wiki:projects/techies-of-color/proposal

Program Summary:

The People of Color Techie program provides an intense, supportive, mentor-based training program for activists of color to become professional-level, politically progressive and movement involved technologists while engaging in and confronting racism and race-based exclusion within the radical technology movement. At the end of a 12 month program, the trainee will be able to perform all server administration functions as well as basic code writing and other skills needed to plan, maintain and upgrade any organization or movement's technology as well as advise organizations on the selection and use of technology and software available.

No other program of this type exists in this country.

The Importance of the Internet

The converging crises in the major capitalist economies, the precarious state of the world environment, the political crisis in government in so many of the world's countries and the usurpation of government authority by international banks and committees have brought humanity to a point of urgency and increasing certainty that something must be done to save itself.

When all else fails, human beings come together to communicate and figure out how to survive; that is our legacy as a species. And humanity has been forging ahead in doing that with world-wide efforts like the World Social Forum and the Climate Control movement and, of course, the Internet.

The Internet, a community of more than 1.9 billion people world-wide, is among humanity's principle responses; it's humanity's way of facilitating the communication necessary to make all this collaboration possible.

At the same time, the global crisis against which we're mobilizing depletes the resources required to build gatherings of large numbers of people. They are too large to put on, too expensive to get to and not capable of broadening the number of poor people attending. If we are going to ensure the progressive movements' continued collaboration world-wide and the broadening of those movements, we are going to have to use the Internet and that is the reason why humanity invented it.

The Importance of the "techie"

In that context, the role of technologists becomes critically and centrally important. Techies are the leaders of the Internet because they run its technology and lead the work on its software. In that context, progressive techies (technologists who are part of or sympathetic to the Social Justice movement) have a very special role to play:

  • most progressive techies' political perspective prioritizes the use of the Internet and development of its software for organizing (rather than exclusively commerce or individual, personal communications although both these functions are important and beneficial);
  • their commitment to Free and Open Source Software makes them central to a struggle that is fundamental to the Internet's future;
  • the fierce opposition this "community" has long had to controlling and interventionist government policies that favor corporations and repressive and intrusive policies that inhibit or control people's use of the Internet helps maintain the Internet's essential independence and freedom;
  • and their politics give the progressive movement a critically important leadership position within the Internet.

The Problem

There is one serious flaw in this promising picture, particularly in the United States:

Techies, the Internet's leaders, are mainly white men. This means that, while people of color can do a lot on the Internet, the management of the machines that serve the Internet; the creation and development of the software that runs it; and the power and ability to control and maintain the technology are usually not in the hands of people of color.

For the most part, progressive techies are very conscious of this and consistently lament the situation. But, up to now, not very much has been done about it.

The situation threatens the movement's successful use of technology in its organizing work and deepens the “digital divide” that has long plagued movement Internet use. Without people of color involved in the maintenance, planning and direction of the Internet it is impossible to provide communities of color the fullest access to this powerful tool and the huge International community that uses it.

Who Does What and Why is That Important?

To characterize and understand the dimensions of the problem, we need to understand the varying levels of engagement activists have with the Internet. Most of us use the Internet and its related technologies in our work. We rely on it to function and to do what we want it to and what it says it will do. We have integrated the Internet into our political work and, to some extent, we design our political work around the Internet's capabilities -- even unconsciously -- day after day.

We write distributed materials and design their distribution based on our email lists. We have come to frame our ideas based on what they will look like on a website. We increasingly get our information from the Web rather than newspapers or other media. As individual activists, we have come to rely on email as our primary form of communication. Our activism is increasingly Internet-based.

And we rely on a few of us to administer and develop these resources and guide the rest of our movement in their use. To define those people a bit better:

Office Tech Staffers actually install and maintain websites and email programs and their work is critical to the functioning of any organization on-line. Many larger organizations have one of at least one person with these skills on staff; those who can't afford such a professional full-time have access to one or more for hourly work.

System Administrators perform several vital functions:

  • keep the servers and systems that run the web, email and other services functional;
  • install and upgrade the system software that actually runs servers
  • build servers and networks when necessary
  • are there when something major breaks down; when the staff who run websites can't figure out a problem they're having; when a new server, networked computer or router must be installed, fixed or upgraded. In short, these are the people who run the system.

What is interesting is that many people look at the Internet and, like most of us who drive cars, see only the "vehicle" that moves and gets us places. They see the websites and they work with the email and they interact with lists. And when something goes wrong, they talk to their Office Tech Staffer who then either "fixes" it or, when a more specific skill set is required, makes a phone call to some other person most of us never see or meet.

