UDC2015 Circuits of Struggle Day 3: commoning, digital infrastructures and/for social movements, and white men taking up space

May 4, 2015 § Leave a comment

Social Reproduction and the Emerging Institutions of the Common opened with Fiona Jeffries’ and Pablo Mendez’ work on ‘Domesticating the struggle! Commoning Care in the Global Encampment’. Jeffries, presenting, framed the encampment protest-form recently (re)popularised by Occupy and other Squares movements as a way of making the domestic visible. The encampment challenges the binaries of public/private and personal/political, turning ‘home’ inside out. There’s been a lot of debate about the failure of political encampments, but Jeffries and Mendez argue that their significance lies in the ways in which they showed the necessity of placing social reproduction at the centre of struggle. The home space is where the crisis is experienced, and where people have to address it. Silvia Federici reminds us that home has a double character, both a site of reproduction of relations of domination, and as a site for potential resistance.

Elise Thorburn followed with ‘Communication Technologies and Social Reproduction: Securitized and Autonomous’, discussing the CUTV livestreaming of student strikes in Quebec. She began by noting some of the ways in which digital technologies can be seen as alienating us from our very existence as human beings: the neoliberal fixation on productivity and speed separates us from the solidarity and connections that would help us build resistance. There is a need to liberate our channels of communication (not just digital, but also embodied) from neoliberal control. CUTV made an attempt at this by using high-definition livestreaming equipment during student strikes in an attempt to humanise the protesters, to build audience’s connections with them, and to monitor police violence. For some protesters, livestreamers provide a sense of safety, a space which is at least moderately protected by counter-surveillance. Livestreaming technology is harder to shut down, because of the connection to different networks (including 3G and 4G) and the ability to turn the packs into wireless hotspots. However, livestreamers can also become a target for police violence, and livestreaming can be used by police to watch protesters (we also talked about some of the debates around livestreaming in our research on Occupy Oakland). After a certain point, CUTV made a decision to move away from filming people’s faces, and to avoid filming acts that protesters might be charged with. We need to be prepared to constantly adapt our uses of digital technologies, as repressed forces co-opt them or counter our efforts.

Symon Benetti, #Macao in Assemblea – #tuttisumacao

Enda Brophy ended the session by exploring the Cultural Workers Organize project. He emphasised the need for responses to increasing precarity among cultural workers that consider ways of decommodifying labour and build possibilities for escaping wage relations. The research team has been looking at some of the occupations of theatres, cinemas, and other spaces which began in 2011 (building on a longer history of related occupations). Many of these have become laboratories for horizontal management through open assembly. They also tend to be spaces in which there is a radical openness to the community around them, creating forms of organisation that are expressly articulated around the idea of the common, rejecting the binary of public/private. However, they face serious challenges, including evictions by the state (as has happened to the Cinema America) and the need to find income streams to support participants. The sheer audacity of these initiatives encourages us to aspire to something beyond the binary of ‘good work’ and ‘bad work’, and to look for ways to build institutions of the common.

The next session addressed Social Movements and Digital Technologies. Stephane Couture and Sophie Toupin opened by looking at two case studies in ‘Digital Infrastructures and/for Social Movement’, both of which respond to the increasing commodification and surveillance of the Internet. Stephane discussed the World Free Media Forum (there are also notes on this in my summary of day 1), which has lead to the production of the World Charter of Free Media and journal edition on Free Information and Open Internet. He talked about attempts to use free software in the organising of the Forum (for example, mumbles rather than skype), and to set up spaces for tech activists to share their knowledge with others. However, there are challenges to this work, including the difficulty of working some tools and ideological clashes. The second case study was about feminist servers, broadly defined to include software, hardware, code design, social solidarities, and space (this was also addressed at the FemHack event I went to in Montreal). Feminist servers are a response to violence, bullying, harassment, surveillance, and the corporatisation of the internet. Infrastructure matters, even if by design infrastructure is made to be ignored (we often forget the infrastructure, until it fails). And frequently infrastructure is not designed by people thinking about safety, particularly not from a feminist perspective. As in yesterday‘s presentation from Melissa Meade and Cricket Keating, Sophie emphasised the importance of a “do it together” rather than a DIY ethos. (And perhaps you can also do it together, as the next TransHackFeminist convergence happens in Mexico in July). Both Stephane and Sophie emphasised the difficulty of bringing different communities and struggles together, and the necessity and value of doing this work. There is a need for more spaces and people that do this bridging work.

