They say politics is personal.
As a junior in high school, I was asked to debate the Iraq War. Specifically, I was tasked with arguing that the Iraq War was justified. At that point, public opinion was overwhelmingly against the war. WMD’s had not been found, and we were a war-weary nation. Furthermore, neither I nor my very liberal teacher who was judging the debate believed the Iraq War was justified. Yet, I won the debate. That moment, and many others in my life, taught me that I’m very good at arguing, whether or not I believe in my argument. But what’s the point in arguing for something if you don’t believe in it? Power? Hubris?
As someone from a privileged background, I have come to realize that too often others don’t have the power to make their point of view heard. Even if they are skilled orators, there are too many barriers in our social and political systems to people creating real change. A former boss of mine, David Mathews, liked to talk about the etymology of the word democracy. In Greek, “democracy” is formed from two words, “demos”, meaning people, and “kracy”, meaning power. DEMOCRACY=PEOPLE POWER (cool, huh?). Instead of trying to make my voice heard, I have tried to devote my life to empowering others, to creating people power.
During my sophomore year at Brown University, I hit a low point. I had serious health problems that forced me to quit the sport I loved and ruined my social life; my brother had one of the worst bi-polar episodes of his life; and the U.S. Marshalls woke me up one morning over winter break looking for my mom’s boyfriend of 2 years, who I found out that day was a conman.
I think you can do two things when that many traumatizing things happen to you in a short period of time. You can get very angry at the people and the world around you, or you can seek understanding. I chose to do the latter. That choice to seek understanding began the process that allowed me to heal, to dig myself out of that hole, and to change my life for the better. And that choice has defined how I see the world.
Another former boss of mine, Hal Saunders, liked to say that, despite our many differences, all humans feel pain. This is one thing we all have in common. When working towards social change we can focus on our (often righteous) anger, or we can seek to understand others across difference. We can seek to work with others who may not be like us to expand the group of people involved in people power.
Flash forward to three years ago. I had recently finished my full-time tenure at the Kettering Foundation, an organization that researches how to “make democracy work as it should;” and I had just moved to Albuquerque, NM to be closer to, my now fiancé, Jinaabah’s family. My time at Kettering helped me clarify these life experiences, and I came away wanting to focus on empowering others to create change and helping people and groups collaborate across silos.
While applying for grad school and working part-time for Kettering, I had the bright idea to teach myself how to code. I did that in three months, and then I built a demo platform for CivNet in the next three months. Granted the demo platform looked like a website out of the 90’s, I used it do some user research, get some initial seed funding, and recruit CivNet’s original development team. In December 2015, we released our beta platform for a local pilot in Albuquerque, NM. Since then, CivNet’s local user base has grown to almost 2,000 people, and those people have used CivNet to organize over 150 community projects ranging from organizing the Bees + Seeds Festival to advocating for Open Primaries in New Mexico.
Already, we have seen users accomplish community change they may not have been able to without CivNet:
“When we posted our project on CivNet and put a call out for volunteers to help organize an event, we had someone step up who came from outside of any of our personal networks. This person turned out to be a powerhouse organizer who helped us pull off a great event.”
“There is an intangible… CivNet feels on some irrational level in tune with the needs of activists.”
“A group of us decided that Albuquerque needed green bike lanes. We used CivNet to create Calls to Action, such as emailing the city councilor who represents Downtown Albuquerque… they are now much safer, as they have buffered bike lanes. MLK was recently repaved and portions of the widened bike lanes there now have green paint!”
In the wake of the recent election, I think CivNet and our approach is more pertinent than ever. Trump was elected by a populist base that rejected the establishment status quo. Activists on the left have a renewed vigor, and many previously inactive people are engaging in politics. People want to disrupt the current power structure and create more people power.
CivNet’s mission is to EMPOWER individuals to make change and to help groups and organizations COLLABORATE across siloes. We believe these problems are two sides of the same coin. If CivNet creates a widely used platform for social change, it will become easy for individuals to see how the actions they take add up to create collective change. If we get enough groups and organizations in the same online space, it will be easy for them to better align their actions, and it will disrupt the incentives they have to keep their constituencies separate.
The problem with the current online ecosystem for civic engagement is that it caters to business models based on the attention economy. There is a notion in the startup world that you need to create addictive, habit forming technology to succeed. Facebook’s newsfeed was game-changing in that it provided users with variable reward. You keep scrolling because it’s like playing roulette; you don’t know what interesting new information is going to come next. Snapchat gives friends fun ways to alter the image of their face including mustaches, space helmets, and wreaths of flowers. Both these technologies cause their users to release enough endorphins that they want to come back again and again, and they invite their friends to adopt the same technology.
But business models predicated on a platform’s ability to get people to pay attention to a customer’s content don’t empower the end user. Furthermore, they often don’t capture what customers are really after; action. Most customers don’t actually care if someone “likes” a post. For example, a recent Wired article talks about General Motors’ efforts to see if Facebook ads actually help them sell OnStar 4G LTE Wi-Fi data plans to drivers. It doesn’t matter if people pay attention to your content if they don’t do anything because of it.
CivNet users say not only what they “like” but what civic actions they are taking and what actions they’re willing to take. In addition, our mission is to EMPOWER people to act, not to ADDICT people to content; and our business model reflects this mission. We provide data analytics to customers that allow them to more effectively work in communities. For example, one of our first customers, a local family foundation is using our data services to help them make strategic decisions about how to work in Albuquerque in a way that supports, rather than crowds out, organic community action.
I and my technical co-founder, Sam, are incredibly excited to join Matter because we believe Matter will help us take CivNet to the next level. We started locally because we felt that local issues are more tangible and less polarized. But change is needed at the state and national levels as well. We think Matter’s focus on design thinking and media-focused approach will help us further refine the CivNet platform and help us empower a much wider audience.