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From representing to pointing: some thoughts on the future of advocacy

I’m giving a talk in a couple of months at Netsquared, a conference about technology and the nonprofit sector. As a recent refugee from the nonprofit sector, I find that I’m quite often talking to NPOs/NGOs about blogging, tagging, photosharing and the wonderful world of what people insist on calling “Web 2.0“.

Sometimes these talks go well, and the people listening to me come away with one or more great revelations: “Oh, you mean bloggers control search engines! I get it…” Much of the time, people come away saying, “I get that blogs are interesting, but I don’t know what we can do with them.” This always makes me feel like my time has been well spent…

Talking with the one of the organizers of the Netsquared conference yesterday, I started thinking that there’s a reason non-profit organization have a tough time understanding the culture of today’s internet: the Internet changes how people can represent themselves, which forces a change in what it means to be an advocate.

(Man, that sounds like a sentence from my university days when I took too many philosophy classes. Bear with me. This gets more concrete in a moment or two.)

Many nonprofit organizations are in the business of advocacy. Some organizations – like Human Rights Watch – are primarily in the business of researching issues and advocating for policy change. Other organizations, like Doctors without Borders, are focused on service delivery, providing medicine and food to people in need… but advocacy is critical to their work as well, as they need to increase awareness of issues to change the underlying problems they’re addressing, and to raise money to pay for their services. (I mention these two organizations specifically because I think they’re tops in their field and I support both of them.)

In many cases, it’s a huge blessing that competent, passionate organizations like these are speaking for people who otherwise would be silent. It’s very hard for refugees in Darfur to share their stories with the rest of the world – they don’t have access to communication tools, don’t share a common language with the policymakers they’d want to influence and are busy just trying to stay alive. When HRW, MSF or individuals like Nicholas Kristof call attention to the situation in Darfur and demand more action from world governments, they’re practicing advocacy in some of the best ways possible.

Of course, it’s also possible to do advocacy in ways that are exploitative, presenting situations in the worst possible light to raise funds. People in the international development industry call this “development porn” – think Sally Struthers holding smiling, emaciated children on her lap to raise money for Save the Children. And the line between advocacy and development porn can be blurry – search for “Darfur” on Google and you’ll find ads from organizations like MSF doing great work on Darfur as well as organizations using the “Darfur” keyword as a way of capturing attention, whether or not they actually work in Darfur.

Advocacy changes when the people being represented demand to represent themselves. I had a ringside seat for an example of this during the Live8 concert series last summer. Armed with a series of rock concerts and a logo representing the African continent as an electric guitar, Bob Geldolf and friends pledged to influence G8 policy on Africa. Technorati sprang into action, aggregating blog posts tagged “live8”. Many of these posts were from Africans blogging about the concerts, and many of those posts were highly skeptical about the value of the Live 8 concerts.

One of the most moving posts came from Martin Kimani of African Bullets and Honey, who wrote:

Geldof and company will lay claim to the very last thing so many Africans own: our problems. And it will be terrible and evil beyond imagining for owning your problem is at the heart of what it is to be human. It is when we wrestle and suffer and triumph over our problems that we are most human, but this alas is not to be if the soul stealers on show succeed. I do not want anyone to suffer needlessly. I would prefer everyone to live in a democratic, prosperous community that knows no war or want. But these are conditions that must be battled and struggled for; they have never arrived as a gift from a stranger. And all those who promise them have always turned out to be thieves or murderers if not both. Geldof and the Live8, the G8, these governments and the eager little, statistic spouting NGO types are thieves of African humanity.

Martin and the other angry, articulate, argumentative African bloggers who critiqued Live 8 may not have been the Africans Bob Geldof thought he was advocating for. But when you stand up to speak for “Africa”, you should expect that Africans will respond if they feel they’re being misrepresented.

It took Geldof and his team a while to react to criticism that African artists were profoundly underrepresented in the Live 8 concerts, eventually adding a second festival so far from the main stage in London that it would be difficult for anyone to attend both events. Technorati reacted much more quickly, changing their Live 8 page to include a section of African and Afrophile bloggers talking about the event.

This wasn’t a hard change to make – it simply involved recognizing that Africans were representing themselves and pointing to them. That simple model – recognize and point – may be the key to changing how advocacy works in the age of the pervasive Internet.