Elisabetta Ferrari followed with ‘Social Media for the 99%? Rethinking Alternative Media and Social Movements’ Identity in the Corporate Web 2.0’. This research explores some of the changes to the alternative media landscape since the late 1990s. One of the issues for social movements is that corporate platforms like Facebook and Twitter have become vital spaces for making alternative perspectives visible. Elisabetta’s analysis of Occupy Chicago’s use of these platforms produced some surprising results: a very limited proportion of content deals with identity, and mass media content shared with endorsement outweighs the proportion that’s shared with critical commentary. This is in part because OC was making an attempt to develop relationships with mainstream media – putting out press releases, holding press conferences, running media training, and even producing PR guides. The lack of identity material can be seen as a response to the difficulty of defining “who we are” for Occupy: reporting an actions provided a way to balance this by saying “what we do” instead. The lack of identity content can also be seen as a coping mechanism for movements where there is a fundamental disjuncture between a diverse, decentralised movement and accounts on social media that are built around singular identities. It is useful to investigate the relationship between political choices and technological choices: movements benefit from using corporate social media, but at the same time the structures of these media exacerbate existing political tensions in decentralised movements.

Image from @ksurkan

Image from @ksurkan

Finally, Anne-Marie Romanko talked about ‘Pepper Spray, Photoshop, and Protest: The Meme as a Tool for Socio-Political Protest’. Romanko argues that photoshop memes can create opposition to hegemonic forces through powerful political messages, focusing on the image of Lieutenant John Pike pepperspraying protesters at UC Davis. Memes give agency to polyvocal discourse: they allow for the voice of the other to be included in the message. They can act as a way to influence or counter mainstream media discourse, and while some scholars believe images and politics are trivialised through memes, they create dialogue, and humour can be a powerful form of dissent. Memes can connect people who might otherwise have little in common.

Anyone following me on Twitter will have gathered that I found the ‘question’ session on this panel very frustrating. There are useful critiques to be made of question sessions, and of the hierarchical structure of experts and audience. However, the commonly-expressed frustration at “more-a-comment-than-a-question” is based in part on the fact that those making “more a comment” are often the privileged (rather than marginalised people disrupting power hierarchies). I expect a moderate level of “more a comment”s at conferences, and have learned to sigh and bear it, but this panel was particularly remarkable because there were five or six white men in a row who took the opportunity to talk at length about their own ideas, the case studies they thought were relevant, or the arguments they thought should be used to frame these issues. Only one of them appended any pretence at a question mark. I asked a question (and made a note that others hadn’t), and as soon as presenters answered, there were more “comments” from the audience. Frustrated, I nervously tried to speak up and point out what was happening. And then one of the female presenters got thirty seconds into talking about her arguments before another white man interrupted to argue with her.

There are obviously things that individual men could, and should, be doing to avoid this: being aware of the demographics of who speaks and who is interrupted and how they might be contributing to that dynamic is a good start. (Similarly, white women need to be aware of the ways in which our voices are privileged in some spaces.) Continuing on from my previous post on thinking about conferences as technologies which should be approached with the same critical perspective we’re turning on digital technologies, there are also steps that organisers can take to build a better “question session” technology. For example, it might be useful to set out guidelines for moderators that include using a progressive stack to take audience questions, and making it clear whether comments will be accepted (if they are, making this explicit will make space for those who don’t feel confident commenting in a question session).

If we’re going to talk about the ways in which particular digital platforms marginalise or facilitate particular voices, we should also be prepared to think about that in our own spaces.

UDC2015 Circuits of Struggle, Day 1: the World Forum of Free Media, community media in Oaxaca, Activating bodies, State violence, and an early night

May 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

Montserrat Boix, Media, politics and civil rights Tunisia 2015 World Social Forum Casa do Brasil

The first session, with Stéphane Couture, Gretchen King, and Sophie Toupin of McGill University, looked at the World Forum of Free Media (WFFM) and the Charter of Free Media. This discussion touched on some of the issues I’ve felt myself around the World Social Forum, including its institutionalisation. However, the panellists noted that their experience of the 2015 Forum was that there was space (often outside of official scheduling) for important collaborations. Gretchen talked about some of the debates that informed the development of the Charter, and I particularly liked her point that ‘hegemonic’ media is a better term than ‘mainstream’ media: we want alternatives that challenge existing power structures and narratives, and that means that we do want some independent media to become mainstream, in the sense of being broadly accessible and reaching a wide audience. On a related point, both Sophie and Gretchen spoke about the need to create bridges between different communities: hackers, media activists, feminists, queer activists, and others. Often, the cultures within these groups may be different (even when they overlap), but there’s a need to find ways to collaborate (and, as Stephane says, there’s also a need for this to be fun). As the 2016 WSF approaches, there’s a hope that activists in Montreal can work to set up autonomous infrastructures, including mesh networks, that will not only be a resource for the forum but also continue afterwards, and be a space for people to learn how to set these up themselves.

