The Personal Democracy Forum celebrated its 14th year in New York City on June 8-9, 2017. I was honored to be the visual listener for the second year in a row. Last year, I worked large-scale on big sheets of paper. This time I sketched visual notes on my iPad. But the process was similar—absorb, process, and visually represent two days of thought-provoking keynotes about the intersection of democracy and technology. In the midst of an unprecedented year in politics, conference participants discussed this year’s theme: What We Do Now.
What follows are my notes from day two; the first half of sketches can be seen here.
Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister, gave a vivid example of what may be the future of democracy from her experiences in Taiwan. Tang was part of democracy demonstrations (a kind of Taiwanese version of the Occupy movement) in 2014 where, aided by technology, a half million people converged on consensus on a variety of issues. When the current president subsequently assumed office, it was the first ever peaceful hand-off of power in Taiwan. Crowdsourcing and open data are now official government practice as Taiwan attempts to build “a unified democracy not hijacked by ideology.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Andrew Rasiej engaged in a rich discussion of the current political moment. She emphasized that too many people feel abandoned and left behind. Change happens when “the grassroots get pissed.” She urged attendees to use their technology expertise to help harness current grassroots energy to push for a more transparent and caring government.
Newly elected Pennsylvania State Representative Chris Rabb shared his journey from Chicago, where he was inspired by Mayor Harold Washington, to campaigning for his grandma’s losing campaign in Baltimore, to his interest in technology in democracy, to finally deciding to run for office in Philadelphia, where he beat the Democratic machine to become a state representative. A descendant of slaves and politically engaged people, he played many roles while working for his ideals. If you want to make change sometimes you’ll have a supporting role, sometimes you’ll be in the spotlight, but you’ve got to stand up and get involved.
Rapi Castillo, the executive director of the Progressive Coders Network, talked about open sourced movements, describing his journey from apolitical humanitarian to Bernie volunteer. As a Bernie supporter, he became one of an informal self-organized group of over 3,000 software developers creating applications to help Bernie supporters campaign more effectively. This community of developers is sharing and repurposing their tools for other organizations like the ACLU and Indivisible. Now they are building stronger connections among developers with face-to-face hacknights and action blitzes where they focus on particular issues like healthcare.
Julie Menter, principal at New Media Ventures, addressed the need for funders to support the explosion of new civic tech startups and resistance groups in the wake of the 2016 election. These startups are starting to burn up their reserves and need financial investment now before they wither away. She urged funders to let go of top down control, to fund a wide portfolio of companies, recognizing some won’t succeed, and to seek out and support nimble grassroots activists.
Malkia Cyril, founder and executive director at the Center for Media Justice, asked “Will You Harbor Me?” Cyril characterized American policing as a monster, infected by white supremacy, which is only becoming more monstrous with its use of digital surveillance, and urged us to change the current system of militarized policing and invest in communities.
Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, wondered “Are We Going To Get This Right?” He discussed his experience learning how to find out how to exercise power, rather than just get attention. To change society, it is not enough to march, you’ve got to march to where it matters. One example of a place to exercise power in the criminal justice system is to focus attention on district attorney elections, a neglected but crucial pressure point.
Julie Menter, principal at New Media Ventures, addressed the need for funders to support the explosion of new civic tech startups and resistance groups in the wake of the 2016 election. These startups are starting to burn up their reserves and need financial investment now before they wither away. She urged funders to let go of top down control, to fund a wide portfolio of companies, recognizing some won’t succeed, and to seek out and support. nimble grassroots activists.
Aditi Juneja, the co-founder of Resistance Manual, gave a powerful talk, Your Vulnerability is Your Strength, in which she spoke about the way her “disability” has been a gift—an opportunity to build discipline, to understand how to succeed given her own unique circumstances, and to help other people succeed, while taking care of themselves. Through her site, resistancemanual.org, her podcast Self Care Sundays, and in many other ways, Juneja is an example of embracing the reality that we all have limits, and that recognizing those limits can actually make us more powerful.
Garlin Gilchrist, Detroit’s deputy technology director for civic engagement, grew up knocking on doors with his community organizer parents and playing with the computer his grandma bought him when he was five years old. As a result, grew up to be one of those rare people who can solve technical problems AND talk with people. He is running for City Clerk of Detroit to help that community harness technology to thrive. He called on us all to innovate where we are to strengthen our communities.
Senator Cory Booker closed PDF 2017 with a heartfelt talk about the brutal realities of gun violence and the merciless expansion of incarceration in communities like his own Newark, New Jersey. He called out the environmental and economic injustice that blights our nation and made a plea for us to be there for each other. Andrew Rasiej then engaged him in questions on where we go next. Booker framed the challenge thus: once we get past Trump, will we sustain the outrage we feel now to make this a more just nation? Will we be able to look the parents in the eye of the young man who was just shot on Booker’s block? A sobering end to a powerful two days of conversations about What We Do Now.