Step up, step back

13 March 2016

If we think long enough through the ‘theories of change’ of many of the organisations and movements I find myself around, we should eventually come to the step of making ourselves redundant. In my previous role with School of Data, we were very clear about this: we even had a workshop session once where we were tasked with drawing up our own project ‘obituary’.

The idea of playing a certain role for a certain time - that is, until others can do it better, and where at some point, that particular role will be unnecessary - appeals greatly to me. It means my job will keep changing, and I’ll have to keep learning new things. It means I’ll have to, by necessity, be flexible, and not become too attached to a function or a role. It also means that other people will step up and at some point, I’ll have to recognise that it’s time for me to step away.

I see a similar consideration come up in public speaking, too. Where’s the line between raising awareness on behalf of a group of people who can’t be there themselves, and speaking for them, or taking their place? Personally, I feel like we, as a community, could be more thoughtful about this.

An example: I can’t count the number of times I’ve been to a conference or event on the topic of surveillance which has focused almost exclusively on the problems of surveillance from a European, or US-ian approach. The topics of those conversations, though, are rarely (ever?) framed as a ‘Western’ perspective, though; much more frequently, they’re purporting to be “global surveillance”. Topics covered include, for example, the Snowden leaks; NSA surveillance; mass surveillance, and its associated harms; the way in which our privacy is being put at risk; Wikileaks; threats to journalism, and free speech, and whistleblowing.

…but, what about the rest? Surveillance has many angles and effects, of which the ones I described above are just a few, coming from a very particular point of view. That’s not to say that the experiences of the people who talk about these kinds of topics are not legitimate; of course they are. But if we’re serious about delving into - and finding solutions for - such an important topic, why are we looking at it from, broadly speaking, just one perspective?

There are so many other ways of looking at problems out there that we need to be thinking about, and so many other people who should be in those public spaces. A couple of weeks ago at the Global Voices Exchange workshop, I had the opportunity to hear about surveillance from all sorts of angles that rarely, if ever, get delved into at major conferences or events that I attend. Examples: surveillance on a personal, family level. Surveillance from the perspective of someone who is regularly followed by police officers in the place in which they live. Surveillance drones. The use of biometric technologies to track voting patterns. Surveillance within activist movements.

Personally, I find hearing about important topics to be far more interesting when they are genuinely put into a global context, and from different perspectives. So at what point do we, as a community, acknowledge that what we’re commonly hearing about is not the whole picture, and how do we change that?

For conference organisers, the path is relatively straightforward. Invite people to speak who aren’t your usual suspects. If you can’t find them, ask others who might. Listen to the mountains of advice out there about increasing diversity and inclusivity in your event. But for those of us who don’t organise events, but attend, or sometimes speak, it requires a little more thought.

Personally, I try and put this into practice by recommending interesting speakers - especially those who I know don’t have big public profiles - to event organisers whenever I’m asked, and perhaps I should be more proactive about this, too. If I’m attending an event and feel like a certain perspective is missing, I try to tweet about it, and I’m realising that linking to other people’s work who provide those other perspectives would probably be a useful and constructive way to go about it. If I happen to be speaking, I also try to mention other people’s work in whatever I’m talking about, cite clearly the origin and their name, and link to their work in slides I put up afterwards.

Another option, which I’ve only put into practice just a couple of times, is simply turning down the invitation and passing it on to someone else. That’s a tricky one, though, and I know I’m a long way from from getting invitations that would make doing that an especially big deal. For those with big public profiles, perhaps there’s more in this tactic than for the rest of us: refusing invitations and recommending someone in your place, who probably wouldn’t otherwise get asked.

Ultimately, introducing more perspectives makes it more interesting for the listener, and actually, a more relevant discussion. At least among my circles, calling for diversity is now, thankfully, pretty common - but for that to actually happen in practice, some people are going to have to take a step back. Knowing when, and how, for that to happen, is hard, but I think we could all do better.

Credit to Gunner for the ‘step up, step back’ meme - since hearing it at one of Aspiration’s workshops, I’ve thought about it a lot!

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