I missed the second panel to go to the #SOSblakAustralia protest at the Australian embassy, although I didn’t manage to find the other protesters. Hopefully they made it there at some point!

Alejandro Linares Garcia, Tequio by Jose Marcos Zenteno Aguayo at the Alebrije Parade of the Museo de Arte Popular, Mexico City

The lunchtime talk, by Loreto Bravo and Peter Bloom, looked at community radio stations and cellphone networks in Oaxaca, Mexico. The growth of indigenous media in Oaxaca comes out of the specific history of the area, and a form of community governance and social reproduction that Floriberto Díaz, Jaime Martínez Luna, and others have called comunalidad. Comunalidad includes a concept of communities linked to specific territories; structures of community governance rooted in traditional law and community assemblies rather than representative politics; community work (tequio) which all community members must contribute to, even if overseas; and festivals that build connections and allow people to build their organising skills.

Loreto talked about the ways in which women have lead community media initiatives since the 2006 protests in Oaxaca, when a group of women took over the mainstream TV station, Channel 9, living inside the station for a month, as well as 12 radio stations. After 2006, many local radio stations have started in the area, with people talking about their own issues in their languages, but the challenge is to provide education in relevant technology-especially free software-to allow them to appropriate it. This means not just how to use computers and mixers, but also how to fix radio transmitters and other hardware problems.

Peter’s talk focused on Rhizomatica‘s work setting up autonomous GSM networks, at first working with people from community radios and extending those networks and then building cellular networks for communities from scratch. Rhizomatica can do this much more cheaply than major cellular providers, at a cost that communities can fund themselves, which also makes it much cheaper to make and receive calls. However, all of this was done illegally at first: only .14% of the spectrum is available to freely use without permission, and Rhizomatica set up community networks before getting permission. Usually, all of the spectrum is sold off to the highest bidder often for billions of dollars). Rhizomatica was lucky in that the Mexican government had a portion of unused spectrum, and gave retrospective permission for it to be used. It’s important to think about how to set up networks that can be defended from attacks by the state or capital: in the case of these cellular networks, there are 19 different networks, one in each community, and they network but would have to be shut down individually. If the government tried it then communities wouldn’t cooperate, and the government would then also need to answer questions about their failure to provide coverage.

There were also some hints at the challenges involved in how these networks are run and might reproduce existing structural inequalities. Hosting communications data (such as records of calls) within the community may allow people to escape external surveillance. However, it can also expose at-risk groups to surveillance within the community: Peter noted that men had asked him, “what if someone calls my wife while I’m out? How will I know?” Loreto also talked about the ways in which women’s work with community radio might strain their financial resources, create problems with childcare, and expose them to the risk of paramilitary attack.

The Women Stayed: the untold story of the Euromaidan

The Women Stayed: the untold story of the Euromaidan

The panel on Activating Bodies In/to Digital Media Networks: Materiality, Narratives and Molotov Cocktails began with Marusya Bociurkiw’s work on feminist involvement in the Euromaidan movement. She talked about the absolute necessity of combining digital research with embodied research (which we’ve also argued for here and here). Marusya said that her initial ideas about the importance of social media in the protests were challenged once she travelled to Ukraine: Facebook and Twitter mattered, but it was the massed bodies on the ground, people’s willingness to face risks for their beliefs, that made the real difference. Her documentary focused on the Women’s Battalion, which started on Facebook but was used to organise actions on the ground.

I liked Laura Forlano’s discussion of the ways in which her diabetes diagnosis prompted her reflections on ‘Hacking the Feminist Body: Media, Materiality and Things’. Laura critiqued the ways in which hacker/maker identities are constructed, and suggested that a feminist hacker ethic would be built on a deeply personal reflective practice. Rather than making sweeping revolutionary calls for openness based on false discourses of meritocracy, feminist hacker ethics would be based on our own hybrid modes of existence. This also needs to create interventions into the capitalist cycle of consumption.

bodywirelessMél Hogan’s ‘Electromagnetic Soup: EMFs, Bodies, and Surveillance’ built on these themes, opening with a discussion of the invisibility of how wireless data transfers and is stored. Cell phones become an extension of our bodies, our brains, and also our privacies, and this is an embodied process: we hold phones carry, them, expose our voices to them, and the hardware we use is produced and discarded in processes which are often tremendously environmentally damaging. This opens up questions of ownership and responsibility that are rarely addressed, including issues about how our bodies might interact with the electromagnetic fields that increasingly surround us.

