If you agree with some or all of the vision laid out in this toolkit and you want to try it out in the real world, where do you begin? Start from where you are.
Social change is a team sport; if you’re going to succeed, you’ll need to form a group. Perhaps you could start with people you know from church, your union, where you work, places you volunteer, or your friends. If you have the kind of contacts to do something more ambitious such as convening people from across your community, go for it – but it isn’t necessary to get started.
Then begin having discussions, asking questions, figuring out what you agree on and don’t, what you know and don’t know, and educating yourselves. And start small, but keep your eye on the prize. Bringing about a transformation on the scale that’s necessary is about a dance between big goals and little steps, about dreaming big without ever letting your group’s ambitious goals overwhelm you.
When you first get started, there are three steps your group will need to take: envision, map out the terrain, and start learning by doing. Odds are you’ll end up cycling through these steps more than once.
- What would your community or region look like in 10 or 20 years if you succeeded? What would it feel like?
- Roughly how many people in your community would need to work in emerging tech to improve the overall economic opportunities in your community? And how would you know that enough people had found a home in emerging tech to make a real different in your community or region? This is a crucial step. Too many people who want to democratize tech will count how many individuals they’re reaching but will never take a hard look at whether they are having a major impact on specific communities.
- What groups or individuals are already attempting to make tech more accessible in your community? For example: community groups, tech activist meetups, colleges and universities, vocational education efforts, sympathetic local or state politicians, people inside tech companies who care about empowering people with tech. Are there any existing efforts your group should join?
- If you’re from a thriving middle-class community, are there nearby communities who are looking for help? If there are opportunities to help out, it’s extremely important to enter into these communities with respect and more than a little humility; from Harlem to Harlan County, nobody likes well-meaning but patronizing outsiders.
- What else can you plug into nationally – e.g., churches, unions, and other national networks of civic organizations?
- Does your community have enough resources or the right resources to help democratize emerging tech? For example, what kind of support do the groups who are already trying to democratize tech have and what do they need?
- How inclusive are your efforts? And if they aren’t inclusive enough, are there networks in your community you could partner with in your efforts to become more inclusive?
- What major obstacles does your community face, such as lack of broadband access or literacy issues? When and how can your group attempt to make some progress overcoming these obstacles without bogging down the entire project?
- What is the smallest step your group can take to get your feet wet and start testing out your ideas and assumptions?
- Once your group has gotten your feet wet, how can you keep taking incremental steps that move you forward without feeling overwhelmed?
- How do you get comfortable with the fact that this process inevitably involves trial and error? How does your group build a culture of being open and honest about your mistakes so you can learn from them?
Some Initial Issues You May Encounter
- Don’t Sweat What You Don’t Know, Ask for Help. As soon as you start this journey, you’re going to run into issues that you don’t know how to address. That’s perfectly normal; just track down some help. For example:
- Job Stats. For the question of how many people need to end up getting jobs to make enough of a difference in a community, odds are there are people who work for your state who are responsible for making projections of what the “workforce” of your state will look like in the future. There are also probably academics who have wrestled with this issue. And there may be some national policy shops who have experts who would be happy to come up with a rough estimate. To find and connect with them, start by searching online or asking librarians at your local library.
- Emerging Tech Coding. If no one in your initial group is fluent with emerging tech, odds are there are people in your community who are experts and who would be happy to help you figure out how to get started. Just make sure to follow the example in Part 3 and use your group’s experience learning the tech to ask, what would the tech look like if it were designed from the ground up to be accessible for people like you?
- Civic Engagement. Many of the ideas in this report will be familiar to community organizers and others who are experts in community-based strategies (including some extension agents). If your group doesn’t include anyone who has these civic skills, there are certainly people in your community who do and would be happy to share them. As your group begins to learn the basics of civic engagement, you should think about how these ideas and skills could be incorporated into tech trainings.
- Community Networks. If you hope to help nearby communities, odds are there are people you can connect with in your community who may not be knowledgeable about tech but who are knowledgeable about those communities’ networks and have some contacts in those communities.
- Focus on Diversity From the Jump. One of the painful lessons of tech is that if a starting group is mostly white, male, and middle class, odds are it’s going to stay that way as it grows. If your group has diversity issues, it’s critical that you focus on becoming more inclusive from the very beginning.
Setting Goals Without Setting Ourselves Up
Setting goals is critical to success – especially when you’re dealing with a problem where the solution may require orders of magnitude more resources than are currently engaged. Your group also needs goals so you have a very rough idea of how far you are along the path to success.
But it’s easy to get tripped up by goals. A few thoughts on how to set goals that make your work easier rather than harder:
- At the very Beginning, Numbers Matter Less. Don’t focus too much on numbers at the very beginning; otherwise you’ll end up feeling so overwhelmed you give up. Realistically, you’ve probably got 8-10 years to hit your most ambitious goals. The point of asking these questions now isn’t so you’ll worry about nailing your numbers right away, it’s to ensure you take advantage of the luxury of having that much time.
- How Many Zeros? Similarly, exact numbers aren’t important early on. What you need to know is, are enough people getting trained and either getting good paying jobs or creating small businesses to boost your community’s economy, or does your community need to train 10 times or 100 times as many people?
- Track Diversity. As the tech world has demonstrated, if organizations don’t track their diversity they aren’t likely to improve it. Once you’re starting to make progress, make sure you think through how you will break down your goals by race, gender, income, urban vs. rural, etc. to ensure that everyone in your region will have a fair shot at jobs and co-ops/small business opportunities in emerging tech.
- Don’t Juke the Stats. As soon as stats are treated like grades, institutions will get creative in figuring out how to manipulate the numbers so it looks like they are succeeding – what the TV show The Wire called “juking the stats.” So if politicians or funders start hammering on exactly how many jobs should be created and setting unrealistic expectations, push back hard.