Natural Disasters and Environmental Justice

This post was collaboratively written by Liz Barry, Greg Bloom, Willow Brugh, and Tamara Shapiro. It was translated by Mariel García (thank you).

Every year, communities are affected by “extreme environmental events.” These might include hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, or floods. There are, of course, official response agencies with mandates to rescue, feed, heal, and rebuild; however, the true first responders are always people who live in the affected regions — neighbors and community leaders.

The matter of who responds — and who is supported by formal institutional response — is complicated by patterns in which historically marginalized people are often ignored or unseen by outside actors.

These patterns have been further complicated in the aftermath of recent disasters during which spontaneously-forming networks have “shown up” to assist in ways that are more rapid and distributed than is typical of the formal disaster response sector — yet without any of the accountability that formal institutions (supposedly) uphold.

During these experiences, we’ve seen clearly both the promise and the peril of modern digitally-enabled and network-led crisis response and recovery. After 2017’s alarming hurricane season, a network of people formed with interest in improving the capacity for disaster response to more effectively support local priorities and leadership in times of crisis. We are now calling for the convening of people who have worked together through crises such as Sandy, Harvey, Irma, Maria, and the like. At this “Crisis Convening,” we will share experiences and skills, explore ways to promote equity and justice through modern crisis response, and build resources for the type of assistance that we offer.

Here is our key question: in times of climate crisis, how can outsiders — formal ‘disaster response institutions,’ grassroots community organizers from other locations, emergent networks of volunteers on the ground, and ‘digital responders’ — most effectively engage and support community-based responders to achieve a more accountable, humane, and adaptive response?

At this ‘Crisis Convening’ event, we will converse and take small, actionable steps towards addressing some of the following questions, and many more we haven’t considered:

  • How can formal institutional responses best support those who are most impacted by a crisis?
  • How can spontaneously forming networks provide assistance in a way that centers the needs, interests, and leadership of people who are experiencing the crisis?
  • How can we ensure that data about a community stays in that community’s control?
  • In what ways are environmental justice and disaster response related?
  • How can outside intervention support recovery as well as response?

We hope you’ll join in this conversation with us here, or (better yet!) at the event. If you are interested in participating in the convening, please fill out this form to let us know – and we’ll be in touch.

About the Event

We’re excited to announce that we’ve been invited by Public Lab to host this convening during their upcoming network gathering on July 13-15, in Newark, NJ.

Public Lab is an open community which collaboratively develops accessible, open source, Do-It-Yourself actions for investigating local environmental health and justice issues. Twice a year, they convene in an event called a “Barnraising” in the spirit of coming together to achieve something larger than can be achieved alone. At a Barnraising, people share advocacy strategies through telling stories from their lived experience, build and modify tools for collecting data, deeply explore local concerns presented by partner organizations and community members, and connect with others working on similar environmental issues across regions.

During this convening, we will gather between 30-60 people from areas that have been hit by climate crisis in the past 15 years to discuss real-world scenarios and discuss actionable steps to help ourselves and others practice more effective community-centric crisis response.

Here’s how we hope to do that:

Dedication to local voices and representation

The impacts of crisis often fall heaviest on those who are already struggling. We hope to include those most impacted, though we also understand such folk might have a diminished capacity to engage. To address this, we are inviting an intentionally broad set of people, actively supporting child care at the event, and offering scholarships to those who express interest and need.

We will need all kinds of help to make this happen. Will you sponsor a participant who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to participate? Click here to contribute to travel and accommodation costs.

An advance day for Crisis Convening

On Friday, July 13th we will gather to focus on the matter of crisis response. Attendees are encouraged to have a quick conversation with the facilitator in advance to shape the agenda. We might share skills, contribute to a resource repository for communities entering a time of crisis, or further explore how inequality plays out (and can be counteracted) in response.

Public Lab Barnraising

Building on the energy coming out of the Crisis Convening, we can continue our conversation in the same location Saturday and Sunday as more people join for Public Lab’s Barnraising. On the first morning of the barnraising, all participants, including those from Crisis Convening, will collaborate to create the schedule via an “Open Space” approach. This process will ensure that the agenda speaks directly to the interests of the people present. Crisis Convening delegates will be welcomed to add their topics to the schedule. The Code of Conduct applies here as in all other Public Lab spaces.

Please Let us Know What You Think

  • In comments
  • Reach out to discuss directly
  • Join us at the event.  If you are interested, please fill out this form to let us know.  We will follow up with an official registration form shortly
  • Sponsor a participant who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to participate. Click here to contribute to travel and accommodation costs

Together, we hope to discover small, actionable projects together which will equip community-first response, whether through organizing, technology, institutions, or things we have yet to discover. We hope you will join us.

 

Este post fue escrito en colaboración por Liz Barry, Greg Bloom, Willow Brugh y Tamara Shapiro. Fue traducido por Mariel García.