The final presentation in the panel, from Mary Elizabeth Luka, looked at the CRTC consultation process around ‘Let’s talk TV’ and the ways in which rhetorics of consultation and collaboration are frequently undermined by an emphasis on the ‘citizen-consumer’. There’s an assumption that a more “competitive” television model will automatically benefit consumers, but this is often in opposition to the idea of media as a public good that facilitates (and is facilitated by) citizen engagement.

The final panel, Policing the Populace: Corporate Media, Social Media and the Mobilization of State Violence against Racialized Minorities, is topical at the moment. I’m glad that many of the presenters addressed their own personal standpoints with regard to state violence: it feels surreal, sometimes, for presentations on such deep issues to be presented at such a distance from our lives. I can understand the impulse, though, both for those privileged enough not to be personally affected and for those whose lives are shaped by the threat or actuality of violence, and of course do it myself (since it’s often hard to overcome this academic training in a pretence at ‘objectivity’).

Elsipogtog land defender Annie Clair (centre) is fighting legal charges

Derek Antoine and Miranda J. Brady talked about the media discourses around the Elsipogtog struggle, contrasting mainstream media representations with those from the Halifax media co-op. Mainstream media coverage of Indigenous issues in Canada shifts between a binary of ‘noble or ignoble savages’, with Native peoples positioned as outside of the Western narrative of technology and progress. Struggles like those at Elsipogtog are presented as issues of law and order, or of well-intentioned but naive groups resisting technological progress. In contrast, the Halifax media co-op contextualised this struggle with reference to a history of colonialism, settler violence, broken treaties, and Indigenous resistance, as well as highlighting the processes of organising and deliberation happening around the Elsipogtog protests.

We the protesters

We the protesters

Chenjerai Kumanyika followed with ‘Beyond Techno-Utopianism: The Twitter Activism of @OpFerguson’. He argued that @OpFerguson, as well as being a valuable tool for organising, has also served as a key archive of the Black Lives Matter movement. Kumanyika said that while there are valid concerns around ‘Twitter activism’, these should not centre on whether it displaces on-the-ground work, but rather on the various ways in which capitalist platforms like Twitter and their media ecologies rely on systems of racial inequality and environmentally-unsustainable production and disposal. We also need to remember that while we often think of social media as authentic, what we see is mediated by algorithms and other aspects of the platforms. Nevertheless, @OpFerguson has served important important functions for organisers, providing counter-news information, promoting offline efforts, fundraising, representing and building solidarity, and also playing a role in consolidating leadership. Accounts like @OpFerguson can also help share attention for new waves of organising.

Aziz Douai and Julianne Condon spoke on ‘Police Brutality in the Age of New Media: Online Audiences and the Framing of Police Use of Force against Racial Minorities in Canada’, focusing on the 2013 police shooting of Sammy Yatim. They noted that while the Toronto Sun’s coverage of the shooting was conservative, erasing issues of structural inequality and framing the killing as a law and order issue, a significant proportion of users rejected this narrative in their comments. Instead, readers provided counter-framing, citing issues with systemic racism and police inability to deal with mental health issues.

Finally, Doug Tewksbury spoke on ‘Social Media, Shared Empathy, and Online-Offline Interconnectedness among Ferguson Protesters’. He talked about the ways in which social media can build community, interacting with offline interactions. He drew on Kirsty Robertson’s work on tear gas epiphanies: moments of embodied togetherness and a shared rejection of the disciplinary system (unevenly) imposed on them. (Which for me also suggests moments in which relatively-privileged protesters become aware of state violence that’s a part of others’ everyday experiences.) Social media can bolster the togetherness that comes out of these moments, allowing people to share ideas, knowledge, narratives, and also feelings that are necessary to create movements.

Sadly, I’ve missed the night’s keynote from Astra Taylor – it looks amazing, but 9am-9pm is too many hours of conference for me, so I’ll console myself with reading a little more of her excellent book tonight.