Software Developers develop software and, using many of the same skills mentioned above, they write and improve the software that is often used for organizing tasks on the Internet. In addition, they lead discussions of the user communities that guide and drive improvements to that software. Over the next two or three years, we expect this large community to:

  • Develop “alternative” Social Networking software that is free of corporate control and safe and secure
  • Redefine rapid on-line communication to supplement email and to widen the kinds of material that can be emailed and make that process much faster
  • Massify the connection between the Internet and hand-held devices like cell phone
  • Popularize, improve and simplify database information systems that can include many more capabilities than that currently available
  • Massify the alternative audio and video distribution systems (including radio and tv) to make them completely accessible to communities through the country
  • Build alternative, shared information storage and distribution systems based on home or office plug-in servers that will revolutionize information sharing, security and storage.

The developments are imminent. They are being worked on currently. As they progress, they will fundamentally change the Internet, the way we use it and the number of people who will use it.

Those who develop these software projects will be effectively leading the design of human communications in this country and world-wide for the next decade.

All of these roles are played by a "techie".

Techies run systems, develop software, make major decisions about how we are going to use the Internet and what tools we will need. Unquestionably the final decision on Internet issues is still in the hands of very large and powerful corporations but the day to day, month to month decisions about what happens on the Internet are in the hands of techies. They run the Internet in a very practical sense. They can close it to people or open it up to the world. They determine how it will be used and how it will develop. They are the Internet's day to day leadership.

Empowering Ourselves Through the Techie

The importance of the Techie of Color is underscored by a summary of the distinctions present in organizing communities of color.

This area of organizing:

  • is aimed at a population with particular, culturally and historically driven approaches to information, how to get it and how to share it
  • demands that organizers respect, work with and incorporate the myriad organizations who have been doing work in these communities for decades
  • must respect and encompass the cultures, work styles and communication styles prevalent in these communities.
  • must confront unique and often excruciating forms of oppression and isolation that other communities might not be completely familiar with.

And so, if technology is to be effectively used in these communities, people from these communities must participate in its development and implementation. The absence of people of color in these ranks is both disempowering and, ultimately, destructive to the entire Social Justice movement.

This lack of representation is actually a lack of empowerment. The important contributions people of color make in combating racism, raising issues that are hidden by color, diversifying the "recipient" population and so much else simply doesn't "get" to the Internet's techies and users as it could and should. Too often, the movement's functioning on the Internet represents the recolonization of people of color.

Software development is never geared to people of color. Since techies do the software development, that software frequently falls short of incorporating the true needs, culture, generalized perceptions and stages of development that exist within communities of color. This is true at the planning stages up to the testing stages in which people of color are seldom involved.

The amount of money, time and energy wasted or misdirected by this situation is inestimable. It's impossible to estimate the investment made by organizations of color into proprietary software running servers, the money poured into the wide array of Windows software, and the dependence on proprietary software like Google's array of aps and social networking software like Facebook.

We have recently seen Google's strategic orientation in the deal it has made with Verizon to develop "access tiers" on the Internet which would virtually destroy the Internet as originally conceived. And the social networking tools, which stress one to one communication comprised of a few words, are actually contradictory with real organizing and movement building.

In truth, the progressive techie community has made many efforts to develop free and politically productive alternatives to these software packages but those efforts have not yielded usable programs in part because the progressive movement doesn't see the need and doesn't give this effort much support. This problem is particularly difficult for people of color; while people from all communities use Google aps and Facebook, young people from communities of color depend on it.

And this trend continues with specific need situations.

For example, a simple attempt to acquire census data on specific areas of the country on-line -- a need many organizations now have -- can cost a small fortune: often in the tens of thousands of dollars. That is a server-based software solution that could be developed by technologists and be offered to organizations for free if the interest were there.

Far too little effort is made among techies in this country to combat technology barriers that keep people of color off-line, a situation that would definitely improve if there were more techies of color.

While it is true that many young people of color now use the Internet in this country, that use has not crossed generational lines as it has with the majority communities. And that community of "young users" is constrained to very limited use patterns: mainly the kind of social networking software that, as we said above, allows for one to one communications but makes organizing very difficult.

There is very little software development that would facilitate organization among people of color and that's because people of color are not doing software development.

The Internet is, of course, a world phenomenon and one of its greatest contributions is uniting the world through its communication. The necessary and politically powerful collaborations among techies from various countries and parts of the world are crippled by the lack of background diversity among US- based techies. It's difficult to truly develop a collaboration when the US techies are all white and not reflective of the entire US culture.

Our program is designed to attack this problem head-on: by increasing the number of top-tier, front-lines techies.

The Skills We Seek to Distribute

We want to train activists of color and make them techies by providing them the following skills as outlined in this graphic. As the above graphic shows, the program would provide full training in three areas:

Server Administration:

  • Server Operating System Maintenance
  • Web Server Installation, Updating and Maintenance
  • Email Program Maintenance Along with Anti-Spam and Security Software

Software Development and Use:

  • Configure and maintain basic software packages include Content Management Systems like Drupal and WorkPress, Database Systems, and Network Communications systems
  • Manage and configure Mail List and Email services
  • Write and code basic programs to respond to essential organizational needs

Capacity Development:

  • Help Define Technology and Software needs
  • Write Tech Use plans for organizations
  • Assist in getting Technology to influence organizing

But each of these areas also fertilizes others. For example, server administration skills greatly enhance capacity building because the admin has the most global understanding of what is possible, what is extensible and what is needed for each task. Software Development and Use clearly feeds Capacity by creating the tools that are need to building an organization's capabilities.

