Contributing to a Platform for Change

January 7, 2017
volunteer tech

Like many others, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks since the election thinking a lot about new ways to empower and amplify all the voices fighting for justice. While it’s not easy to know what to do in a situation like the one we find ourselves in, I’m reminded of words from Bryan Stevenson, a civil rights lawyer, who spoke at my graduation back in June. His entire speech was insightful and inspiring, and one particular request stuck with me: get proximate. In other words, be as close as possible to the situations in which you most want to see change.

It is particularly important to get proximate when one’s day to day interactions predominantly involve others with similar identities. Unfortunately, this isolation is particularly prevalent in the tech industry.

There are many different ways to get proximate, and one’s lived experience and personal privilege strongly impacts which avenue is most appropriate. For example, I carry each day the privilege of being white, male, college-educated, cis-gendered, etc. so for many issues. As such, the best way for me to get proximate is not by being the loudest voice in the room. That role is much better performed by one with that particular lived experience. Yet, not having the lived experience doesn’t exclude me from a responsibility to seek change, and rather increases the responsibility to actively participate. Fortunately, there are a number of ways for those with privilege to get proximate in a way that adds, not reduces, physical, intellectual, and emotional space. For example, it isn’t best for someone who does not claim an immigrant identity to be right in the eye of the cameras during a rally for immigrant rights. But that individual could always help with printing flyers, spreading the message on social media, and any other logistical tasks that amplify the identity-claiming voices in the movement.

Considering one’s own interests and strengths is one avenue for determining possible avenues for getting more involved. For me, someone who thoroughly enjoys programming, this means thinking about how to use technology for the creation of platforms specifically designed to strengthen voices fighting for justice. This process of platform creation can mean helping with adding a donation button to a website, creating a mobile application for organizing rallies, or redesigning a landing page to make the website more accessible to users with visual impairment. A focus on collaboration informs every aspect of the process, ensuring the organizers of the movement remain the authority on the platform’s message and functionality. In other words, seeking to do the background logistical work needed to give the voices of the movement the largest possible impact. Working collaboratively presents the opportunity to support and learn, while also providing a tangible service and not detracting from the stories and ideas which most need to be heard.

To close, I wanted to post a couple of action items that I’ve been looking into, and hope to continue, over the next couple of weeks. This is by no means an exhaustive list, so if I’m missing any resources you’re a fan of, please let me know in the comments and I’ll add them.

If you want to help create these platforms, there are a couple of exciting options. One easy one is reaching out to non-profits you admire/have some connection with and asking if they need any tech assistance. This series from Salsa Labs has a lot of the information you need to get started, and services like Squarespace and Stripe make it possible to get a non-profit website up and ready to take donations in just a couple of hours. Catchafire is a great resource for finding these opportunities, as it matches non-profits with volunteers with a certain skill set for short-term projects. If you are wishing to devote even more time to this process of platforms, I’m excited about programs like Code For America or Civic Hall Labs that create skilled technical teams to tackle longer term projects. Side note, if you are either a non-profit who would like to collaborate, or someone with experience building technical platforms who would like to volunteer, please email and I can hopefully do some intros!

Additionally, if you’re excited about using your skills to empower others to build their own platforms, there are a number of really exciting teaching opportunities. Again, they can be more short-term participation, like starting an Hour of Code at a local school, or they can be more long-term, like teaching a year long class through a program like ScriptEd or hosting an intern through Code2040.

There are so many opportunities to get involved - I hope you’ll join me in exploring them!

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