Anarchist and anti-capitalist approaches to feminism

April 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

At the first AdaCamp, I noticed that quite a few participants were talking about a politics of openness, drawing on their experiences of ‘open stuff’ (primarily free and open source software politics), but without necessarily having the background to connect this to other political threads that might be relevant.

This is understandable: not only are a lot of people attending AdaCamp coming from a technical (rather than humanities) background, but even my post-graduate degree in political science frankly did little to connect me to political traditions that felt useful to me, and I’m trying to learn for myself now. People are looking for these traditions, though, and so we need to help each other find them.

Lucy Parsons

Anticapitalist approaches to feminism are vitally important. Capitalism is inherently exploitative. It relies on workers making a profit for others within workplaces in which they often have little control over what they produce or the conditions under which it’s producedand on the unpaid or vastly-underpaid labour of marginalised groups (particularly women, and most especially women of colour). It’s also an economic system which relies on constant and hugely-damaging expansion, which we cannot sustain environmentally.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we should condemn everyone working within the capitalist system: there is no ‘outside’ to capitalism. But we should be thinking carefully about the tactics and strategies that we employ in our feminisms. It’s easy to fall for the rhetoric of leaning in: to push for more women CEOs and other highly-valued positions, and individualistic solutions which require women to work alone to push back against sexism in their workplaces.

Instead, we need to be thinking about how to change or build alternatives to existing structures where we can. Co-ops and other worker-run organisations are one approach. We can also think carefully about payscales (what’s the ratio between the pay of the highest and lowest paid worker at your workplace? and what is it if you include work that’s contracted out?), and about building solidarity between people in different roles within an industry. We should recognise the importance of caring work and other forms of unpaid labour, and build structures which distribute this labour more evenly.

IMG_5294We also need to more consciously build the skills that allow us to organise and cooperate. I’ve been seeing ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness‘ by Jo Freeman mentioned quite often, sometimes with the unspoken assumption that the problems Freeman discusses (which are significant) mean horizontal organising is inevitably doomed. But as Freeman says herself in the closing section of her essay, there are specific steps we can take to ensure that horizontally-organised spaces aren’t structureless.

This requires learning new skills, and often building new cultures. One aspect of John Restakis’ work that I found interesting was his discussion of the difference between places with a culture of cooperative work (like Emilia Romagna in Italy and Mondragon in the Basque region of Spain) and places which have rapidly collectivised in response to crisis (he discusses Argentina in particular). It takes time to learn to be patient with long meetings and to interact with others in good faith to build collaboration rather than competition.

We also need to do more, I think, to recognise and help develop the emotional skills necessary for effective organising, which requires active reflection on the invisible work in our spaces: including people’s efforts to smooth conflict and help others feel valued. Anarchism (and specifically anarchafeminism) is one framework for this that I find useful, because it focuses heavily on processes (rather than end goals). It also offers an alternative to the libertarian* approach with its focus entirely on individual freedom, instead understanding individual autonomy as always being embedded within community.

Anarchist feminists have also been dealing with some of the same issues that have affected women in open stuff: how to deal with harassment or abuse in a supposedly-decentralised, supposedly-liberatory community; how to develop processes of self-governance that don’t reinforce existing oppressions; how to build change within (frequently) male-dominated communities. Drawing on these experiences, and the praxis that has come out of them, can help enrich our approaches.

Hopefully that’s provided a useful 101 for people who wanted a little more information after the AdaCamp Montreal session on this. There are a lot of directions for additional reading and discussion, and I’ve linked to a few of them here: feel free to leave helpful links in the comments also. I also highly recommend checking out the report (and more detailed notes) from the Femhack gathering on autonomous feminist infrastructures, which was on just before AdaCamp.

* I use ‘libertarian’ here in the sense it’s used in the US, and particularly in tech communities, to mean an ideology that’s focused on individual freedoms without challenging the market as the main way of organising distribution of resources. In Europe, ‘libertarian’ (and especially ‘libertarian socialist’) often means something different and more in line with anarchism.

AdaCamp Montreal

April 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

Colour-coded lanyards, by @evablue

Colour-coded lanyards, by @evablue

It’s been a long time since AdaCamp Melbourne, so I was looking forward to seeing how AdaCamp has changed since 2012. AdaCamp Montreal was lovely! It still had the supportive community feel that I’d enjoyed about AdaCamp Melbourne, but running over two days instead of one felt more relaxed, and it’s clear that the experience of running previous AdaCamps is being reflected in the organisational details.

