[This pre­sen­ta­tion was post­ed in three pieces. Section mark­ers appear at the breaks as there were some­times brief gaps between them.]

Malia Lazu: So, I’m going to talk a lit­tle bit about what I’ve been study­ing at MIT, and also on how I’ve come to that place and then the out­comes. I’m a com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er. Two of my dear men­tors are in this room with Kenny and Naj. And I came to orga­niz­ing work because I believe in our lib­er­a­tion. And see­ing that lit­tle boy say­ing how great—I just…it just sort of sent home for me what it is that we’re doing. 

But after fif­teen of years of com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing, I became tired. I became tired of bang­ing my head again­st the wall. I became tired of knock­ing on the same doors and either see­ing the same peo­ple or dif­fer­ent peo­ple. But I real­ly just felt like I was in this cycle of faux lib­er­a­tion, where I would feel a vic­to­ry, and the vic­to­ry was prob­a­bly formed around the RFP for the grant that we need­ed to get in order to do our work. And so all of it sort of felt inau­then­tic to me. 

And at the same time, a lot of my net­work are in the enter­tain­ment field, and in mar­ket­ing and adver­tis­ing. And so they were using tech­nol­o­gy to reach their con­sumers, and it mir­rored the work that I want­ed to do. So they were work­ing for Hennessy or what­ev­er, and they would go into Roxbury and they would have a bill­board that they could project on the Ferdinand Building that would get you to text back to tell them how you like to drink your Hennessy. And they would get your cell phone num­ber, and you would get a lit­tle coupon texted to your phone, help­ing you get some Hennessy and may­be you know, some Coke or how­ev­er you like to drink it. 

And so I’m look­ing at this tech­nol­o­gy and [rais­es hand] I’m like, I want their bill­board. But I want it to ask about free­dom! And then how do I get those phone num­bers?” So I’m watch­ing my friends who are using this tech­nol­o­gy, and who cor­po­ra­tions are just throw­ing mon­ey at, right? They’re, Yeah yeah yeah, devel­op more. We need to get in people’s cell phones. Develop more.” So they’re devel­op­ing this tech­nol­o­gy, right. Corporations and mar­ket­ing is using this tech­nol­o­gy. They’re reach­ing our kids, because we’re Facebook-connected all the time, we don’t care, we just want free stuff. We’re going, Oh, I’ll text it. I’ll do this—” So we’re doing all of that.

And mean­while I’m knock­ing on a god­damn door with a fuck­ing clip­board. Okay? 

Najma Nazy’at: [off­screen] Proud of it.

Lazu: [laughs] Yeah, exact­ly. You’ve got a cell phone now, Naj. So I’m not exact­ly going to let you get away with that.

And so I just became very frus­trat­ed, because I felt like not only was I watch­ing the tools I need be devel­oped and be effec­tive­ly used in our com­mu­ni­ty— Pepsi does this amaz­ing­ly well. Whether any of you guys tried to get $25,000 from the Pepsi Challenge, or whether you tried to get $1 mil­lion by sub­mit­ting a com­mer­cial, Pepsi has been able to do this mod­el real­ly real­ly well. And I was becom­ing very frus­trat­ed.

And one of the things that was real­ly frus­trat­ing to me was even with­in my own orga­niz­ing com­mu­ni­ty, it was very dif­fi­cult to get peo­ple to see that this tech­nol­o­gy was use­ful. And while we all under­stood Big Brother, and we all under­stand COINTELPRO, and this is very real, this isn’t faux, we were sort of let­ting that stop us from from doing our work. 

And at the time I was work­ing for an old-school activist elder by the name of Harry Belafonte, and one of the things that I found out in his sto­ry was his psy­chi­a­trist was COINTELPRO. And for about thir­ty years, he was lay­ing on a couch— I say that to say it made me real­ize that I’m wor­ried about this [holds up an iPad] and about them tap­ping into this, but if they want to get me, they’ll just get my ther­a­pist. And you know, she hasn’t been able to raise her rates for me for years because she’s quite expen­sive. So I’m sure they could buy her off pret­ty eas­i­ly. And it just put it in con­text for me, around what we’re deny­ing our­selves because of some­thing of a real fear—that is still going to be real whether we use tech­nol­o­gy or not. 