Cada año, hay comunidades que son afectadas por “eventos ambientales extremos”. Éstos pueden incluir huracanes, terremotos, tornados o inundaciones. Por supuesto, hay agencias de respuesta oficial con mandatos para rescatar, alimentar, reconstruir, etcétera; sin embargo, los verdaderos primeros intervinientes siempre son personas que viven en las áreas afectadas: vecinos, líderes comunitarios, etcétera.

La cuestión de quién responde, y quién recibe apoyo por parte de la respuesta institucional formal, es complicada por los patrones en los que poblaciones históricamente marginadas tienden a ser ignoradas o no vistas por actores externos.

Estos patrones se han complicado aun más en las secuelas de desastres recientes a lo largo de las cuales redes de formación espontánea han “llegado” a asistir de maneras que son más rápidas y distribuidas de lo típico en el sector de respuesta formal a desastres, aunque sin la rendición de cuentas a la que las instituciones formales (supuestamente) están sujetas.

A lo largo de estas experiencias, hemos visto con claridad la promesa y el peligro de la respuesta a y recuperación de crisis modernas, habilitadas por tecnologías digitales y redes. Después de la alarmante temporada de huracanes en 2017, se formó una red de personas con interés de mejorar la capacidad de respuesta en desastres para apoyar liderazgo y prioridades locales de manera más efectiva en tiempos de crisis. Ahora estamos llamando a personas que hayan trabajado juntas en crisis como Sandy, Harvey, Irma, María, y otras similares. En esta “Reunión de crisis” compartiremos experiencias y habilidades, exploraremos maneras de promover equidad y justicia a través de la respuesta moderna, y construremos recursos para el tipo de asistencia que ofrecemos.

Aquí está nuestra pregunta clave: En tiempos de crisis climática, ¿cómo pueden los extranjeros (las instituciones formales de respuesta a desastres, líderes de desarrollo comunitarios de otros contextos, las redes emergentes de voluntarios y las personas que hacen respuesta digital) involucrarse y apoyar a los respondientes locales de la manera más efectiva para promover la respuesta más humana, adaptativa y responsable?  

En esta “Reunión de crisis”, conversaremos y tomaremos pasos pequeños y accionables para abordar algunas de las siguientes preguntas, y otras más que aún no hemos considerado:

  • ¿Cómo pueden las instituciones de respuesta formales apoyar de la mejor manera a aquéllos que son impactados por una crisis?
  • ¿Cómo pueden las redes de formación espontánea proveer asistencia de una manera que se centre en las necesidades, intereses y liderazgo de quienes están experimentando la crisis?
  • ¿Cómo podemos asegurarnos de que los datos de una comunidad queden bajo el control de esa comunidad?
  • ¿De qué maneras están relacionadas la justicia ambiental y la respuesta a desastres?
  • ¿Cómo puede la intervención externa apoyar tanto la recuperación como la respuesta?

Esperamos que te unas a esta conversación con nosotros aquí, o (mejor aun) en el evento. Si estás interesado/a en participar en la reunión, por favor llena esta forma para comunicarlo, y nosotros nos pondremos en contacto contigo.

Acerca del evento

Nos emociona anunciar que nos invitó Public Lab a ser anfitriones de esta reunión en la próxima reunión de su red del 13 al 15 de julio en Newark, NJ.

Public Lab es una comunidad abierta que colabora para desarrollar acciones accesibles, de código abierto en el espíritu de “Hágalo usted mismo” para investigar salud ambiental local y temas de justicia. Dos veces al año, se reúnen en un evento llamado “publiclab.org/barnraisingBarnraising” (“construcción del rebaño” en inglés) en el espíritu de juntarse a lograr algo más grande de lo que se puede lograr en soledad. En un barnraising, la gente comparte estrategias de defensa a través de contar historias de su experiencia vivida; la construcción y modificación de herramientas para recolectar datos; la exploración de preocupaciones locales presentadas por contrapartes organizacionales y miembros de la comunidad; y la conexión con otras y otros trabajando en problemas ambientales similares en distintas regiones.

Durante esta reunión, juntaremos entre 30 y 60 personas de áreas que han sido afectadas por crisis climáticas en los últimos 15 años para discutir escenarios del mundo real y pasos accionables para ayudarnos a nosotros y a otros a practicar respuesta de crisis centrada en la comunidad de manera más efectiva.

Esperamos hacerlo de la siguiente manera:

Dedicación a voces locales y representación

Los impactos de la crisis seguido caen con mayor peso sobre aquéllos que están de por sí batallando antes del evento. Esperamos incluir a los más afectados, aunque también comprendemos que estas personas podrían tener una capacidad disminuida para involucrarse. Para abordar esto, estamos invitando a un conjunto intencionalmente amplio de personas, activamente apoyando el cuidado infantil en el evento, y ofreciendo becas a quienes expresen su interés y necesidad.

Necesitaremos todos los tipos de ayuda para lograr este cometido. ¿Podrías patrocinar a un participante que de otra manera no podría costear su participación? Haz clic aquí para contribuir a los costos de viaje y estancia.