The event started with an induction that laid out diversity and inclusivity policies, including appropriate language and content, accessibility around the space, all genders bathrooms, and name badges with preferred pronouns and colour-and-stripe codes for photography guides. It was also reassuring to see these policies followed up with reminders where necessary. (I’m on the advisory board for the Ada Initiative, but I’m not directly involved in the running of AdaCamps or discussion around them, so all of this was a pleasant discovery.)

Photo by @EvoNeuro

Photo by @EvoNeuro

AdaCamp is an unconference, which means that the sessions that are going to run aren’t fixed ahead of time. I liked the structure for setting up sessions: people proposed talks, briefly explained them, and then organisers put them into the available slots based on how loud the audience response was, consolidating sessions in a few places. Each session also came with role cards (facilitator, gatekeeper, timekeeper, notekeeper) to help them run more smoothly.

Image from edna_million on Flickr

On the first day I started off in a session on zines and independent publishing. Participants came from very different backgrounds: some weren’t sure what a zine was, others had been making and swapping zines in high school, and there were also a few people with experience publishing on other independent platforms. I liked the exploration of the history of zines (apparently in the UK zines were not just a punk/queer/feminist thing but also a really big part of the football fanclub scene?), and discussion of zine-like digital stuff (zines that used to come on diskettes, online zines, zines on USB sticks, podcasts). Recommendations to check out:

  • reveal.js as a tool for creating nifty bundles of digital content,
  • Twine to create and share text-based choose-your-own-adventure-ish games.
  • The pressbooks WordPress plugin.
  • biyuti publishing for buying/publishing work by marginalised authors.
  • Audacity for editing audio files.

Tamika Flynn fanart, by Peppermint Monster

I also went to a session on the gender gap on Wikipedia. One speaker* noted that a lot of the claims made about women (and other marginalised groups, but there’s little data available beyond gender) online are demonstrably not true of online fan communities. For example, claims that, “women don’t have time to participate in Wikipedia”, “women aren’t interested in producing content for the Web”, or even “women think Wikipedia is too trivial and focus on more serious pursuits” are all undermined by the huge participation of women in fan communities. So what’s the difference between fandom and Wikipedia that leads to that reversal? Part of it is that the culture around fandom is so much more encouraging: when you contribute, you usually get a lot of positive feedback and only get negative feedback if you solicit it. So how can we make Wikipedia (or spaces outside of Wikipedia, but contributing to it) more like that?

After lunch, and lightning talks (which I coordinated slightly clumsily, it being my first effort at it), I helped facilitate a shared session on anarchist approaches to feminism, and working collectively/cooperatively in tech (and other ‘open stuff’). There’s a longer, separate post on this for people chasing up further resources, and I’m hoping my co-presenter will also post something about her experience working in a tech workers’ co-op.

‘Dirty Sexist Ad’ by Toban B.

On the second day, I started by going to a talk on fundraising by Mary Gardiner, one of the Ada Initiative co-founders. It’s generally useful to me to know more about how the Ada Initiative approaches fundraising, but I’m also curious about different approaches to sustaining our lives and work. Fundraising has its limits, but so does everything else. There was a lot of good advice from Mary and other participants, but the strongest recurring piece of advice seemed to be: don’t ever do t-shirts. Really, no t-shirts.

The final session I went to was on editing Wikipedia and the Geek Feminism wiki. There were a lot of good ideas for where to start: for Wikipedia, finding stubs can help expand on topics that are already considered ‘notable’ but clearly need work. Countering the bias in Wikipedia can also be done by paying attention to the sources you draw on: where possible, it’s helpful to cite academic (or otherwise reputable sources) by women, people of colour, and people from marginalised groups discussed in articles (for example, an article on trans issues should cite trans authors).

The Geek Feminism wiki also has plenty of stubs, and a handy community portal to help people start contributing. The editorial guidelines are quite different from Wikipedia’s: the site is actively feminism in its perspective and approach (in contrast to the ‘neutral’ point of view Wikipedia attempts to build), and as such allows primary research and anecdotal evidence.

Wall of compliments, by @SVMelton

Wall of compliments, by @SVMelton

These notes are missing a lot: the detailed discussion in sessions, conversations I had over lunch, new things I’m thinking and planning, processes that worked well and that I’ll end up re-using. There were so many interesting and important sessions I didn’t get a chance to check out, including the Cryptoparty and the session on dealing with online harassment. I’m sure there’ll be plenty more notes and blog posts (and perhaps a section on the Geek Feminism wiki) around the place over coming days, happily.