So I felt the need to start push­ing back on some of our orga­niz­ers and being like, Well hold on. Did we feel this way about the tele­phone?” Because, that’s what this is. [holds up iPad again] What did we do as orga­niz­ers when we invent­ed and then we start­ed using the print­ing press? That was a great tool for us. It was real­ly help­ful. The tele­phone: great tool, very help­ful.

So again, if we keep it in line with that his­to­ry, we just see that this is the next thing. Not only is this the next thing, but it’s actu­al­ly cre­at­ed in a way—as Fox just so amaz­ing­ly showed us—that reduces if not removes a major­i­ty of bar­ri­ers of entry. I mean, this just drops the the bar­ri­ers to what used to pre­vent us from par­tic­i­pat­ing. So even the cul­ture of it, right? I mean, folks love open source who are in this field. They like to share, and they have a total­ly dif­fer­ent view on it. And so I want­ed to study more about that and real­ly apply my com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing lens to it. And so I accept­ed a Mel King fel­low­ship at MIT in DUSP. And being an orga­niz­er, I imme­di­ate­ly went over to the Media Lab and tried to orga­nize some sci­en­tists in the Media Lab. 

And I start­ed with a very small goal. I’m of the belief that in…years…in the future, how­ev­er long or short that might be, polit­i­cal par­ties are no longer going to exist. And the rea­son why I believe that is because I think they play the same role as book pub­lish­ers, as music pub­lish­ers… They play a rela­tion­ship role, and they play a bridge role. Which no longer real­ly needs to exist, once we fig­ure out how to use tech­nol­o­gy to answer that in the same way music pub­lish­ing and book pub­lish­ing have done. 

When you look at mod­els like the Tea Party, which is one of the mod­els that I stud­ied, what you see is that what made the Tea Party vibrant besides their very strong shared ide­ol­o­gy was that they could take advan­tage of their loose ties. They could take advan­tage of their fourth, fifth, degrees of sep­a­ra­tion through tech­nol­o­gy. So if I’m a Tea Party mem­ber, I can find oth­er peo­ple quite eas­i­ly that I might not have thought because I wouldn’t have known they were Tea Party. I wouldn’t know that they’re some fas­cist crazy per­son. I just knew them as my neigh­bor. But now I know that we can do a fundrais­er togeth­er and come up with some ideas. And so I want­ed to study that, pri­mar­i­ly because I do believe that that’s what we’re going to see in the future with polit­i­cal par­ties.

And also I want­ed to find a way to stop the voter reg­is­tra­tion pimp­ing that hap­pens to our com­mu­ni­ty every elec­tion. And I hate the VAN. I come out of elec­toral orga­niz­ing. And what frus­trat­ed me every year was first of all that our data was some of the most hard-to-reach, so it should have been the most fuck­in’ expen­sive, okay? And what they would do is they would come to us every year, and what would they offer us, $5 a voter reg card. And we would go back to the same com­mu­ni­ties that we know— We don’t need a voter file because we’re in the com­mu­ni­ty, so we know. I don’t need Najma’s voter reg card, I just need to know that Najma can vote this elec­tion. And then I can turn around.

