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Envisioning a Decolonised Digital Rights Field – and Charting Next Steps

This week, a group of 30 participants, working on issues of racial, social and economic justice, digital rights, and in philanthropy, came together to not only collectively imagine just that, but also to identify the building blocks for a process that might help us get there.

By Digital Freedom Fund and EDRi (guest author) · December 7, 2020

How do we create change? Numerous books, essays and TED talks have been dedicated to this question, and courses have been designed to equip us to change policy, workplace environments, and numerous other contexts.

A crucial ingredient seems to be having a vision of what that change should look like: what is the point on the horizon to set your compass towards?

This “ability to dream” and collectively envision a different future has also been a key question since DFF and EDRi started an initiative to set in motion a decolonising process for the digital rights field.

If together we had built a digital rights field in which all groups in society have their voices heard and which works to protect the digital rights of all, what would that look like? And what could such a decolonised field achieve?

Last week, a group of 30 participants, working on issues of racial, social and economic justice, digital rights, and in philanthropy, came together to not only collectively imagine just that, but also to identify the building blocks for a process that might help us get there.

The gathering followed a series of conversations that commenced in March this year, where we started by speaking to organisations, collectives, activists, and others currently outside the digital rights field to understand how they engage with digital rights issues.

From the summer, we initiated similar conversations with digital rights organisations and funders, to learn more about the way in which they engaged with the digital rights of marginalised groups, such as people of colour, LGBTQI people, disabled people, or refugees.

“Blue sky visions” are not easy: we are used to seeing obstacles and challenges in the work we do. Stepping away from that to imagine something positive, without practical constraints is hard. It is especially hard in an online setting, even more so towards the end of a challenging year in which we’ve all had a few video calls too many.

However, with the positive energy present in the virtual room (nurtured by the excellent facilitation from The Hum), the group managed to step away from current constraints and imagine the headlines that would dominate the news in 2040.

…the group managed to step away from current constraints and imagine the headlines that would dominate the news in 2040

The future looked bright: it was one in which visitors to the Silicon Valley Mausoleum could hardly imagine a past in which tech oligarchy had been the norm; digital rights, anti-racist, social justice, and climate movements were intertwined and working together; and we had shifted power structures from a system of capitalism to community. Social problems were addressed at the root and central to the field’s efforts, which were supported with ample resources. Other common themes were learning and commemoration, acknowledging that oppression has its roots in a history of domination and colonisation.

So how can we get to this  collectively imagined future? In the course of the following sessions, we took a closer look at parts of his question.

What are the building blocks for developing a decolonising programme for the digital rights field? What would the shared principles of such a collective effort be – to ensure participation, ownership and engagement in safety and collaboration? What do we need to do before starting this work, what do we need to map, research, know? What are the potential obstacles we might encounter and how can we address them? And: which other fields or factors should be ignited to undertake decolonising processes of their own?

What would the shared principles of such a collective effort be – to ensure participation, ownership and engagement in safety and collaboration?

Conversations on what should be part of the “design phase” – the stage in which we collectively design a decolonising programme for the digital rights field (see illustration below) – were incredibly rich, yielding many practical suggestions as well as deeper questions for further reflection.

Our next task is now to harness the image of the design phase that has emerged from this week’s gathering, the over 50 individual conversations we had over the past months, as well as learnings from other decolonising processes. This includes taking into account some of the deeper questions to reflect on and other preparation needed before starting with this next phase of the work.

We operate in a difficult and adverse context where power imbalances and inequalities are growing. We will not get there alone.

We operate in a difficult and adverse context where power imbalances and inequalities are growing. We will not get there alone. Social change is hard work. But this gathering has left us energised and even more motivated to work towards our collective vision.

We are deeply grateful to everyone who made the time at the end of a challenging year to engage with us and each other on these challenging questions in such a kind and open manner. We are especially grateful to those whose personal identity is at the center of this conversation, considering the energy it requires.

(Contribution by Nani Jansen Reventlow, Director of the Digital Freedom Fund, and Claire Fernandez, Executive Director of EDRi)

The article was first published on DFF.