For those looking for more information, check out the #AdaCamp hashtag on Twitter. There’ll also be a report coming out from the Ada Initiative in a while.

Report from the Autonomous Infrastructures As Feminist Practices gathering

April 14, 2015 § Leave a comment

I won’t share extensive notes here about the Femhack gathering on Autonomous Infrastructures as Feminist Practices, because I contributed to the more detailed piratepad notes. You can also read a shorter report on the gathering on the Femhack wiki.

It was an interesting event which drew some important connections between feminist hacking practices, anti-capitalism, and different conceptions of infrastructure, so I highly recommend checking out the notes.

On (re)reading bell hooks

March 18, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’ve been trying, lately, to fill the terrible holes in my knowledge that were left by my degree. I studied political science and international relations at a pretty conservative department. This has given me a strong grounding in stuff like, ‘classical liberal thinkers who happen to be mostly white men (and Mary Wollestonecraft for ‘diversity’) who I find deeply unsatisfying’, and a very poor grounding in more radical theories.

I’ve been reading bell hooks, and Sandra Harding, and anarchafeminist authors, and trying to find theories and frameworks that both mesh with my experiences of the world and challenge me to think more deeply about structures of oppression, and possibilities for liberation.

The problem is, I’m still reading within the framework I’ve been trained in. I was reading bell hooks’ Where we stand: class matters, and taking notes for a paper I’m working on. Then I realised there was a pattern to my note-taking. I was marking, for example, passages like this:

From the onset, there has been a struggle within feminist movement between the reformist model of liberation, which basically demands equal rights for women within the existing class struggle, and more radical and/or revolutionary models, which call for fundamental change in the existing structure so that models of mutuality and equality can replace old paradigms. (101)

Passages that are abstract and theoretical, that I can take and apply neatly to the writing I’m currently doing, bolstering the argument I want to make about the need for something beyond liberal feminism.

At the same time, I caught myself skimming over hooks’ descriptions of her own experiences as a Black woman within the feminist movement. I skipped over her descriptions of having white women talk over her in women’s studies classes or feminist spaces, being patronised, and being shouted over during discussions. I took the parts of her argument that felt like they fit (the need to talk about class, the need to mention race at least in passing, the need to call for more revolutionary forms of feminism) and discarded the parts that didn’t seem relevant (most importantly, hooks’ centering of her experiences as a Black woman as a grounding for her theory).

This is just what I was taught to do at university: to discard the personal in favour of abstract theory, and in particular to marginalise the perspectives of women and people of colour. Of course, this was never done overtly: we would take about race and class, but then get back to reading the works of white men who wrote ‘objectively’, as if their own experiences were irrelevant (and, at the same time, universal).

At times, this tendency towards taking parts of a theory while discarding others has been a form of resistance. In a space where most of the theoretical frameworks I was provided with felt terribly broken, I learned to cobble together the bits and pieces that seemed least broken to try to make something I could live with and use. That strategy has been important to me in the past, and will continue to be when I’m dealing with theory built on the experiences of privileged people. But it’s a form of erasure when it means sidelining racism and other forms of oppression I don’t experience.

It will take work to undo this. It will take work to find theorists who shift me in new directions. It will take work to notice, and undo, habits of reading and writing and research that reinforce the status quo. I’m noticing, more, how often white feminist academic and activist writing seems to mention intersectionality without acknowleding the foundational work by Kimberlé Crenshaw, bell hooks, the Combahee River Collective. I’m noting how often white feminists talk about ‘intersectionality’ while continuing to centre the experiences of white, middle-class (or elite) women, sometimes not even mentioning race at all. I am noticing more the ways in which I do this myself.

I am, of course, not the only person noticing these issues. Bell hooks’ writing makes it very clear that she has been seeing this process of erasure for decades; Sirma Bilge has published on the depoliticization of intersectionality; Black, Afroindigenous and women of colour have challenged the ways their theorising and organising are attacked online; and frankly I am probably missing a whole bunch of excellent writing on this topic because I am still working to find it.

This process of realisation I’m going through has happened in large part because of social media. I’m learning from the frequently-unwaged labour referred to in #thistweetcalledmyback, work by women of colour who engage in debates that are often incredibly wearing and destructive for them. And, in writing about this here, I’m hoping to make a small contribution to other people’s (particularly white, university-educated people’s) process of learning also: to notice our research processes, to do better, to try to centre experiences beyond our own.

