmakers and journalists to underscore a dual message: more can be done to protect young people online, but it can only happen successfully if more young people are involved. To us, this represented a glimpse of what’s possible.

Omidyar Network seeks to explore and elevate the youth organizing ecosystem in the responsible technology movement. This effort has included meeting with dozens of youth activists, supporting Artefact to research the needs and perspectives of youth organizers focused on responsible technology, and supporting 11 organizations (including six youth-led organizations) that we believe are leading at the intersection of youth agency and responsible technology. Along our learning journey, we’ve seen repeatedly how well-positioned young people are to shape culture and norms around technology. Here are some of our partners and leaders in this space:

  • Accountable Tech — Works to bring about long-term structural reform to tackle the existential threat social media companies pose to our information ecosystem and democracy
  • Artefact — An award-winning responsible strategy and design firm
  • Cyber Collective — Empowers people to think critically about their relationship with technology and inspire a more socially responsible future
  • Future Incubator — A nonprofit startup incubator program that gives youth-led and grassroots groups the professional tools, skills, and relationships needed to run successful, lean organizations and lead powerful social movements
  • Games for Change — Offers events and programs for people of all ages and backgrounds (including young people and parents of young people) to explore, learn, and create at the intersection of games and social impact.
  • Gen-Z for Change — Leverages the power of social media to educate Gen-Z, encourage and mobilize civic participation, shift the political debate, and enact change.
  • Gitcoin — Funds projects, builds community, and makes learning resources accessible to create the digital public infrastructure of tomorrow.
  • Log off Movement/Tech(nically) Politics — A movement dedicated to rethinking social media by teens for teens
  • Reboot — A publication and community reimagining techno-optimism for a better collective future.
  • 7th Empire Films and Filmmaker Shalini Kantayya — A production company with a mission to create a culture of human rights through imaginative film and television

Thanks to these partnerships and other collaborations, we now have a more nuanced understanding of the young people paving the way for a more responsible internet and the system-level barriers they face in doing so. These barriers, which range from relational to infrastructural and cultural, have shaped the way we think about philanthropy’s potential in supporting responsible technology leaders and movements.

Relational Barriers

While surprising to some, Emma Lembke’s advocacy for a highly technical online privacy and child safety bill was perfectly in character. At 17 years old, she founded Log Off Movement, an organization that creates space for young people to reconsider their relationship with social media. Log Off Movement leverages storytelling, training, and advocacy to strengthen public support for policies that hold big tech companies accountable for the harm they can cause to young people. Coincidentally, this approach mirrors the well-respected Accountable Tech’s advocacy work to promote platform accountability in service of ensuring a healthier information system and democracy.

With support from Omidyar Network, Accountable Tech is now incubating the youth leaders of Log Off Movement. Together, they are supporting, sustaining, and learning from each other’s leadership in the tech policy space. For example, when Emma sought to take her case directly to assembly members in Sacramento, the Accountable Tech team leveraged its network of policymakers and technologists to get her a seat at the table. And when Accountable Tech sought to hold a briefing to bring more youth-led organizations to the table in support of the CA Age Appropriate Design Code legislation, Lembke helped to contextualize and facilitate the conversation for her peers.

Although young organizations need the support, guidance, and resources offered by mentors, they often struggle to find partners who will commit to support, follow through on promises, and respect youth experiences and perspectives. By creating conditions for powerful intergenerational alliances where both sides acknowledge what they have to learn from the other, Log Off Movement and Accountable Tech are now working side-by-side to pass the CA Age Appropriate Design Code legislation.

Infrastructural Barriers

The infrastructure barriers that youth-led organizations face are similar to those encountered by adult-led nonprofits but are further amplified by conditions specific to youth. Take, for example, Encode Justice, a youth-led organization working towards justice and human rights in the age of AI. At the time of our first meeting, they had a 100+ person global team, thoughtful training and programming, and on-the-ground organizing — yet, they didn’t have IRS recognition.

Encode Justice is co-founded by minors who lead the organization while simultaneously navigating school, life developments, and in many cases, part-time jobs. As a result, the organization is not formally registered and the youth leadership team has limited capacity to manage organizational finances, legal compliance, human relations requirements, tax implications, and other organizational functions that extend beyond their core programmatic focus. These realities are common for youth organizations and undermine their impact by limiting their fundraising capacities, placing large risks on their leadership teams, and distracting organizational leaders with challenges unrelated to the core problem they seek to address.

The Future Incubator provides a turnkey solution that addresses the infrastructure needs of youth-led organizations and enables youth leaders to focus more singularly on their core mission. Future Incubator helps youth-led organizations raise funds, mentors their leadership teams, and connects them with other youth-led organizations facing similar challenges. Thanks to fiscal sponsorship from Future Incubator, Encode Justice will now be able to accept funding from other foundations, compensate their staff, and host an organization-wide convening. Omidyar Network is not only supporting this partnership but providing a separate grant to Future Incubator to accelerate their efforts as a core infrastructure partner enabling youth-led activism broadly.

Cultural Barriers

In parts of the US, some people believe that young people ought to be seen but not heard. Thankfully, youth-led Gen-Z For Change never got that memo. Made up of a collective of Tik Tok influencers, Gen-Z For Change has been leveraging its combined social media audience of 540 million to activate their peers around several social justice issues. Recently their efforts have included a response to the Roe v. Wade reversal by targeting dubious crisis pregnancy centers and a concerted effort to defend unionizing workers from corporate-led union busting.

They were invited to the White House for a briefing on disrupting the spread of mis- and disinformation related to the war in Ukraine and to witness President Joe Biden sign an executive order that banned federal funding for conversion therapy targeting LBGTQIA+ people. They’ve even been the subject of a Saturday Night Live cold open. Despite this success, however, they’ve received little attention from the philanthropic community. When Omidyar Network first supported Gen-Z For Change, we were their only philanthropic supporter to date.

For young people to fully realize their potential as powerful advocates in the responsible technology movement, adults need to challenge the current culture that fails to see and support young people as the powerful allies they can be. While we don’t have all the answers on how to do this, Omidyar Network is committed to learning and we are inviting other funders and leaders to learn alongside us. That’s why we’re co-hosting a virtual funder briefing on September 19 where the leaders of youth-led organizations working on responsible technology will speak about the work they’re doing, the barriers they face, and how funders can show up in partnership with their efforts.

For more information or if you’re interested to attend the funder briefing or know others who might be, please email digitalnatives@omidyar.com.

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