Un día de preparación para la Reunión de crisis

El viernes 13 de julio nos reuniremos para enfocarnos en el tema de respuesta de crisis. Se alienta a las y los participantes a que tengan una conversación rápida con el equipo de faclitación con antelación para influir en la agenda. Podemos compartir habilidades, contribuir a un repositorio de recursos para comunidades que entran a un tiempo de crisis, o explorar más cómo las inequidades operan (y pueden ser contrarrestadas) en la respuesta.

Barnraising” de Public Lab

Para aprovechar la energía resultante de la Reunión de crisis, podemos continuar la conversación en el mismo espacio el sábado y el domingo con las personas que lleguen al Branraising de Public Lab. En la primera mañana del barnraising, todas las personas que participen, incluyendo a las de la Reunión de crisis, colaborarán para crear la agenda a través de la técnica de “espacio abierto”. Este proceso ayudará a que la agenda apele directamente a los intereses de las personas presentes. Las y los participantes de la Reunión de crisis serán bienvenidos a añadir sus temas a la agenda. El Código de conducta aplicará en éste y todos los demás espacios de Public Lab.

Por favor dinos qué piensas

  • En los comentarios
  • Contactándonos para platicar directamente
  • Viniendo al evento. Si te interesa, por favor llena este formulario para informarnos. Te contestaremos con una forma de registro oficial.
  • Patrocina a alguien que de otra manera no podría costear su participación. Haz clic aquí para contribuir a los gastos de transporte y estancia.

 

Juntas y juntos, esperamos descubrir proyectos pequeños y accionables que equipen respuesta donde la comunidad esté adelante, ya sea a través de la organización, la tecnología, las instituciones, o mecanismos que tenemos aún por descubrir. Esperamos te unas a nosotros.

Parameters of Social Interaction

What does equality look like? How do we know if we are getting there?

This is the question I asked to open my talk at SHA 2017. It is also the question carried with me as I walked into CtK.Campfire. Both aimed to look at how to mitigate the polarization of human interaction in a digital age. The talk looked at the infrastructure of human interaction, and the retreat embodied some of the best ideals towards action. I’ve written two blog posts – one about each event – but they occurred temporally and intellectually adjacent. You can find the post about CtK.Campfire here.

The talk at SHA2017 (the Dutch hacker camp) was called “Weaponized Social.” WeapSoc is a project in which Meredith and I invested heavily through 2014 and 2015. She has gone on to write for Status451 on an extension of the topic area. I’ve continued to frame bits of my work in this context but have generally not kept up. It’s some of the most intellectually stimulating and emotionally draining work I’ve ever done, and that includes disaster response in the field.

A background assumption for this talk is that the effects of violence become less and less apparent to an observer of a single instance as we push the edges of “acceptable behavior” into being more aligned with human rights.

Violence is defined by the World Health Organization as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation”, although the group acknowledges that the inclusion of “the use of power” in its definition expands on the conventional understanding of the word.

Example: seeing one person hit a non-consenting person is (pretty) easily defined as violence. Seeing one person say “your a dumb bitch” online to another non-consenting person isn’t as easily defined as violence (it’s often instead categorized as “conflict“). We have to zoom out to see that the receiver isn’t able to be online any longer due to thousands of similar messages in order to see it as the violence (in the form of depravation to opportunity or psychological harm) it is. Here’s just one example:


I don’t want to limit what this person says, but I also have a right not to experience him saying it, if it detracts from my ability to be online. As the quote says, “your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” How can we bridge this sort of contention at scale?

To zoom out like this, and to take action at a systemic level, we luckily have Lessig’s four forces for social change. As the infosec crew which was the audience at SHA is largely skeptical of law (excepting the EFF), of social norms (“don’t tell me how to act”), and that I’m skeptical of markets being able to solve problems of inequality, we are left with architecture/code.

In the talk, I asked this question:

“Do we want to take a scientific approach to equality, where we tweak our infrastructure in explicit ways to see if it changes how people are interacting?”

We, as the creators and maintainers of online spaces have a responsibility to strive towards equality in the ways available to us. How can we do this without surveillance and control of speech? We change the architecture of the spaces. The crew of Weaponized Social (namely, TQ at the SF event in May 2015) started to lay out what the different parameters of social interaction are. Such as, how many people can one account be connected to, how far a message can travel (through timeouts or limits to re-broadcasts), of if an element of serendipity is introduced. These are toggles which can be changed, sliders which can be moved.

If we change these things, we can see how/if architecture changes the way we interact. The social sciences point to us being deeply (tho not solely) affected by our environments. By changing the architecture of online spaces, we could see how it changes how we interact. Who feels safe to speak by taking part in the act of speaking. We can then make better choices about our individual instances and realities based on those results. We now have one more set of tools by which to examine if we are progressing towards equality, without impinging on the individual right to speak. I hope you make use of these tools.