My friends at Witness are doing a good job of anticipating this change. For 14 years, Witness has helped communities produce videos about human rights abuses that have taken place in their communities. This has involved bringing in cameras and video editing equipment and helping people build compelling videos about the injustices their communities face.

Speaking about Witness at the TED conference a few weeks ago, Peter Gabriel mentioned that Witness’s success was linked in part to the availability of consumer-grade digital video cameras, which brought the cost of video production down an order of magnitude. Another technological change is taking place right now as mobile phones are able film and transmit video from events as they happen. (For a timely example, see these videos from pre-election protests in Belarus, posted by blogger br23.)

The ability of people to create and distribute their own video inexpensively is going to change what Witness is all about. And Gabriel and Witness’s director Gillian Caldwell are anticipating the change and launching a portal that will allow activists around the world to upload video from phones and mobile devices. This quickly turns Witness from a producer of content – an organization that helps people represent themselves througn video – to an organization that points to, filters and contextualizes content that people produce themselves.

It’s not going to be an easy task for Witness. The videos from Minsk I referenced above are powerful documents, but only in context. If you don’t speak Belarussian, don’t know the history of the country, don’t understand how radical it is to see protest in the streets, the videos are little more than choppy, brief windows into a strange, different country. Similarly, it’s easy to misunderstand the children’s drawings from Darfur that Human Rights Watch printed in the New York Times magazine. Without the children’s accounts of the drawings or knowledge of the events in Darfur, they’re abstract swaths of color. With a little context, it becomes clear that these are the artifacts produced by children who’ve witnessed rape and murder in their homes.

Global Voices is a project that’s been built on little more than a commitment to point and contextualize. Rebecca and I started pointing to great blogs around the world and quickly realized that we didn’t have enough expertise to add context to the people we were pointing towards. By finding a team of likeminded colleagues around the world who blogged and knew their fellow bloggers, we were able to start pointing intelligently and add context.

We’ve talked a lot inside Global Voices about the need to reach out to communities that aren’t blogging yet. At the same time, we’re seeing the same phenomenon I watched at Geekcorps as we talked about bringing the Internet to the developing world – the Internet was growing quite well on its own without intervention from us. A year ago, we believed that the Russian-language blogosphere was nearly silent. Now, with the assistance of a brilliant Russian-speaking regional editor, we’re able to see the conversations that are taking place.

Did we get better at finding blogs, or did the Russian language blogosphere grow? Both. Blogging – and personal publishing of all sorts, from podcasting to photo sharing to videoblogging – is a form of representation that gets easier every day. In the same way that mobile phones come with voicemail in many nations these days, mobiles will come with online publishing space in the near future. It won’t be a matter of putting blogging tools into the hands of people – it will be about finding the media people are creating and pointing to it, contextualizing it and opening up conversations about it.

My friend Sean Coon is working on a fascinating new project that gives good food for thought on the subject of representation. Called thepeopleyes (either “the people, yes!” or “the peopleyes”…) the project is intended to help people in the Greensboro, NC area who live at or below the poverty line have a voice online. Because US digital divide efforts have put computers into community centers and libraries, it’s not unrealistic to think that people living in poverty in Greensboro will be able to have access to the Internet. And because Greensboro is a famously “bloggy” community, it’s reasonable to think that an online space is a place where people could talk about community issues from different perspectives. Sean’s challenge is convincing the community he’s working with that there’s a group of people willing to listen once they start writing and he start pointing.

If thepeopleyes takes off, it offers an interesting challenge – and opportunity – for people who work with low income people in Greensboro. On the one hand, they may find that the services they’re providing are precisely what their community wants and needs. But it’s more likely that blogging will provide a very public, very visible picture of the flaws in social service programs in Greensboro. What do you do as an advocate in situations like this? You get good at reading, and then at pointing, and become a more effective advocate in the process… or you find it deeply unsettling to discover that your years of advocacy for people living in poverty has led you to advocate for very different solutions than the people affected by your projects support.

When I worked on USAID-funded projects with Geekcorps, I spent a lot of time doing “impact assessments”, detailed documents that “proved” that our interventions affected hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of Ghanaians, Senegalese or Mongolians, justifying our request for the next tranche of money. It would be fascinating to see what resulted if every international aid project were required to host blogs for their “beneficiaries” – what do the people who are “benefitting” from a program think about the effectiveness or the goals of that project? (This idea is already becoming obsolete in some aid-recieving nations, like Kenya, where bloggers aren’t at all shy about talking about what does and doesn’t work in politics, government spending and international aid.)

