Can Racial Equity Unlock Civic Tech’s Superpowers?

The promise of civic technology is that better democracy can come via connection, automation, and data.

The promise of civic technology is that better democracy can come via connection, automation, and data. That’s the ambition of online organizing and digital campaigns: to amplify the influence of communities, to hold corporations and politicians accountable, to rebalance power.

But our beloved internet, with all that connection, automation, and data, has also fueled the flames of misogynistic white supremacy burning from the grassroots to the highest levels of government. For those of us who believe in the potential to digitally advance social justice, the web we want is not the web we have. We want to use networks and data tools to forge liberation and democracy—but as it turns out, inequality seems to be encoded in the system.

As the 2015 Digital CultureSHIFT report summarized, the web we have is rife with exploitative surveillance, algorithmic bias, redlining, and platforms that reduce accessibility and incentivize abuse. From anti-blackness embedded in facial-recognition tech (e.g., in search engines, photo apps, videoconferencing, and police software), to ethnic filters for housing ads, to the profitability of fake news and harassment, we can thank the tech industry for scaling up racism and economic inequality at internet speed.

The racist and sexist failures of tech products have been linked to the scarcity of women and people of color in the workplace. It shouldn’t be a surprise that when insights and leadership from marginalized communities are excluded from the development of tools and methods, those tools and methods do not serve those communities. Tech insiders, especially those who are women, trans, disabled, and/or people of color, have explained how systemic inequity in hiring and retention, and the burden of isolation and burnout, serve as gatekeepers for a white boys club.

So what about our club—not corporate tech but civic tech? Civic tech, including for profit social good tech and digital organizing, is born of both the commercial tech industry, which is failing to fix racial exclusion, and the progressive nonprofit sector, where under 20 percent of the CEOs and executive directors are people of color. What we know about civic tech is that users of platforms like the U.K.-based “fixmystreet” or U.S.-based “SeeClickFix” and “Govtrack” tend to be white, college-educated men over 45. The findings of the study suggest that there is bias in our code and that solutions designed with the “build it and they will come” approach may not increase civic participation for everyone and likely perpetuate barriers for those who are already marginalized. The problem of access and marginalization have dire consequences for all of us.  As Jess Morales Rocketto wrote of the Democratic Party’s technology in January, “While we try to understand the lessons of 2016, it is time to deal with a key missing element in the conversation on the future of Democratic technology: the voices of people who are not straight, white men …. [W]hat you might not realize is how White our technology, digital, and data efforts are on the Democratic side, and how that affects how we win and who we engage.”

Because civic tech is a hybrid, it can be a source of solutions.

The Race to Lead report by Building Movement Project, released this month, calls for a three-part strategy to fix racial inequity in nonprofit leadership: shaping narratives of how we understand the challenge, creating campaigns that illuminate organizational problems, and developing metrics and data that measure progress. All of this is core to the expertise of the civic tech field. We can lead progressive nonprofits—and maybe commercial tech too—in this.

We also might be better than corporations and venture capitalists when it comes to debugging inequity in jobs and leadership. Unlike businesses fighting for market share, we already work in coalitions and networks, which enable the coordination of equity initiatives and support systems for people of color. Programs for leadership development, mentorship, capacity-building, and peer-training are familiar practice. We can look around and find emerging leaders and small organizations serving people of color and low-income communities ready to be invested in as digital innovators. Racial equity can and should be an explicit requirement of our mission to ensure that everyone has access to democracy. If we can re-engineer our organizations to be more representative of marginalized communities at all levels of leadership, we might improve the tech and methods we are designing too, so that digital organizing enables movement-building, not just big member lists.

There’s also a business case for racial inclusion in Silicon Valley: “The industry could create $300 billion to $370 billion per year in additional revenue” if tech companies were racially representative, according to an Intel/Dalberg finding.

But as progressive nonprofits and social good for-profit technologists, we have different goals. We want to use the internet to rebuild our dwindling democracy. We want to develop populist, accessible tech that automates social justice, disrupts inequality, and helps communities engineer sustainability. What could be the $300 billion equivalent of improved civics and civil rights?

Let’s tackle racial and gender inequity in our organizations, let’s invest in community-rooted leadership and innovation, let’s unlock the powers embedded in civic tech, and let’s find out what the promise can be.

Mariana Ruiz Firmat is co-founder and director of Kairos, a fellowship and networking program by and for people of color in digital campaigning, online organizing, and civic tech.