Cultivate the Karass

I came away from CtK.Campfire thinking about how anarchists might be aligned with Republicans in more ways than expected… and possibly more so than to Democrats.1

I was invited to Cultivate the Karass: Campfire based on two previous friendships and a workshop at Personal Democracy Forum. After seeing Lori talk at PDF about her son, Jake, and about carrying his work forward in cultivating relationships between “loyal antagonists,” I had to go to their workshop session later in the conference. One of the few truly interactive sessions (and that includes the one I was a part of called “Apocalyptic Civics”), I loved the use of spectrograms and deeper political discourse. Also, Seamus and Clarence were there! My friendship with both of them has been forged out of somewhat oppositional circumstances (one documented here). So when they suggested I attend the CtK.Campfire event, I listened.
5 people prioritize breakout session topics by applying stickers to post-it notes with topics listed.22 people – Republicans, Libertarians, Democrats, and one Anarchist (hey that’s me!) – gathered over three days to bond, to engage in facilitated civil discourse, and to learn to see each other as humans.

It worked.

After we had built trust over our life stories, and Not Talking About Politics, and some amount of beverages, we were able to move into more in-depth conversations. “Is our Democracy broken?” “Race relations and white people” “Equipping institutions for a VUCA world.” We did a spectrogram around whether or not statues of Confederate leaders should be removed. After much discussion, we came to a shared view – we should have to face our terrible history2, and that ideally some sort of process would be available to remove or relocate to museums the current glorification of those who wished to continue dehumanizing others. There was acknowledgement that democratic processes exist for this but has been ignored.

I want to tell you about one conversation in particular. Of all these conversations, the one that I both gave and received the most from was “What if it all goes wrong?” As in, what if we do put removal of statues to a vote, and the vote is to leave them where they are? What if Trump gets a second term? What if…

The conversation was posited by Cameron (Republican) and attended by Kyla (Democrat), Sarah (Republican), and me (Anarchist). We agreed that we shared a concern about a consolidation of power, and that respecting the systems we’ve built when power is imbalanced would lead to greater and greater oscillations of “now it’s my turn” from one party to the next. We agreed that a polarization in civil society could lead to increasing violences, and with diminishing ability to recover from imbalance. We had an interesting conversation around the vacuum of power currently occurring in leadership positions meaning a loss of infrastructure maintenance (let alone creation). We agreed government had been bulky, but that the current rate of displacement was dangerous.
7 people sit around a campfire in the sun. The image is taken through some trees from above.We even agreed about what “what if it all goes wrong?” might look like – our leaders becoming more radical, a continued shift in the Overton Window towards less and less civil/human-rights behavior, a validation of lack of leadership also leading to a lack of social cohesion, an increasing lack of faith in our electoral process and the census. I brought up that the world had already gone wrong for many people. I talked about cops not intervening in fights at protests in Berkeley. This was considered too specific by some folk in the group, but it did lead into a conversation about what “antifa” was.

“‘Antifa’ means ‘anti-fascist,’” I said. “I’m anti-fascist, but I don’t agree with destroying things.” “Ah. That is the ‘black bloc.’ They also identify as anti-fascist, but view meeting violence with violence and occasional destruction of property as a necessary component of fighting fascism. There was ‘civil discourse’ in pre-Nazi Germany, but the movement was still successful. As much as we’ve talked about how well Germany has done about monuments honoring the dead rather than the killers, there are still many Neo-Nazi groups there, which are often kept at bay by antifa/black bloc folk who are willing to literally fight them back. Some folk in the US think this is also necessary.” “So I’m antifa but not black bloc.”3

Then we got into problem solving. “Oh no,” I thought to myself, “this is where it will all go wrong.” But I was wrong. We agreed that America’s strength is in its plurality4. We agreed that Obama had normalized the use of executive orders which Trump is now running with even more. “Obama built the weapon that Trump is using,” as Cameron said. Since Republicans are invested in diminishing the size of big government, did they have a plan to reduce the run-away power of the executive branch that Democrats might be able to sign onto? Why yes, yes they do. It’s called the REINS Act and it limits what an executive order can do. It would be a huge step if Democrats were to pick this up (it’s already passed the House, but needs the Senate) as an act of good faith and self-awareness that it’s the amount of power someone has, not just how they use it which is at the core of the problem. Of course I need to read more – here’s a writeup from a “liberal” source, and one from a “conservative” source5.
We also talked about having open primaries, if the American people are smart enough to handle ranked voting (I think we are), and the problems of gerrymandering.
The Cultivate the Karass cohort stands and sits around a fire at night.But here’s what I walked away with: a new knowledge that my new conservative friends have been fighting for the same thing I’ve been fighting for as an anarchist in crisis response – getting more decision-making power into the hands of local populations. That although I align more with the rhetoric of liberals and radicals… the people doing the work within government to actually devolve power are those I never considered myself to be aligned with. I still think there are more responsible ways to care take the newest and most vulnerable in that process, but now I know I have some loyal antagonists with whom to debate the best path forward.

Footnotes

  1. *cough* Horseshoe Theory */cough*
  2. Facing History And Ourselves, anyone?
  3. I recognize I didn’t get into the more blurry lines of how Antifa is a movement which is often more comfortable with violence as a tool than explicitly nonviolent groups. But that was not the topic of the session, so I didn’t want to detract too much. For more information, start here.
  4. I’d of course argue that the human race’s strength is in its plurality, but America is currently considered a subset of that, so sure.
  5. Which has me thinking about anarchist reviews of policy as a useful project, as if I didn’t have enough projects on my plate…Anyone want to adopt this one?