So I had this fan­ta­sy in my mind that we could cre­ate some form of tech­nol­o­gy that would allow orga­niz­ers to lit­er­al­ly cre­ate a liv­ing list. So rather than us being pimped out every even year, to sell our data at $5 a voter reg card, where again we’ve been talk­ing to the peo­ple every day so they just give us some­thing. You know, we have to do it all over again in August to make that grant cycle— 

Audience 1: Could you explain a lit­tle bit about how that works? The $5 a reg card—

Lazu: Yes, the they,” right? The they is DC. So, the they is…you know, like right now for Obama 2008 he spent $700 mil­lion. A good chunk of that was on media. And I would say prob­a­bly a hun­dred and some change was in the field. The way they orga­nize and do turnout to com­mu­ni­ties of col­or” because our voter file, our list of reg­is­tered vot­ers is always bad—it’s about 1315% accu­rate because we migrate, we move… 

So, they go to community-based orga­ni­za­tions with­in inner cities and they ask them to reg­is­ter their mem­ber­ship and then turn in their voter reg cards to DC. And that’s what van is, the Voter Activation Network. And they won’t touch it again. They won’t touch our com­mu­ni­ty again for anoth­er two years, and then they have to go back. 

And so it was a pow­er setup that just pissed me off, you know what I mean? It was this thing where it was like we actu­al­ly are hold­ing on to these…like, we have the best resources. We have your base. For Democrats, and I mean that in the most non­par­ti­san, what­ev­er, way. I’m not pro­mot­ing any­thing. But you know, so we have your base. And your base is hard to reach, and your base doesn’t trust you. We have trust. We have your base. And we know how to reach your base. So we should def­i­nite­ly be not just get­ting paid $5 a voter reg card.


…then we could actu­al­ly com­modi­tize our data, and just sell it back to you and tell you that you can use it X amount of times. It real­ly opens up pos­si­bil­i­ties for us to be in con­trol of our infor­ma­tion and our data. And for community-based orga­niz­ers to be in con­trol of our data. Because what makes orga­niz­ers so pow­er­ful is that they can map out an entire com­mu­ni­ty, right. You sit down with a good orga­niz­er and they can map out an entire com­mu­ni­ty and tell you about the last twen­ty years. It’s all up here. And so when you lose an orga­niz­er, it…we’re not tak­ing advan­tage of our orga­niz­ers the way we should be is I guess what I’m try­ing to say.

So that’s why I get start­ed. I could actu­al­ly talk about that forever, but I’m not going to talk about that. But that’s how I got to MIT, to real­ly try to fig­ure out how we can get in front of the eight ball with this tech­nol­o­gy. And what I’ve real­ized, and I’m just going to throw out a few themes, is that as Fox was say­ing, this mir­rors our soci­ety. The social media, the Internet, doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly bring up the best parts of us. So if your soci­ety is seg­re­gat­ed, it’ll prob­a­bly be seg­re­gat­ed. If your soci­ety is racist, it’ll prob­a­bly be racist.

The huge white flight that hap­pened in MySpace to Facebook is an exam­ple of this. So, Facebook has—and I don’t know if it’s cur­rent­ly true now, Fox may be able to tell me—but there was a while where Facebook and MySpace had the same amount of users. But Facebook was like, Oh, Facebook’s the shit. It’s grow­ing, it’s amaz­ing.” And it was. But MySpace was still very much active. But when you heard peo­ple talk­ing about MySpace, they would say things like it’s the ghet­to,” it’s for the child moles­ters.” No, it just didn’t reach a tip­ping point with edu, right, or with col­leges.” Because Facebook was start­ed at Harvard, the way back to its tip­ping point was it went from Harvard to Ivy Leagues to edus, then to the pub­lic. So that’s why it didn’t have sup­posed child moles­ters or what­ev­er, although hmm. (Penn State.) So it doesn’t fix racism, it def­i­nite­ly con­tin­ues to mir­ror our— We make it what it is.

And in cer­tain ways it could poten­tial­ly make us more invis­i­ble. And I think exact­ly what I was see­ing with Fox— I had to take a pic­ture of that chart because that chart will be shown, that we’re thir­ty points dumb­er than the French. That that’s the type of stuff that you real­ize and see what hap­pens. So now I can be a white wom­an in my avatar. So what hap­pens with that?