What is important to understand is that, for the most part, people of color are only involved in the Capacity Development area and, because they are not involved heavily in the other two areas, they either operate at less efficiency or, in many cases, not at all.

What Do We Do?

This program's primary goal is to train a group of people of color to become proficient techies with skills in server administration, web and email administration and trouble-shooting and basic software development including the ability to construct basic scripts in Drupal and similar content management systems.

After a one year program of intense on the job training with constant support from a fully qualified "mentor", the trainee will be proficient enough to actually run Linux servers, perform installations, diagnostics and upgrades, maintain the server system and provide all the capabilities and services described above.

The trainee will also have benefited from a full year of intense discussion and reflection on the political significance of his/her work, the issues a progressive techie confronts and the problem of relating to other activists and how to deal with those problems.

The goal is to recruit 10 to 12 techie trainees and 5 or 6 techie mentors. Each mentor will be assigned two techie trainees.

The trainees are people of color activists currently working for a grass roots organization in some tech capacity. The mentors are fully-trained, practicing server administrators/technologists.

That mentor will be the techie's support person and trainer, guiding the techie through the training program while providing the trainee full technical support and assistance.

While the overall focus of the training is pre-determined, the mentors and trainees will together determine the curriculum and focus in an initial convergence meeting and series of phone and email consultations.

Schedule

The program begins with an in-person prep training that will cover:

  • a workshop on racism designed to make the mentor more sensitive to and conscious of racism as an obstacle in political and technology work.
  • a linux install fest in which trainees will receive netbooks on which they will install linux. The netbooks will serve as their primary console for conducting the work of the year. We hope to have several (if not all) of the mentors there.
  • assigning mentors to trainees
  • developing both group and individual curriculum and benchmarks
  • establishing both group and individual methods of communication

The initial prep training is designed to begin easing people into what will be a very new environment for both mentor and trainee.

The mentor will have the new experience of confronting racism in a highly supportive environment which treats the racism, not as a kind of white person's "original sin" but as a social problem affecting all people that must be challenged in ways that are specific and relevant to groups of people.

The trainee will confront a new experience akin to building a car motor. For the first time, this person will actually install, configure and come to understand the operating system that dictates much of his or her communications.

As the year goes on, the trainee works toward specific benchmarks: defined by specific developmental tasks as well as interactions with the staff or constituency of the organization sponsoring the server.

Three additional times over the course of the year, all trainees meet in a convergence with the mentors to discuss the ongoing training program. These gatherings are designed to take up global issues (like race patterns within technology and its flowing relationships), new technologies, major technology developments people should know about and over-all program issues. They are mandatory and a critical part of the program.

Upon completion of the training, the trainee is a techie. They will be incorporated into all MF/PL techie groups and lists, supported by MF/PL with any possible work available and, through the MF/PL network, will make relationships with all kinds of technologists from which the individual techie and his/her organization will benefit.

Program Specifics:

  1. A call is issued to many organizations of color seeking applicants.
  2. Applicants are selected by a team from the sponsoring organizations.
  3. Interviews are conducted with each selected applicant and then applicants are assigned their curriculum based on their skills and needs and assigned a mentor. The work curriculum would usually include:
    • building a server, prepping it and maintaining it either for the techie's organization, some organization identified by the techie's organization or May First/People Link. The techie would then maintain the server.
    • developing website capabilities, email systems and mail list systems on that server and maintaining them
    • developing a technical support system for that organization

These areas of proficiency will make this person a qualified server administrator.

Mentor Role

The mentor is the living response to a call being made by many activists, particularly within the Climate Control movement, to "take responsibility and give back". Progressive white techies know they have been privileged over activists of color and, for the most part, want to respond by turning that around.

The mentor's role is to guide the mentee through the curriculum, provide all technical support and question answering needed, share all skills necessary and provide the opportunity for discussion of the social and political context for this work.

The course would be mentored by the MF/PL technologist who will meet with the techie at least once a week, answer any phone calls the mentee might make with questions, and conduct email communications on any and all topics related.

Every two months, mentees will gather in a location (probably two locations in the country) for a two day "seminar" with one of the program leaders about what they are learning, how the course is going, what could be changed, what kinds of political developments are taking place that affect their movements, etc. The program will award certificates of proficiency to all who finish it. We believe this process will take 12 months in most cases although it is possible that a trainee could finish the course in a year.

Last modified 6 years ago Last modified on Dec 4, 2013, 3:03:06 PM