In his March 17 New Republic article, “Our Naive ‘Innovation’ Fetish: Left, right, and center—everyone loves the buzzword of modern America,” Senior Editor Evgeny Morozov explores our collective obsession with innovation and argues that there is a danger in rallying around innovation to the exclusion of other values, such as equity.
Friends, that’s where we step in. In this Era of Innovation, the nonprofit sector can play an important role in ensuring that new technologies are designed and used in socially responsible ways.
Tech policy is about more than the Internet and data. The regulations we make determine our privacy, what information we have access to and how we exercise our voting rights. We young nonprofit professionals are often the default web and social media gurus at our organizations, and that makes us natural advocates for responsible tech policy. Whether you work in outreach, advocacy or organizing, on human rights, education or health, tech policy is relevant to the work you do and the people and causes you serve.
Still, tech policy is a huge field; how do you get started? I suggest bookmarking a news site on tech policy that is relevant to your work, such as The Center for Democracy & Technology for civic engagement, government openness and privacy, THE Journal for K-12 education and CNET for tech in politics. You can also check out TechTank, Brookings’ new blog about improving technology policy.
In my opinion, there are four tech policy issues that should be on every nonprofit professional’s radar because they could greatly impact our work generally as well as the communities with whom we work. These are the issues we should be talking about and advocating for:
1. Net Neutrality
This is the big one. In January, the federal D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the FCC’s Open Internet Order, ruling against net neutrality. “Net neutrality” is the principle upon which the Internet was built. It means a free and open Internet, where all data is treated equally and there is no differential charge or speed by user type, content, site, platform or attached equipment.
In essence, the appeals court ruled that the FCC does not have the authority to enforce common-carrier regulations, like no-blocking and nondiscrimination, because the agency had previously classified Internet service as an “information service” and not a “telecommunications” one — meaning they fall outside the FCC’s purview. It’s a little complicated, but for more easily digestible information about net neutrality, visit The Internet You Need, a project of Media Alliance.
ZeroDivide has applauded FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler for his vocal support of net neutrality and underscored what underserved communities stand to lose if this decision is not reversed. We are confident that with the FCC’s support and ardent advocacy by nonprofits and journalists, we can get net neutrality back. Visit Free Press’ Save the Internet to see how you can take action.
2. Online Privacy
In light of the recent disclosures of widespread NSA surveillance, online privacy has become a critical issue. There are several policies being debated that fall under this broad category: online privacy and data security, mobile phone tracking and warrantless tapping, and of course, NSA reform.
On February 11, a massive, global online/offline protest against mass surveillance dubbed The Day We Fight Back and led by organizations including the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Greenpeace, reached more than 37 million. As you may have heard, Google just announced new encryption standards to foil the NSA’s spying. You can take action and follow the various legislative efforts on the ACLU’s dotRights website.
3. Online Voter Registration
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only 15 states currently offer online voter registration, with another four states having supportive laws on the books that have not yet been implemented. Does your state offer online voter registration? You can use this chart to tell. What’s so great about online registration, you ask? It lowers costs, increases the accuracy of voter rolls, attracts younger voters and, importantly, it allows people to register without the risk of discrimination and voter intimidation that have marred our nation’s recent elections and disenfranchised many low-income voters and voters of color. To learn more, Project Vote has a good primer.
4. E-Rate Reform
Earlier this month, the FCC asked for public comment on its plans to modernize its E-Rate program, one of four Universal Service programs that are designed to ensure all Americans have access to communications services. E-Rate is the program that provides schools and libraries with affordable telecommunications, broadband service and internal network connections. According to a recent survey, 72 percent of American schools have inadequate Internet infrastructure, which means students are missing out on educational opportunities. Any organization that works with schools or libraries should support this reform and consider filing comments, which are due by April 7.
