Posted June 22nd 2010 at 11:35 pm by
in The Urban Labs

Technology Builders are from Mars. Community Builders are from Venus

These are my notes from a talk at The Future of News and Civic Media Conference

As a woman, I can tell you I truly believe that men and women are from different planets. As a community builder, I know that technology builders and community builders are from different planets too. But just as men and women can make music together when they learn each other’s language, so can technology builders and community builders.

As a Venetian who has been playing around with Martians a lot lately, I hope I can give some key observations on where our cultural traditions separate us, and where they bring us together.

I started The Urban Labs because I saw the innovation happening with technology builders and felt it could inform the evolution needed in community organizing. I knew we could develop new blueprints for organizing using the latest drafting tools. But let me be clear: new tools do not change the time-tested pedagogy of organizing.

Picking a group is like picking a life partner; choose the organizations carefully.  It is great if you have some sort of relationship with the group or the community you want to work with. If you are cold calling an organization… don’t! And if there is an organization you want to work with, do the movement a favor and make sure that they have the capacity to work on your amazing ideas. Do not mistake authenticity for capacity; find organizations that are viable. You will not get the attention and programmatic support you will need if you pick an underfunded organization, and the worst part is that you will most likely blame the organization for the reason why it did not work out. Organizations first mission is to provide for its community, stopping to include your initiative costs resources may be better used in communities.

The issue of trust:

Technologists must build trust with community organizations, and there is a pretty good reason for that, you cannot have a true relationship without it. I want to not only amplify that trust is critically important I want to give you a couple of things to do with that notion on trust.

First, you build relationships with organizers and community the same way you build any other relationship. You involve them in your life in an ongoing basis, you get to know who they are and what they like and then you point out the things that you share together. “You like justice, I like justice, we may have something going here… “

Don’t expect the organizer to be your cultural attaché:  organizers have worked very hard to build the relationships they have in communities, and you must do some of that work too. Just like you would read up on another country if you were visiting, you must get to know the community before you meet your host that will also help you not offend your host which will never get you in the community. Go to local record stores, barber shops (get your hair cut, please don’t just walk in and observe), attend a church service. This will help ground you in the community and not just the organizers.

Experience our “Cannons”:

Now what books make up an organizers gospel is a whole other talk and several organizers will have different lists. There are books and trainings that shape how we do our work. Authors like WEB DuBois, Frantz Fannon and books like The Autobiography of Malcom X or attending an organizing training will help you understand how we see agency and how we do our work. It will also give you a conversation starter. It is very similar to letting drop the fact that you read Eat, Pray, Love on a date hoping to get points.

Mentioning Malcolm’s journey to Mecca and why it helped inform your experience in the world will get you points. It will also help you understand a very dark piece of America’s psyche (which feeds why we seem so mad sometimes). Understanding our pedagogy will help you create technology and experimental projects that actually bring added value. And trust me, what you think brings added value to their organization is different from organizers. They are overworked, underpaid and need to be protective of their communities.  So please respect that, appreciate that and work with your organization so they see you are different than all the other experiences that they have had with outsiders from ivy leagues coming in with ideas.

Finally I want to end with a point that is at the heart of so many fears you hear coming from organizers; not only do you need to understand it, you need to find ways to reassure organizers that you are not setting them up. CoIntelPro is real. Hundreds of organizers lives have been destroyed because of phone taps, informants etc. Communities have been attacked with state sponsored programs, and most recently we have watched police use YouTube and Twitter to charge young people of color with crimes.

I cannot make myself clear enough.  We have a right to be cautious of technology. Stories like Iran excite us, but not enough to put the communities we are working with at risk. So please don’t just roll your eyes when we bring up big brother watching. We have been burnt before and it is only right that you show that you give us more than lip service on this one, because depending who you are working with, you are at risk as well.

So I hope in this brief time I have helped you get through the fist date with your organizer. Like any relationship its critically important to make a good first impression and do not come off as condescending. Who would want to bring that into their everyday lives?

I look forward to questions.

This post is by Malia Lazu and originally appeared on The Urban Labs site. Read more about The Urban Labs’ projects on Malia’s blog feed on CoLab Radio.

One response to “Technology Builders are from Mars. Community Builders are from Venus”

  1. Stefanie says:

    Malia, I like this!! I definitely feel that a lot– like I’ve got each foot on two different planets by trying to figure out how media and technology tools can be used for community building. I’ve seen a number of community groups get burned by well-intentioned, but uninformed filmmakers or high powered communications teams that try to over-generalize complex community messages. Each of these sides brings their particular knowledge and expertise, but too often the scale is tipped toward those with the “technical” skills, rather than those who are connected to a neighborhood’s everyday realities.

  2. […] to laptops, broadband connections, and the media literacy to interpret these tools.  And, as Malia Lazu points out, there are some good historic reasons that social change activists hold on to their […]