But there’s a few themes that I real­ized in doing cer­tain exper­i­ments, and I want to say that the exper­i­ments that I did were using very basic SMS, Javascript tech­nol­o­gy, which is all basic cell phone tech­nol­o­gy. Although I do feel that with the expan­sion of mobile, and smart­phone mobile, and with that becom­ing more acces­si­ble we do have more oppor­tu­ni­ties. But I want­ed it to be able to work on every type of phone so that if you don’t have a smart­phone you wouldn’t get elim­i­nat­ed. We worked with a high school group in Brooklyn, with Prison Moratorium Project. And they were orga­niz­ing an end of the year tal­ent show for their high school, where they were going to call for a non-violent sum­mer.

And so we start­ed hav­ing them orga­nize with their cell phones. And with­in two weeks of going out to get peo­ple to sign up for the tal­ent show, they had signed up 432 peo­ple. Now, any orga­niz­er knows if you send out a kid with a clip­board, you will not get those num­bers, right. You will not get those num­bers, not even if you send out me and Naj togeth­er. Naj is like, Give me a chal­lenge.”

So what you saw was that this tech­nol­o­gy, peo­ple like using it. A lot of the kids said that they felt very com­fort­able. As a mat­ter of fact, one of the kids, when we showed them— And this is very basic. This isn’t any­where near what Fox was talk­ing about. But when we showed them the short­code they were like, Oh! This is what HOT 97 has. We have what HOT 97—” And there was a very nov­el­ty moment to it, which I think is also very impor­tant in the sell­ing of this. 

And so as we were going around doing the­se exper­i­ments to see if orga­niz­ers could actu­al­ly use cell phone and oth­er type of tech­nol­o­gy to bet­ter orga­nize, we real­ized a few things. And the first is that tech­nol­o­gy cur­rent­ly removes our bar­ri­ers to cre­at­ing media. And what that means is that we can cre­ate our own shows, we can cre­ate our own com­mer­cials. I can cre­ate a com­mer­cial to send specif­i­cal­ly to Naj, to tell her to come and meet me at a place. If we think of how we can run with a YouTube, or a Vimeo, or an Instagram, or any of the­se tech­nolo­gies, we’re able to pro­duce with them, which I think is is very impor­tant.

The sec­ond thing is that it removes bar­ri­ers to dis­tri­b­u­tion. So while you can cre­ate a short­code and you can own one pri­vate­ly, you can also just go to an open source net­work, and even though it’ll have a lit­tle adver­tise­ment on it, you can get your own text [bed­way?] to 70376.” You can get your own. And so you can start dis­trib­ut­ing what­ev­er you want. Your fly­ers, your man­i­festo… You can start dis­trib­ut­ing that far and wide with­out the cost of print­ing, with­out the cost of going into a record­ing stu­dio, with­out the cost of— It com­plete­ly removes those types of bar­ri­ers.

Now, the final thing that we dis­cov­ered, which is what’s most excit­ing thing me as an orga­niz­er, is that it’s almost an authen­tic catcher. So if you actu­al­ly don’t have net­works, this tech­nol­o­gy will not work. Because if peo­ple actu­al­ly don’t trust you; and they don’t see you as a tastemak­er; if you’re not some­how in rela­tion with them whether that’s sec­ond, third, or fourth…if you don’t feel that trust, you’re not going to open it. You’re not going to respond. You’re not going to watch the YouTube video. And you might not go from the YouTube video to the web site. So what you see is an orga­ni­za­tion like the Design Studio, like BYOP, would actu­al­ly be able to get as much activ­i­ty on their site as the nation­al NAACP. And that’s because they have actu­al rela­tion­ships here in Boston. They have actu­al num­bers of peo­ple who will pass it on, who will men­tion it [?], more­so than a lot of the­se nation­al groups that actu­al­ly hold this space for data gath­er­ing with­in our com­mu­ni­ty. And so for me, I became very excit­ed about that because of my frus­tra­tion that I was feel­ing at the state of com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing.