As more people have the chance to speak online, it’s going to become increasingly dangerous to speak on behalf of someone. Smart advocates won’t tell you what people need. They’ll point to people talking about what they need. People like me, who make a living telling you what Africa thinks, wants and needs will become increasingly obsolete. (Or we’ll become yet more entrenched, telling you about the dangers of listening to people talk about their own problems, ambitions and needs.)

Advocates need to learn to point. No matter what cause we’re supporting, there are no words more eloquent than the words of the people themselves:

This government is not our mother. My mother, despite her great difficulty dealing with me being whom I am, still loves me and always worries about me. I came from her and I once ran away from her smothering love. But that love is real and now I’m back, I can accept the suffocating Confucian teachings just for her.

Not with this government. Not with a government that demands loyalty with no love in return.

Hao Wu

15 thoughts on “From representing to pointing: some thoughts on the future of advocacy”

  1. Re: thepeopleyes

    “On the one hand, they may find that the services they’re providing are precisely what their community wants and needs. But it’s more likely that blogging will provide a very public, very visible picture of the flaws in social service programs in Greensboro.”

    I believe that the voices of the bloggers we’re seeking will expose the flaws in our community’s service delivery to the poor and homeless. But that’s a good

  2. …continuing…

    But that’s a good thing. Their voices count, and their critiques of service delivery should be heard. We cannot simultaneously build community and silence voices. Let the people speak for themselves.

  3. cara is my partner on the street for this project. she’s been an advocate for the homeless in greensboro for a long time now, so i’m leaning on her to not only introduce me to the community, but help me navigate the conversations themselves.

  4. It seems like NGOs are in a similar position to media outlets like the BBC and PBS — they need to learn about the tools people are using and find ways to embrace them from the ground up.

    Sean Coon’s project sounds interesting, and I’m doing something similar, called the Bronx Blog Project (http://www.bronxblogproject.org) in which I’m teaching ESL students in the Bronx how to blog. I’m recording the process on video as well.

  5. Josh – love the idea. Please let me know if you’d like to be connected to Sean and Cara and their project. Very psyched to check out your work.

    Cara, thanks for responding. I think it’s fantastic that you’re involved with this and seeing blogs as a way to find out what’s working and what’s not. I can tell you from my work in the international NGO space that people aren’t always excited about getting this sort of direct feedback – so glad you’re actively soliciting it.

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  7. Ethan, I would love to get connected to Sean and Cara. Global Voices has encouraged a lot of us not just to be bloggers but also activists in our own back yards, and it’s great to see these projects springing up that are trying to create new bloggers and document the blogging process. They may help create a greater understanding of why this stuff is important.

  8. I always wonder how come that it’s so difficult to see big NGOs, those with more resources and already using community tools like blogs, sharing their expertise with smaller groups. This would benefit the whole advocacy community, but maybe the concept of “let go” is too scary…

  9. Indymedia’s certainly one organization providing cyberplaces… but what fascinates me, Pablito, is just how many different places people can have a voice these days. We decided to make GVO a space about pointing rather than about publishing – unlike Indymedia – because we felt that people could find a large number of places to publish their content and that we’d best be served by poinging to some of it…

  10. I think the aggregation of blogs focused on specific issues, or specific geography, can serve small and medium size non profits the way advertising serves big corporations. We don’t have the millions of dollars that large corporations have to advertise every day, but our stories can have the impact of advertising if they can be aggregated, and focused on what’s happening at specific times of the year.

    I think the second element that will emerge to support this blogging are “knowledge centers” that provide background context, using GIS maps to show the demographics of an area, and to show the availability (or lack) of existing services.

    I’m putting this concept into practice vis the Tutor/Mentor Connection and using my blog, and events I organize, in Chicago and on the Internet, as part of my advertising.

    The result is a Google search for “tutor mentor” brings up my web site first out of over 1.5 million listings and my web sites have more than 4000 visit a month, with virtually no advertising dollars spent.

    I think this result can be duplicated by others.

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  13. As a result of work we’ve been doing since 1994 a $2 million donation has been made to increase funds available to Chicago area tutor/mentor programs over the next 3-5 years. Increasing the flow of flexible operating dollars is a basis strategy for increasing quality and reach.

    Finding partners in colleges,or in other non profits, who will work with T/MC to duplicate this in other cities, or in other industries is a goal. Take a look at our site to see what we’re doing.

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