Interfaces between formal and informal crisis response

I’ve long been interested in the question of how formal and informal groups interact in crisis. It is my proverbial jam, as no one ever says.

Basically, it boils down to this: official agencies are resourced and have predictable structures, but are slow and lack visibility to an affected population’s needs. Emergent groups in an affected region are by definition beyond their capacity to respond and are not trained in response, yet they have acute knowledge of their neighbors’ needs and can adapt to dynamic environments. While I’m still working on the long-form expression of these ideas, an opportunity to prototype an interface came up recently through the Naval Postgraduate School, Georgia Tech Research Institute, and a place called Camp Roberts.

Camp Roberts

There’s this decommissioned Air Force base near Paso Robles called Camp Roberts, where interoperability experiments are conducted quarterly. Only the engineers/implementers are invited to attend – no C-level folk, no sales. Each year, one of those four is focused on what the military calls “Humanitarian Assistance & Disaster Response” (HA/DR). I have some deeply mixed Feelings about the military being involved in this space. I respect my friends and cohorts who refuse outright to work with them. I see the military as an inevitable force to be reckoned with, and I’d rather take them into account and understand what they’re likely to be up to. Finding this place to plug different pieces of a response together without the sales folk or directors present, to actually test and play and fail is a glorious opportunity.

A Game

I’ve been working on the opportunity to build a game around a formal/informal interface for years as a way to explore how collaboration would fill gaps for these different actors. This project is called “Emergent Needs, Collaborative Assessment, & Plan Enactment,” or ENCAPE. The idea is this: both sides to that equation lack understanding of, and trust in, the other. A game could externalize some of the machinations and assumptions of each side, meaning a demystification; and creating things together often leads to trust building (that’s a reason why I’ve invested so much in makerspaces and hackathons over the years).

My informal friends were into it. So were my formal friends. But in order to know we could have any impact at all on organizational change, support had to be official from the formal sector. This took years (the formal sector is resourced but slow, yeah), but the pieces fell into place a couple months ago and the chance to build a game was born.

The People

It was of course vital that a wide range of viewpoints be represented, so the call was broad, but still to folk I knew would bring their whole Selves, be able to trust each other, and would be interested in the results of the game research. Folk from informal response, official agencies, nonprofits, and private sector were all invited. In the end, were were joined by Joe, Galit, Drew, Katie, Wafaa, John, Seamus, and Conor. Thank you all for taking time for this.

What We Did

We actually ended up meeting in San Francisco for our 3-day workshop for hilarious reasons I’ll disclose in private sometime.
On Sunday night, some of us got together to get to know each other over beverages and stories.
On Monday, we went through a Universe of Topics and visualized the workflows for our various user types. I did one for the Digital Humanitarian Network, Wafaa did one for Meedan’s translation and verification services, Katie covered a concerned citizen, etc. What were our pain points? Could we solve them for each other? We overlapped those workflows and talked about common factors across them. Different personas have access to different levels of trust, finances, and attention. They use those to build capacity, connections, and decision-making power. How could we use these common factors to build a game? How could we explore the value of collaboration between different personas?

Participants broke down workflows into one component per sticky note, laid out in linear fashion. Wafaa and Willow stand at the board while others talk through potential overlaps.

Drew took this

On Tuesday, we reconvened and started the day off with a game: Pandemic. This got us thinking about game mechanics, emergent complexity based on simple rules, and how to streamline our game. Individuals presented on what their game might look like, if left to their own devices. We explored combining the most compelling parts of those games, and started a prototype to playtest. It ended up being a counting game. Hm. That can’t be right.
A very few sticky notes indicate various steps in the game. These have all since become wrong, although we wouldn't have been able to arrive where we are now without first having gone through this.
On Wednesday, we drew through what the game play might look like and troubleshot around this shared understanding. It was closer to modeling reality, but still took some counting. We drafted it out to playtest, narrated through parts which didn’t yet make sense, and took notes on where we could improve. The last bit of the day was getting a start on documentation of the game process, on the workshop process, and on starting some language to describe the game.
Cards and arrows are hand-drawn onto a whiteboard in order to visualize the logical steps or game mechanics necessary to move through one round of the game. Cards scatter the tabletop in a variety of colors, and with drawings on them. We’ve since continued cleaning up the documentation and refining the game process. And so dear readers, I’m excited to tell you about how this game works, how you can play, and how you can (please) help improve it even more. Continue reading

…and yet…

At Cascadia.JS in 2014, I picked up a tshirt from the freebie pile. It’s pink. I know — I was also shocked about this, but the quote on the front was so good I had to go for it. “We don’t know what we’re doing either.” On the back is a subtle “&yet” which I learned was an open source consulting company (ish). Neat! — humility, a culture that accepts shirts which are both pink and comfortable, and a nuanced logo. I especially love wearing this shirt in academic and tech-centric situations.