So I guess I’ll end… Well, actu­al­ly there’s a cou­ple oth­er things that I want to talk about before I put out my call. And that is one of the most impres­sive things I think we do as a com­mu­ni­ty is that we emerge. We evolve and we emerge. Like Fox was say­ing, we’re con­sis­tent­ly chang­ing. We’re con­sis­tent­ly evolv­ing. And we, I think, do it spec­tac­u­lar­ly well with­in our com­mu­ni­ties, and we’re going to con­tin­ue. So one of the things that danah boyd, who is a soci­ol­o­gist sci­en­tist at Microsoft said, that it was actu­al­ly the black com­mu­ni­ty that kept the smart­phone alive because of our use of the Sidekick. So while every­one else want­ed Razr flip phones, we had Sidekicks. 

So we’re ear­ly adapters, right. And this cre­ates a space to allow us to emerge nation­wide if not worldwide. And this last thing that you show, broth­er, I was like imag­ine if we could do this. Imagine if we could do this for Cincinnati, for Cleveland, for Detroit, for LA—for the jun­gle LA ver­sus west Hollywood, right. We could do a whole lot of stuff, and again, we don’t need to go into a stu­dio. We can cre­ate this tech­nol­o­gy with­in our house, with­in our home. And I think that that’s also philo­soph­i­cal­ly a the­me that we want to remem­ber.

So I say all that to say that at the end of the day we are mov­ing into a technologically-based soci­ety. And we are mov­ing more and more into a mobile soci­ety. So what com­pa­nies like Cisco Systems are work­ing on right now—and it’s already here but it was new to me—is bring your own device. So you see it in the com­mer­cials where the guy who goes from watch­ing the TV to watch­ing a thing to watch­ing his phone to—. Soon, that’s how you’re going to be oper­at­ing and it’s real­ly just going to be one device that you take around, it becomes your com­put­er and becomes your phone—

Audience 2: Say that more. I don’t get that, bring your own device.

Lazu: So, you know how now you have a lap­top, you have a cell phone, you have a tablet? It’s all going to become a lit­tle small­er than this [holds up iPad] and it’s going to be all in one. And it’s going to be able to do every­thing. So you’ll be able to put it in a dock­ing sta­tion and have it be your com­put­er when you go to work—

Audience 2: Oh, shit.

Lazu: And the rea­son I know a lit­tle bit more about this is because my step­fa­ther is an engi­neer at Cisco. So years and years ago he was telling me about that we’re going to be able to watch each oth­er when we call each oth­er on the phone. And I was like, Whatever, can I just get a pager?” Because that was the tech­nol­o­gy— Like, lit­er­al­ly he was open­ing up the Cisco office in Hawaii and I was like, Whatever. Can I get a pager? Whatever, phone. Whatever.” But now when he talks, I’m like, Tell me more, Bob. Tell me more.”

So does that make sense, Kenny, about bring your own device? It makes every­thing inter­change­able, and it’s going to be a lot eas­ier in that way.

I did a talk at MIT called Technologists are From Mars and Organizers are From Venus”, and the rea­son why I use that metaphor is because the great thing about that book is that it insin­u­ates or it hints at the fact that we do want to find a way to get along. And I think orga­niz­ers and tech­nol­o­gists have a lot more in com­mon than we actu­al­ly real­ize. And if we could find ways to explore what they’re think­ing about and how they’re think­ing about it… But also to help them explore the human con­di­tion in the way we know it as com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers. Things that will be cre­at­ed will be absolute­ly amaz­ing. And it will also allow us to do our work in a much deep­er and still very authen­tic way. Thank you.

Further Reference

A blog post about this presentation at the DS4SI site.

Malia published "Technology Builders are from Mars. Community Builders are from Venus", notes from her talk at the 2010 Future of News and Civic Media Conference at the MIT CoLab Radio blog

danah boyd, "White Flight in Networked Publics? How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement with MySpace and Facebook" (2011); via her papers index


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