Technology Fueling Social Change

Technology Fueling Social Change

By Zena Schulman, Product Manager

The emotion and passion were palpable at the historic Castro Theatre in San Francisco, as Patrisse Cullors, Founder of Power Dignity and Co-Founder of #BlackLivesMatter, and over 2,500 queer women and allies chanted together:

It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.

I could feel these words echoing through every aspect of the 4th Annual Lesbians Who Tech San Francisco Summit. For three jam-packed days, I learned about cybersecurity, machine learning, rampant underrepresentation in the tech sector (which I will be writing about separately), and so much more. The summit boasted a diverse roster of presenters—over half people of color and 15% gender nonbinary. Some of my favorite speakers included Heather Holdridge, Director of Digital Advocacy at Planned Parenthood; Kate Stayman-London, Former Lead Email Writer at Hillary For America; Megan Rose Dickey, Journalist at TechCrunch; and Kiran Gandhi, artist and activist who earned a Harvard MBA.

 LWT CEO Leanne Pittsford's keynote address to kick off the Summit

LWT CEO Leanne Pittsford's keynote address to kick off the Summit

The keynotes were fiery and the conversations were fueled by a deep dedication to solving real problems in the world. The general theme seemed to be, “we are the resistance.” In the organizers’ words:

After the election we regrouped and approached the Summit with a fresh point of view to take the Summit beyond technology. We reached out to leaders who are rising up and using tech to lead the fight on issues of reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, systemic racism and sexism, and more issues at the intersection of power and freedom.

Movements like these need leadership, structure, and organization for maximum impact. Attending relevant keynote and breakout sessions, I learned that technology and social/political movements can intersect in different ways. I’m going to focus on examples of two:

  1. Movements embracing technology: organizations adapting to current tech trends to further their impact
  2. Organic social media virality: ideas that originate on social media and develop into larger movements

Movements Embracing Technology: Prison Reform

Megan Rose Dickey discussed incarceration statistics and prison reform programs during her LWT keynote, The Tech Industry in an Era of Mass Incarceration, with the entire summit in attendance. Black people are arrested at 6x the rate of white people, and represent 12.6% of the US population but 36.2% of our prison population (The Sentencing Project). Meanwhile, only 4% of the tech industry is African American (

The Last Mile and Dream Corps are harnessing the power of technology with their innovative approaches to reform our broken criminal justice system. Both organizations aim to break the cycle of incarceration, while simultaneously diversifying the tech workforce. (While their efforts are making an impact, it is important to note that mass incarceration is a large, multifaceted issue that will require slow, systemic change to solve.)

The Last Mile teaches prisoners to code with a robust curriculum that includes front-end and back-end coding languages, graphic and UX/UI design, and business development. The program, started by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Chris Redlitz, also provides mentorship and job placement assistance. As of September, 2016, The Last Mile has helped 93 formerly incarcerated inmates receive internship or full-time offers after leaving San Quentin State Prison in California (USA Today).

Van Jones, serial organizer and entrepreneur, established Dream Corps in 2014 as an accelerator to back initiatives that work to “close prison doors and open doors of opportunity for all.” To that end, the organization currently supports three programs: #cut50, to cut the prison population by 50% over 10 years; #YesWeCode, to teach 100,000 at-risk youth to code; and #GreenForAll, bringing community leaders and NGOs together to advocate for environmental solutions for underserved communities.

Organic Social Media Virality: The Women’s March

Before the age of widespread internet access and smart devices, social movements were solely driven by established organizations and politicians. Leaders needed these platforms to spread their message to the masses. All that has changed in the age of connectivity, evidenced by the rapid growth and virality of recent sociopolitical movements started by average people posting on social media.

On November 8th, 2016, as unexpected election results continued to pour in, Teresa Shook, a retired lawyer in Hawaii, wrote in a Facebook post that women should march. After her post resonated widely in her network, she and a few friends created an event page that garnered over 10,000 RSVPs in under 24 hours. Teresa, a first time activist, quickly turned to more experienced women to plan the march: Tamika Mallory, gun-control activist; Linda Sarsour, Executive Director of the Arab American Association of New York; Carmen Perez, Executive Director of Gathering for Justice; and Bob Bland, entrepreneur and designer of the “Nasty Woman” shirt.

The Women’s March organizers used social media to communicate the group’s official platform, logistics and speakers for the flagship march in Washington, and information on hundreds of partner events across the world. They also turned to established organizations, such as Planned Parenthood, NRDC, OXFAM, and GLAAD, for help with funding, mobilizing supporters, safety measures, adequate transportation, and other logistical support.

Social media was also pivotal to the movement’s success during and after the march. Attendees and organizers shared their experiences by posting photos, quotes, and trending hashtags across all major platforms—in real time and in the following days and weeks. In an era of fake news, first-hand accounts are more crucial than ever for spreading accurate information, especially in politics.

Technology connects us. Technology unites us. Technology amplifies our power.
— Vivienne Harr
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