A few months ago, Case asked my consent to be put in touch with someone on the &yet team — they had a conference coming up, and had suggested I speak. Our phone conversation was brief, but it sounded both fun and values-based, so I said yes (a rarer and rarer thing for me these days), and so I spent Wed/Thurs/Fri of last week in Richland, Washington. If interested, here are my drawings of others’ talks, my slide deck, and the paper I referenced.

It is now easily one of my favorite large social experiences. Music, art, and story were woven throughout the conference, all evoking self-reflection on our role in the path the world takes. It was already populated by some of my favorite people in this space (the aforementioned case, plus ben, jden, kawandeep, etc), and the textcapade starting weeks in advance, recieving letters from another character in the story by mail, all playing through these struggles, had me jazzed up long before the event.

The talks were a beautiful mix of art demonstrations, hopeful distribution structures, empathy arcs, and design philosophies. Inclusion was constantly present, and never for its own sake, but rather from a deep understanding that these are the voices that make up the world. The care &yet took of attendees (and encouraged us to take for each other) opened space for some rather heart-wrenching moments. Please, check out the talks when they go up.

While all of this is amazing, I want to talk about the trust and responsibility that &yet placed in the attendees. The storyline was a surprisingly nuanced version of one of my own ongoing internal battles — burn it all down, or patch to save what we can. (The mixed-mode system work is my attempt at making these transitions graceful, by the by). At no point was a clear value judgement imposed upon the story, or implied to the players. The textcapade transitioned into a sort of backchannel for actors in the parts of those sending the messages at points during the conference, and this archetypical internal battle continued to be played out there as well as by stage actors between talks.
Continue reading

Humanitarian Technology Festival

I came on with Aspiration back in January as the Community Leadership Strategist, to merge the work I’ve been doing in the humanitarian and disaster response space with Aspiration’s practices and team. It’s been a *blast* so far, and continues to be.

Most of the work I’ve done in the last 5 years has been about what social justice looks like when we’re doing response, with a focus on technology (as that opens up paths to conversations we otherwise quit having). With Geeks Without Bounds, we did hackathons all over the world, including Random Hacks of Kindness and SpaceApps Challenge. I’ve been a coordinator for the Digital Humanitarian Network, keynoted the IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference, was invited to the White House to talk about Sandy response, facilitated the first hackathon IN (not just for) Haiti, etc etc etc. I’ve also had a huge organizational crush on Aspiration since my first DevSummit in 2013, attending as many Aspiration-connected events as possible. When I was able to join Team Aspiration, I was overjoyed — even while much of the work I’ve continued to do on response had already existed, it’s been a slow shift to get those previously-defined objects to be a bit more Aspiraiton-shaped.

The Humanitarian Technology Festival in Cambridge May 9+10 is the first event that is both committed to response and framed on Aspiration ethos. I am SO EXCITED about this it hurts. Let me explain why.

The very way we deliver aid perpetuates the need for more aid, both for fast- and slow-onset disasters (or “extreme events” or “humanitarian issues” or “earthquake” or “famines” or whatever you’d like to say). When people need lodging after a hurricane, they’re either told to evacuate and/or they’re put into temporary homes, away from neighbors and family. There is little impetus to return and rebuild both social and tangible structures. People are uprooted, and must start from scratch. When, instead, we see that people don’t just need lodging but in fact need social fabric, responders (and the technologies used for response) can focus on how to maintain family and neighborhood ties. People are then less stressed as well as being more likely to take their own actions to return and rebuild.

For humanitarian aid, this is even more paternalistic and stratifying… while not actually “fixing” any of the things it aims to. Aid is primarily about making the giver feel better. But like Tom’s Shoes picking up on the “buy one, give one” idea that OLPC actually handled with cultural grace and systems thinking, instead Tom’s put some people out of work while trying to provide something THEY thought others needed. Even if it had been delivered in a less-jerky way, aid often ends up with locations dependant on that aid, rather than internally strengthened. This is one way we keep extracting resources out of other places without actually contributing to those locations. See also this bit of the paper I’m still working on. This allows the worst parts of globalization (erasure of cultures, consolodation of wealth, etc) to continue.

Some might say “fine, let them fend for themselves,” but that’s not ok either. When we don’t have to look at our neighbors (when we build walled housing complexes, or segregated schools), we can ignore how bad things are for them. And that’s also not an acceptable answer.

What we need are ways to listen to what people can offer, and what they need, under the assumptions that we are equals. This is why I’m so excited to see how the participatory methods I associate so strongly with Aspiration come to bear on this space. Just do a search-and-replace for “Nonprofits” to “Affected Communities” on our Manifesto and Participant Guidelines. People in these fragile situations are NOT a population to playtest new tools. Not only do failures have a larger impact in these spaces, but to think of another location and its people as “demo” space is undignified and unjust. We need better ways (not just better tools) for life EVERYWHERE, and to assume that we WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic)-o’s have all the answers is downright arrogant. By instead, as we do at Aspiration events, speaking to each other in easy-to-understand language, under the assumption that everyone is bringing something meaningful to the table, and that together we’ll figure it out; we can shift not only how we do response, but the after-effects of that response.