The organization I work for, ZeroDivide, is a mission-driven consulting organization focused on the transformative uses of technology. Tech policy has always been part of our work. We were created as a community technology foundation in 1998 as the result of groundbreaking advocacy work by 134 community organizations during the telecom merger of Pacific Bell and SBC Communications. As the policy issues discussed above loom large above our impact areas, we are looking to deepen our engagement in tech policy over the next year. You can follow our work at our blog, http://www.zerodivide.org/learning/blog.
At a recent board retreat for a social justice foundation, on whose board I serve, we were asked to think about a political event or experience that “awakened” us and caused us to act.
For me there wasn’t just one moment. There was a series, a sequence. I remember as a very young child noticing what I would later come to call injustice. I didn’t have a word for it then, but I do remember the feeling of wrong and a sensation not quite describable, but similar to a chill or shudder through my body. I would literally have a visceral response to injustice. I still do.
While trying to remember my “awakening” and listening to other colleagues describe their life experiences I realized a common theme: many of us when we had this “awakening experience” felt powerless, unsure how to solve the injustice and in some cases unsure how to come to terms with it.
The point of the exercise for me: all of us matter and everyone who wants to see change in the world has to be a part of the solution.
I have always loved the quote “Be the change you want to see in the world.” This quote has been attributed to Ghandi, and I find it a guiding principle, a central value for me.
I find it is often easy to complain about what isn’t going well, not only in my life but in society, politically, globally. Sometimes, if I dwell too much on the negative parts of the world, it feels paralyzing. This is why I have learned that showing up, being a part of the change I want to see, not just complaining, is vitally important, not only for me but for my community.
How do you begin?
When I started my “civic engagement,” I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing. I was working at an organization that educated people on voter engagement, not who to vote for, but the mechanics of voting itself. It suddenly occurred to me that not everyone knew their rights, there was a lot of misinformation about voting in certain communities and that I could make a difference simply by being well informed and sharing my knowledge with others.
From there, I realized that showing up to caucuses, rallies, signing petitions and voting actually did make a difference. I remember when my Congresswoman wrote back to me, I was stunned. That however, encouraged me to speak a little louder the next time.
What are other ways to get involved? Vote, join community groups or nonprofit committees working on issues that are important to you. Door-knock, phone bank. Tell your friends, your colleagues your family what issues matter to you and how they can make a difference. Respectfully listen to others with differing ideas and above all, never give up!
Dania Toscano Miwa is the Managing Principal and co-founder of Toscano Advisors, a three-year old consulting firm specializing in strategy, fundraising, executive recruiting and leadership development for nonprofit organizations.
She has more than ten years of experience working with/for nonprofits as diverse as the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, Greater Minneapolis Crisis Nursery, OTA-Pollen, The Northside Achievement Zone, The International Wolf Center, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Animal Humane Society, the American Indian Cancer Foundation and the Regional Parks Foundation. She is co-author and editor of the Toscano Advisors blog.
Dania is a member of the Boards of Directors of Azul, the Minnesota Zoo’s young professional board and chair of the governance committee, and on the board of the Headwaters Foundation for Justice, where she is the co-chair of the development and outreach committee. She was formerly on the board of directors of her local YNPN chapter from 2009-10.
Many nonprofits are advocates for their communities, but relatively few undertake what is one of the most important advocacy efforts of all: getting out the vote.
Nonprofit VOTE is an organization dedicated to providing support and resources for nonprofit organizations to help the people they serve vote and participate in government. We spoke with George Pillsbury, the Founder and Executive Director of Nonprofit VOTE, about what nonprofit organizations can do to help their constituents register and vote.
Why should nonprofits without a specific policy focus undertake voter engagement?
The people that nonprofits serve are voting at lower rates than the general population, and the issues that your organization cares about are not going to be served unless they’re voting. Politicians are not going to be paying attention to constituencies that don’t vote.
Advocacy on your issue year-round is important, but not encouraging voter turnout sort of undercuts the effectiveness of your advocacy. It’s a question of having clout on your issue and having the ability to mobilize voters.
It’s also another service that nonprofits can provide and it’s essential in helping people become active citizens. Registered voters are much more likely to engage with neighbors, talk to elected officials and be civically engaged in other ways. Nonvoters, on the other hand, are more likely to be disconnected from their communities.
