Pulling Back the Curtain on "Tech-xpertism": I Went to a TechFest and All I Got Was…
... a Sense of Empowerment and New Tools to Effect Social Change
Our guest blogger, Katherine Rife, was invited by ZeroDivide to attend TechFest. She is a Media Coordinator for "Healthy Richmond," part of The California Endowment's 10-year Building Healthy Communities (BHC) initiative. As a partner in the BHC initiative, we are working with Katherine and other folks like her across the state to develop and implement technology roadmaps as important tools for achieving BHC goals.
A few weeks ago, I went to my first "TechFest," hosted by Aspiration, a nonprofit based in San Francisco. I had participated in a few Aspiration trainings and had been impressed by their mission to help nonprofits and foundations use software tools more effectively and sustainably. I have to admit, however, that I did have preconceived notions of what a technology festival would look like. I was prepared to jot down a few coding tricks; learn if being "hyper" when it comes to being "connected" was really a good thing; and perhaps come away with a flashy lanyard, proof to show my co-workers that I had been initiated into a tech culture of cool and was now of this century. Instead, Aspiration's "TechFest" exceeded my expectations to the nth degree. It taught me that everyone has the capacity to be tech savvy, not just those donned as "tech-xperts."
From start to finish, there was a buzz of excitement at the 2012 California Nonprofit Technology Festival (funded by the California Consumer Protection Foundation), an indicator of success in my eyes. People were fully engaged and with each other. And, I think the event represents how we can use technology - to bring people together to connect, share and building something. At many conferences that I've attended, folks are easily distracted and skip sessions - this was not the case at this event. I think this success was due to a few important elements:
First, the TechFest encouraged listening. As someone who works in the field of community development, I think listening is a key part of any transformative process. At many conferences that I've attended, the agenda is set in advance and without input from attendees. So, suffice to say, I was thrilled when we started the two-day festival by brainstorming what we wanted to learn in small groups, writing down our thoughts on stickies, and then posting our stickies (all 80 of us) and clustering them into themes on a huge wall for everyone to see. It was a thoughtful and inclusive way to collectively do a needs assessment and set an agenda.
Second, the TechFest had a participatory format. Dialogue was encouraged. I think the event created a lot of space for folks to share their experiences and learn from each other, important conditions for meaningful learning according to a thought-provoking book I'm currently reading called “Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach.” Aspiration acknowledged that everyone in the room had a wealth of knowledge to share and were the most important assets. One of the activities to encourage sharing was a "speed dating"-esque activity where groups of participants rotated from station to station, spending two minutes at each station learning about other participants' work. I had a chance to learn about the innovative work that ArtSpark, for example, is doing and was able to connect with the CEO/Founder, Kristine Maltrud, later on that day to have an illuminating conversation.
Participants were also invited to teach sessions. I attended a session, for example, on "Social Media Metrics," led by Alberto Mercado, who hosted an informative dialogue on how to use different tools to track and measure social media. He shared how Aspiration's publishing matrix helps drive his communications process in Sacramento where is the coordinator for Building Healthy Communities - Sacramento. At another session, I learned how to create a neighborhood map and virtual tour using Google Earth. Overall, the participants were incredibly inspiring, quick-witted and creative, and I wish there was enough room to name all of them here.
Last, the Techfest created a safe space to learn and practice. The facilitators of the event created an open space for folks to ask questions, then learn and practice new skills. And, it was fun! I attended a session, on WordPress led by Aspiration's ingenious Executive Director, Allen "Gunner" Gunn. During the session, a group of us learned the benefits of using a Content Management System (CMS) like WordPress, which is easy to use and open source so it upgrades well and provides other benefits (versus a propriety model that is a "roach motel for data" so that data comes it but doesn't come out). We had a dialogue and then set up our own WordPress sites right then and there. When we had questions, Gunner addressed them with great insight (seriously, this guy deserves a MacArthur award). I learned how to use some plug-ins to incorporate media which was particularly useful and relevant to me since I support communications at a nonprofit and am a filmmaker.
As someone in the field of community development that values community knowledge and empowerment, I found it refreshing that the field of building technology capacity could have these same values. Aspiration and organizations like Zero Divide empower people and communities with the resources and tools to help them effect change using technology. They reinforce that everyone has the opportunity to become knowledgeable about how to use tools of technology, demystifying the idea that you need to be an "expert" to use these tools. Personally, I left the "TechFest" feeling hopeful and part of something bigger. For me, I think the end goal is to create not merely a more technologically advanced society, but first and foremost, a more socially just and equitable one. I do think technology provides valuable tools to help get us there. I feel incredibly grateful to have met a community of people at this year's California Nonprofit Technology Festival that I think would agree.
Katherine Rife is a Program Assistant for Communications & Development at Bay Area Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a nonprofit which works to make neighborhood dreams a reality by working with cities, residents, nonprofit organizations, and key public and private partners to build the capacity of community revitalization efforts (Bay Area LISC is a local office of LISC, a national organization with over 30 offices across the country). She is a documentary filmmaker and is on the board of Bay Area Women in Film & Media. She can be reached at email@example.com.