I’m especially excited to speak to people about distributed response, and how the tools we build for ourselves can be welcoming to others using as well. Check out NYCprepared and Taarifa to see what this can look like.

NECSI Salon: First Day Celebration

NECSI’s action-based 4th Wednesday Salon focused on First Day. This is an event which provides the resources, framing, and impetus to take personal responsibility for community health. It is not a fix-all, but is it an important, missing piece in the US health care debate, and a fulcrum for connected shifts to a healthier society.

On Wednesday, March 11th, we will hear talks from Deb Roy from the MIT Media Lab, Devin Belkind from OccupySandy, and Sam Klein from Wikimedia on Distributed Organizations. Register here.

First Day is about taking personal responsibility for your own wellbeing at personal and global level. Inspired from the idea of regeneration and new year resolutions, First Day wants to create a community level engagement at a personal level and community level.

 

Deck created by Catalina Butnaru

Deck created by Catalina Butnaru

We assumed those attending would be both in a position to, and have a desire to, act. The Wednesday before had provided space for folk to ramp up to this state, including review of readings about a similar Wal-Mart initative. We were additionally inspired by Boston’s own First Night and City Awake.

After very short reminders of what we were there to accomplish for the day, each person introduced themselves and what they were interested in specific to First Day. From these, we pulled out a few break-out sessions tasked with creating an actionable list or guidelines for organizers to work with. The overarching points we ended with were an appreciation of the need of safe space for people to ask questions which might otherwise be taboo (especially around health), comfort in complex problems having interventions (especially with a light hearted attitude!), an appreciation for existing cultural events (Days of the Dead as well as Chinese, Tibetian, and Indian celebrations of new cycles and health), and holistic approaches to mental and physical health.

Slightly curated notes follow: Continue reading

NECSI Salon: Ethnic Violence

On January 28th, the monthly salon gathered at NECSI to discuss ethnic violence from the lens of complex science. Yaneer Bar-Yam, president of NECSI, gave a brief talk about NECSI’s paper about modeling violence. Marshall Wallace, past director of the Listening Project, also gave a quick talk about his field experience with communities who opt out of violence. Again on Feb 4th, NECSI hosted an informal discussion around the case study of Libya. What follows are my big take aways and Sam’s asides, embedded into the fairly rough live notes from the salon. I call out these take aways and asides specifically because note takers often are lost in the notes, just as a photographer is never in the picture.
We hope you’ll join us on Wednesdays of this month to begin exploring medical systems, on ensuing fourth Wednesdays for structured discussion, or on other Wednesdays for more informal times.
wednesdays
Register for this fourth Wednesday here.

I am primarily left with a sense of purpose towards fostering collective intent towards alleviating suffering. In this entry, you’ll see a few ways large-scale violence is posited to be avoided. It is my personal opinion (of which I will opine at the end) that diversity is the key to equality as well as dignity, based on both the complex systems modeling and field experience framing these discussions.

But first, what do we even mean by “violence”? We’re referring to violent events occurring at level of massacres or bombing. These levels do seem to be slightly contextual based upon general violence levels in the area. Continue reading

Museo aero solar

Years ago, after Chaos Congress, Rubin insisted we go to some art show. I, as always, preferred to stay at home — whatever continent, country, city home might be in that day. But Rubin can be lovingly persistent. It would be worth it. It would be beautiful. We went, mere hours before I boarded a plane from somewhere to somewhere else.
blue-haired willow has her back to the camera, focused on a large transparent orb. Children play in the orb, suspended on a clear sheet of plastic. black lacing holds the orb in place. Rubin took this picture, and Willow is fond of Rubin.
Biosphere was a study in liminality to me, suspended spaces tethered to more commonly understood as habitable floors and walls. Perfectly clear water in heavy plastic and vast space define in clarity and iridescence. It was a liminal future, an in-between home, the moment the wheels leave the runway. The terror of my anxiety and the complete love for the possibility of Something Different, wrapped up in the moments of stepping into the future. In short, Rubin was right.

Jump forward a few years.
When Pablo invited me to Development and Climate Days in Lima, I was glad to go. Even before the deeply pleasurable and productive Nairobi gig with Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre and Kenya Red Cross, I trusted Pablo to have spot-on inklings of the future. Maybe all that climate forecasting has gotten into his social forecasting as well. His efforts around serious games resulting in their now being generally accepted, he told about an art-involved step to get people to think about the future differently. Something about plastic bags, and lighter than air balloons. Would I be willing to, in addition to my talk, document their process of creating a Museo Aero Solar for others to participate and replicate? Of course – distribution of knowledge, especially with illustration and technology is kind of my jam. It would also help me venture into the city.