Our collaborative feminist organisations should be critical of capitalism or they will probably be bullshit

February 9, 2015 § 5 Comments

This is a response, kind of, to Amelia Greenhall’s excellent post on Starting your own b(r)and, an incredibly detailed and useful outline of Greenhall’s experience working with Model View Culture. This isn’t meant to be a critique. Greenhall has been generous in sharing her knowledge, and I mostly just want to expand on the first couple of thoughts I had in response:


I’m writing these thoughts not as an expert, but as someone who is still trying to think more and learn more about what it might mean to be a feminist, how to be an effective activist, and how to build alternatives to the very broken system that is currently available to us.

As the title of this post suggests, I’m drawing very tentatively on the important work of women, particularly Flavia Dzodan, in expanding the discussion of intersectionality. Intersectionality, originally developed in parallel by Black feminists Kimberlé Crenshaw and the Combahee River Collective, is a term that’s increasingly used in different feminist communities to discuss the ways in which different forms of oppression overlap.

Dzodan is one of the many writers who are emphasising the role that capitalism plays in these intersecting forms of oppression. In particular it’s useful to read her critique of choice, neoliberal, and libertarian feminism, in which she writes about the problems with seeing a form of feminism which sits easily with capitalism as the default. She argues that this,

“has also led to a sense of “amplified agency”. We are told to “maximize our freedom”, we should “brand ourselves better”, we should “choose our choices” and demand a better distribution of the resources. In the process, we are left with a feminism that imposes on us the moral task of maximizing our own value. This is a feminism of the individual with an inflated sense of the self that is devoted to the creation and administration of individual business opportunities in detriment of systemic change or, at the very least, in detriment of an analytical approach that examines our individual relations as part of a whole and our interactions and participation in a system of inequalities we cannot escape.”

I don’t think that Greenhall’s post neglects the idea of solidarity, or talks only about individual benefits; for example, she writes carefully and thoughtfully about how to ensure that authors are properly paid and retain control of their work.

But I do think that the section on ‘What kind of corporation should you become?’ needs deeper examination. Greenhall opens by noting that, “The first question many people ask is: should I be a for-profit or a non-profit?” As she points out, there are a lot of problems with the non-profit format, including the ways that the need for funding can distort an organisation’s work (outlined in more detail by Sue Gardner). Greenhall cautions that, “You can choose to focus all your energy on selling one thing – a thing that is good, for a profit – and still be a feminist.”

There are two issues I want to raise here. Firstly, like Dzodan, I think it’s important to question what it means to accept that feminism can sit easily within capitalism and to assume that we can focus on simply running companies that sell a ‘good product’ (feminist content). We accept a particular model of workplace in which there are bosses and workers, in which some people control the company and others work for it. We accept that we can fulfill our personal goals through making and selling good products. We accept that we can work against gender inequality (and for diversity in other more nebulous senses) without working against the capitalist system. But capitalism requires inequality and always will. It is build on the unpaid or vastly-underpaid labour of social reproduction, which is usually relegated to women and people of colour.

Secondly, I want to question the idea that our only choice of organisational forms is between for-profit and non-profit models. Both of these, especially in the context of formal US incorporation, are built on the same hierarchical model. They both assume that for an organisation to function properly, there must a division between those who control the direction and those who are merely workers. The non-profit sector doesn’t offer alternative models for organisation, and in many cases it merely means an intensification of the exploitation that workers face.

We need to, at the very least, be considering options beyond the for-profit/non-profit divide. We need to be thinking about organisational forms that create real challenges to the current capitalist system, including cooperatives and collectives. These forms have their own contradictions and problems, but we can learn from them and build on them. There’s a bunch of good writing on this, from the vast body of work on areas with a long history of collectives (including Mondragon and Reggio Emilio); more recent work on how workers in Argentina reclaimed their workplaces; activist zines on feminist collectives; writing reflecting on the experiences of current workers’ cooperatives; and histories of the collective movement in different places (including Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, which I just found out about and really want to read).

This is not to say that I think it’s somehow inexcusable or fundamentally unfeminist to end up deciding to run a for-profit or non-profit organisation. We all make our own uneasy compromises with the system, myself included. In many cases it may not be viable to attempt radical new forms of organisation. But at the very least we need to be thinking carefully about how feminism and capitalism relate to each other, and what the alternatives might be. We should be careful about restricting our vision to a set of possibilities that all exist within the system as it is, and instead be at the very least considering organisational forms that offer us hopes of a more fundamental restructuring of the world.

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