There’s been an alarming trend toward restrictions on voting like ID laws and other policies that make it more difficult to vote. What can nonprofits do to expand access to voting and voting rights?
People sometimes say “Voting’s not important” or “It’s what happens after election day that’s more important.” But what happens after election day is affected by the elections and it’s affected by where people campaign and who politicians believe they’re accountable to.
There are powerful forces that want to shrink the electorate and not have people that are marginalized vote: they want to limit younger voters, low-income voters, newer citizens. We want to expand who votes and not contract it. There’s a special opportunity for nonprofits to reach these populations who are new to the voting process and that have traditionally faced higher barriers. These are people that campaigns by and large don’t reach--more than half of eligible voters are never contacted by a campaign. Nonprofits can be a bridge to those communities because it’s reverse door-knocking for us. They are knocking on our door for services and we naturally have that in-person opportunity to talk to people about voting.
What are some specific actions nonprofits can take in this area?
We have to still encourage people to register and encourage people to vote. We have to encourage positive policies like same-day registration and online voter registration.
In general, the three biggest things you can do to increase voter participation are: 1) Increase election day registration, which has proven to be the most effective. 2) Offer online registration, which engages young voters and 3) Offer early voting. The decision to vote on Tuesday was made in 1848 for the convenience of rural voters who had to travel for a day just to get to the polls! The best voting process is to combine traditional voting on Tuesday with voting before the election.
If nonprofits can help people make sure people are eligible to vote, that’s a high priority. We’ve seen in states that have increased the requirements that nonprofits have responded by helping people get IDs, as well as supporting efforts to have sensible voter ID laws.
Nonprofits should make sure that people know that there’s a registration deadline coming up and that there’s an election happening. Any kind of communication with our communities in the two to three months leading up to the election can be used to raise awareness about the upcoming election.
We're also encouraging organizations to mark their calendars for National Registration Day on September 23. It’s like Earth Day for democracy. It’s a day that we make sure that everyone is registered and has the opportunity to vote. 300,000 people registered to vote last year. We’d like to see 500,000 registered this year!
At the end of the day, the most important thing that’s going to help people vote is personal engagement. Most people are never asked in person about registering to vote or voting. Having that in-person contact--not TV ads, not impersonal robo-calls--but having a peer asking you to participate is most critical.
The Nonprofit VOTE site is full of resources for voter registration and engagement, including making sure your activities are permissible under the 501(c)(3) guidelines. Check out the Nonprofit VOTE resource page for other tips and tools.
YNPN Portland recently collaborated with the Urban League of Portland and several other community partners to host a day of service for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. As part of the event, YNPNers and other members of the community put together personal hygiene, dental care, and school supply kits for children and homeless youth. The event was an effort to reach across boundaries, groups, and neighborhoods to reflect King's vision of the Beloved Community.
This event is just one part of YNPN Portland's efforts to bring social equity to the front and center and make diversity and inclusion a core part of its work. We spoke to YNPN Portland Board Chair Kate Elliott about the event and how their chapter is pursuing "a diverse and powerful social sector" in Portland.
It looks like the MLK Day of Service was a big success! Can you tell us more about the partnership and how it came about?
As a new and growing group, YNPN Portland has made it a priority to meet with other organizations and groups supporting young professionals, especially those associated with social sector organizations. We also want to prioritize being inclusive, so although Urban League Young Professionals doesn't have a nonprofit focus, Urban League is a well-respected civil rights organization and we knew we wanted to be connected to the dynamic young professionals involved with their young professionals group. Once we met, we realized they bring incredible experience and perspective to facilitating dialogue on racism and social justice, and that we had experience planning and hosting professional development events that might help their work to bring those opportunities to their membership. When we found out both groups were planning to do something for MLK Jr. Day of Service, we figured it made sense to start there.
It sounds like the Day of Service was a first step in what will hopefully be many more projects. Is there anything else currently in the pipeline that you're working on?