I arrived at 2a to a deserted city and a vast and rolling Pacific out the cab window. I cracked jokes with the driver based on my poor grasp of Spanish (“ehhhh, Pacifico es no muy grande.”) He humored me. And in the morning, mango that tasted like sunlight, and instant coffee, and the Climate Centre team of whom I am becoming increasingly fond. And a new person – the artist Tomas, with whom Pablo and I ventured to an art space to join the already-started process of community building and art creation, large bags full of plastic shopping bags ready for cutting and taping. Pablo eventually had to go spend time at COP20, I relished not going.
a phone-camera captured image of a pamphlet instructing how to create a museo aero solar. it instructs the collecting, cutting, taping, and combining of plastic bags.
I took such specific, ritualistic care with each plastic bag. Cut off the bottom, cut off the handles, cut a side to make a long rectangle. Lay it gently on top of the pile, pressing down to smooth and order. Pick up the next bag. Feel it on my hands. The crinkle, the color. Smooth it out. Cut. Place. The sound of tape being pulled, torn, applied, and stories told in Spanish. The slow joining of each hand-cut rectangle. I smiled, to dedicate so much care to so many iterations of things which are the detritus of life. Francis laughed with me, saying she felt the weight of each one. A heavy statement for something so light. Tomas walking around, constantly seeming to have attracted a bit of plastic bag handle to his heel, no matter how many he peeled off, a persistent duckling of artist statement.

We went to the Lima FabLab to speak to a hackathon about making a GPS and transponder so we could let the creation fly free without endangering air traffic. And this time I saw it from the outside – seeing Tomas speak to a group of self- and community-taught Peruvian coders, and seeing their faces display disbelief and verge protection against the temporal drain of those outside your reality. Then, as he showed step by step, and finally an image, that these can fly, their cousins can lift a person, grins break out. Peoples’ hearts lift, new disbelief replaces the jaded. There is laughter and a movement to logistical details.

And then we took it to the D&C venue, and it worked.

I imagine what Pablo must have gone through, to get bureaucratic sign-off on this. No metric of success. No Theory of Change. Him, fighting tooth and nail for a large and hugely risk-adverse organization to trust fall into the arms of a community, an artist, a facilitator, and a game maker. And they did. And it changed the entire event. People in suits crawling into this cathedral made of plastic bags, each individually cut and added with love to the whole. A pile of fancy shoes outside the entrance, like a ballroom bouncy castle. People’s unabashed joy watching art some of them had made become a room, and then lift off to become a transport.

This future we want — it’s hard work, it can seem impossible. But it’s right here, we made it. It works, and it is beautiful.

I brought up ways for other people to participate. In a beautiful act I would associate with Libre ethics, the Lima crew have opened up not only our stories, but our process. We want you to join us. We want you to be a part of this future, and it means hard work. The fledgling wiki and mailing list can be found here. I hope you hop on.

The “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck” Hackathon

Author’s note: I go to, organize, and facilitate a *lot* of hackathons, and while I’m thrilled about most of them as chances for people to learn and get involved in a field of research, I’m also fairly skeptical of them. So I’ve limited myself lately to events that can really make a difference, not only for the participants, but for the people who would benefit from the things they work on. Most recently, I’ve been doing events in Dar es Salaam with Taarifa and Geeks Without Bounds around water point mapping. I think this event has an opportunity for significant impact as well – this event especially in the arenas of health and gender equality. The following post was written by the hackathon team, of which I’m honored to nominally be a part.

Why Breastmilk and Breast Pumps?

Breast pumping is an experience many women dislike, yet it saves the lives of premature babies and permits working women to continue a nursing relationship with their babies. The health benefits of breastfeeding for both mother and baby are numerous, and include reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, female cancers, heart disease, and osteoporosis. Despite the overwhelming data and worldwide endorsement of breastfeeding for the first two years of life, many women do not breastfeed at all or wean after several months. In particular, low-income, working women are rarely able to take extended maternity leave, afford the cost of a pump, or pump breastmilk at their workplace. In emerging economies around the world, women who go back to work wean their babies rather than using a breast pump.

breastpump1

The breast pump is the rallying cry for the event because it is a symbol of a technology that could be better integrated into people’s everyday lives in order to save lives, save money, and lead to healthier and happier families. At the same time, our goal is to make space for innovation in family life more broadly, and to support a wide variety of different kinds of projects at the hackathon- and beyond.

This is the second of these events, with a writeup of the first here. Check out some challenge definitions and inspirations on the Tumblr, and join us if you can!

When: Saturday, September 20 & Sunday, September 21, 10am-6pm

Where: MIT Media Lab

Win! World-class judges will be giving cash prizes to the best ideas

Register Now (Registration is free but space is limited)

Bringing together parents, medical professionals, designers, policymakers, MIT students, and engineers to radically redesign the breast pump, as well as explore other innovations in maternal and pediatric health to improve the lives of families and children around the globe.

Our generous supporters of this event include Vecna TechnologiesMedela and Naia Health.

Presented by the MIT Media Lab with organizational support of iKatun.

Pre-Hackathon Movie Screening

Join us for a free public screening and discussion of Breastmilk: The Movie on Wednesday, September 10, at 7pm at MIT Bartos Theater, 20 Ames Street, Building E15, Lower Level, Cambridge, MA.

No RSVP required! Babies welcome.

Questions? Check out our website or contact us at breastpump-organizers@media.mit.edu.