Valuing communities, people and trust

11 December 2016

A few weeks ago, I received the unexpected news that I’d been awarded a Shuttleworth Flash Grant - one of the Shuttleworth Foundation’s “small grants to a collection of social change agents, no strings attached, in support of their work.” They’re given to people nominated by existing fellows, and really do come with no strings attached.

I was happy to get it, and naturally it made me ask: what’s the most useful way of spending that money?

I looked at their site for inspiration, and found this about their flagship Fellowship programme:

To help us get there, we identify amazing people with innovative ideas, give them a fellowship grant, and multiply the money they put into their own project by a factor of ten or more.

So here’s the thing. I don’t think we need only innovative ideas or world-changing projects. We also need trust, communities, and skills. We need to strengthen and support existing infrastructure and communities. I worry that we’ve become far too fixated upon quickly implemented innovation and disruption, and that we’re taking a lot of important things for granted—things we rely upon that, unlike “innovative ideas”, take a lot of time and effort to build

This Aeon essay details how we have come to value innovation over maintenance, but how maintenance, repair and infrastructure matter far more in many areas of life.

I agree with many of the points in that essay, and I also know that there are far too few funding structures for organisations or communities who are addressing those issues.

Within the non-profit world, there are lots of initiatives supporting innovation, such as UNICEF’s Innovation Fund, the Global Innovation Fund, and the Knight Innovation Fund. But I can think of very few who fund the maintenance—or the plumbing, as the Aeon essay refers to it.

Shuttleworth invests in individuals, or “champions”, as they “believe people, rather than systems or organisations, are at the heart of sustaining change.”

I disagree: I believe trusted communities, not individuals, are at the heart of sustaining change. For what it’s worth, too, I strongly believe that diversity strengthens all kinds of initiatives and is crucial to effective and equitable social change.

In all honesty, I don’t believe that social change to benefit all, especially those who have traditionally been ignored and marginalised can actually take place without a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds involved, and in my opinion, the Shuttleworth Foundation could do a lot better on this front. Among the alumni of fellows there are 22 men and just three women, not to mention the lack of racial and other types of diversity. It is worth noting that the current class is more diverse—11 men and 3 women. An improvement on their current track record, but still incredibly skewed.

With all that in mind, and knowing that many organisations and communities I know and respect are operating in incredibly resource-limited situations, I’ve decided to donate part of my grant.

There are two organisations I’m involved with who have built up trust, and whom others rely on —and, I fear, take somewhat for granted. I know too, that their ‘pitch’ is far less sexy than that of some organisations focused on “innovation”, but I strongly believe their offering is far more crucial.

The first of these is Global Voices. At a time when trust in media in many places is at an all-time low Global Voices is providing trustworthy coverage from all corners of the world. Many media organisations are focusing on “audience engagement” and “community engagement”, but the Global Voices community is the only I’ve come across who are doing this in a genuinely meaningful way.

With their help and support, over 1,400 people from that audience are authors, translators and editors. Their volunteer authors (myself included!) are engaging in a substantive and useful way by writing about their situations, shaped by their own local knowledge and perspective. Each of those authors also brings with them their own, personal communities—and together, that constitutes an incredibly powerful, and trusted, community reporting on stories that otherwise get far too little coverage.

Also of note is the diversity of stories they cover, and the way they do that. Being a non-profit organisation at heart, they don’t write to get clicks on advertisements. They write to share stories from their own local contexts to help others understand parts of the world that at times, might feel ever so far away. That kind of shared understanding and bridge-building is exactly what we need right now, and because of this, I’ll be donating part of my grant to Global Voices.

The second is the Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG), an organisation that “applies rigorous science to the analysis of human rights violations around the world.”

I’ve been a fan of their work for a long time. They do long-term investigations into mass human rights violations, doing the time-consuming work of trawling through messy datasets to get a solid understanding of what happened, supported by statistical methods. They’ve testified in court, and had their evidence cited in key decisions on the sentencing of perpetrators of mass violence. They’ve been doing this for just about 25 years[, and their work is one of very few in this tech/data/social change space that I can look at and unequivocally say: they changed history. They’ve testified in court, and had their evidence cited in key decisions on the sentencing of perpetrators of mass violence.

I strongly believe that their work is so important. I hear so many people talking about a “data deluge”, saying it’s impossible to make sense of it all. But it turns out that there’s been people doing this for a long time who can help us all understand what truths data can (and cannot) tell us. I’ll be using part of my grant to spend a week learning more about those methods and their way of working in the spring of 2017, and donating part of it to their core operations..

Relatively speaking, neither of these donations is particularly large. But I’d love to encourage others—especially those who rely upon communities and organisations like the two above—to think about what deserves our support, and what we take for granted.

Infrastructure, communities and trust takes a long, long time to build—but without support, all those gains can all too quickly disappear.

A shorter version of this post first appeared on Global Voices

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