The MLK Jr. Day of Service project was a great success, and we do hope it is the start of an ongoing partnership between our chapter and the other groups who worked to host the event. We don't have any other events in the works, but we have committed to supporting one another's programs by spreading the word, helping to brainstorm and secure space, presenters, etc. In that regard, although our programs sometimes have different audiences, we know we can share our networks and advice with one another to help each other be successful.
How have the principles of diversity and inclusion been integrated into your other programming and chapter activities?
To be honest, this is still something we struggle with. Our chapter's board and committees are decidedly not a very diverse group, and we're still learning how to make our group one that makes diversity and inclusion intentional. We know that partnering with other organizations simply isn't enough. We need to work to make YNPN Portland a group that makes diversity and inclusion a priority, and that takes time and hard work. We're open to suggestions from other folks from the broader YNPN community who have figured some of this out, and will certainly share our progress as we move forward.
YNPN Portland member Liza Jacobson with the kits
Do you have any strategies or advice for starting conversations around diversity and inclusion? I think many people and organizations in the sector support these principles, but aren't comfortable or sure how to talk about them. Is this something you've encountered and have you gained any insight into how to start these important conversations?
Well, I think the point is that they are often not comfortable conversations, and you have to be OK with that. Working collaboratively in itself is tough, but working collaboratively with people who haven't worked together is even tougher. It isn't easy, so it takes humility and commitment. You have to be willing to be embarrassed, or wrong, question your assumptions and the way you approach things, apologize, call yourself out, call other people out, and all the other less-than-thrilling parts of forging new relationships that are complicated by social diseases like racism & classism. But if you want your group to be representative of the community you have to be willing to put the work in. If you look around and your membership looks, talks and thinks the same, that is because it's designed to be welcoming to those people, and you have to get out of your comfort zone to make being inclusive a reality.
How do you think an organization like YNPN (both at the national and local chapter level) can and should be working to make our sector more diverse?
There are so many things we could be doing. I'm hopeful each local chapter looks at the history and current state of their community and thinks critically about how their chapter fit into some of the social dynamics at play. So many of us work in nonprofit organizations that seek to address looming social problems, and YNPN can be a place where we think about the systemic issues that help, hinder or cause that work to be necessary. For example: how does racism impact the environmental issues your organization works on, or the hunger another YNPN member is trying to alleviate, and the access to education someone else is passionate about?
These are important conversations that a multi-organization network like YNPN is perfectly poised to have. There was a speaker presentation portion of the MLK Jr. Day of Service project, and several speakers offered their thoughts on how historical racial inequities like redlining have played out and continue to have an effect on the Portland we live and work in today. It was so important to have that conversation as part of our day of service, and I am hopeful we'll be able to generate conversations on systemic issues like that through future YNPN programs. That's one thing I think continued partnership could do - help us connect up with the leaders who know those stories and will graciously share them with us to give context to our passion and work. We just have to make sure we're really listening!
Do you have any advice for local chapters and individuals who might be considering starting a project/partnership like this that crosses sectors?
I think I alluded to some of this above, but collaboration is tough work. It means you don't always get your way and have complete control, and that can be a really hard feeling. It can take more time and compromise, but if you're committed to being inclusive you don't get there by planning programs and events with a bunch of people who have the same lived experiences and agree on all but the finest of points. It is important to listen, and offer your time and partnership with true and genuine intentions.
We want to thank Kate for taking the time to talk with us about her chapter's work. And we want to hear from you:
How does your organization or local YNPN chapter make diversity and inclusion part of your work?
"A different world can't be built by indifferent people." This quote from Horace Mann is too true and a great way to kick off this month's content on the YNPN blog.
During the month of March we're going to be talking about civic engagement and how young people who are passionate about social change can actually get down to business and do it.
We'll be highlighting the work of one of our local chapters who's making a conscious effort to be more involved in their community. We'll also be talking to experts in civic engagement and we'll hear from several members about the civic work they do as part of their personal and professional lives.
Most importantly, we want to hear from you!
How are you involved in your communities? Tweet at us and let us know!