This article is one of a three-part series sharing lessons learned as we “decolonize tech” in the Global South through the Tech and Society Fellowship.

The phrase ‘decolonizing tech’ has gained popularity in the internet health community over recent years as a rallying cry against extractionist, exploitative practice and for digital activism. ‘Decolonization’ is a loaded concept in application and implication that this article does not unpack in its entirety.

Colonization manifests through an applied imbalance in dynamics of power. Historically and to date this top-down dynamic has erroneously framed those in the global majority as merely recipients of innovation, knowledge and resources and the ‘global north’ as originators of innovation. It removes the agency and legitimacy of those in the global majority who are able to identify the need for innovation in their own context and effectively harness existing skills that are equally nuanced to address these needs.

One result we hope to see from this fellowship program is that it will mitigate both oppression and harm that can exist at the intersection of social justice and digital rights movements.

Amy Raikar and Roselyn Odoyo, Senior Program Officers at Mozilla

In an effort to address these imbalances, Mozilla partnered with Ford Foundation to create the Tech and Society Fellowship. One result we hope to see from this fellowship program is that it will mitigate both oppression and harm that can exist at the intersection of social justice and digital rights movements by bridging the silos between them by centering the narrative of innovation around those who experience harm and resourcing the solutions they generate.

This is the first of three blogs to be published over the next quarter sharing what we’ve learned so far, a year deep in the program. As part of the program technologists are embedded within civil society organizations. In this blog we’ll share our reflections on addressing silos. In the next one, we’ll be reflecting on how we’re understanding - and adapting to - global complexities, and in the last of this specific series, we’ll reflect on learning and sustainability as we look to the future.

Unpacking silos

Reflection 1: Collaborative analyses of gaps and opportunities for the organizations was a necessary first step

Silos facilitate a disconnect between otherwise connected movements and the people who are a part of them. This particular fellowship is focused at the intersection of technology and civil society and exists in part because of the power - and resource - imbalance civil society organizations in the global majority are experiencing. Understanding and addressing these silos was part of the design challenge in developing this program and model.

The first quarter of the fellowship, which launched in September 2020, was spent developing a relationship and synergy between the host organizations and the fellows partnered with them. The collaborative analyses of gaps and opportunities that the fellows developed for the organizations was a necessary first step towards bridging the evident silos and understanding the local realities that the organizations work within. The analyses reflected and surfaced the legislative and socio-political environments that influence the organizations’ work and gave the fellows and the host orgs a map from which to work together.

Reflection 2: Time is needed for ‘translation’

The process of breaking down silos also showed how multiple concepts and language applied in social justice and civil society organizing were unfamiliar to some of the fellows and vice versa. Additional time was needed to help ‘translate’ between fellows and their host organizations for the opportunity of partnership to have the impact intended.

It is exactly for this reason that work engaged by Tarcízio Silva and his host organization Ação Educativa addressing AI bias in Brazil’s education system exemplifies the interlinkages between civil society and technology.

Tarcízio is working with Ação Educativa to understand how civil society organizations respond to digital safety needs and algorithmic harms to minorities in Brazil, in order to produce context-specific knowledge and tools for activists and technologists. Before joining Mozilla, Tarcizio was a research manager and partner at IBPAD, where he also curated online courses on digital methods. Besides that, Tarcizio is a PhD candidate at UFABC, studying algorithmic resistances and responsible for Desvelar, an editorial project to promote Afrodiasporic thought about technology and society.

Reflection 3: A year long fellowship would not have been enough.

This process also surfaced another challenge related to unpacking silos: fellowship duration. While we now anticipate that the impact of the fellowship will likely continue to manifest long after it formally ends, the two-year period allocated for the fellowship illustrates the limitations of the traditional 10-12 month model that we used in past Mozilla-hosted fellowships. In this instance a year wouldn’t have been enough time for the fellows to foster a relationship with the host organizations to adequately take up the roles they have played.

Next up in this series we will reflect on movement and power dynamics in the context of global complexities and this program. We hope you’ll follow along as we continue to share our learning.

To learn more about the tech and society fellows and their work over the last year, see this recent article in SSIR.

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