Adventures in Digital Justice, Detroit Edition

I’m thrilled to be on the road touring the US Midwest behind Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age and talking to people about digital justice. One of the great things about being on book tour is that I get to spend my off time talking to people who are doing the hard work of creating high-tech equity in communities across the country.

Yesterday, I had the immense pleasure of talking with folks from the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition. The DDJC is a broad, diverse coalition of community-building, environmental justice, economic justice, arts, media, education and youth organizations with a focus on creating vibrant, healthy digital ecologies for Detroit and beyond.

Their work is based on the simple, revolutionary principle that communication is a fundamental human right, and that we need an alternative politics of technology that focuses on achieving technological justice, not just technology access.

I read DDJC’s Vision and Principles a few months ago, was blown away by the sophistication of their thinking and practice around digital justice, and immediately started talking about their work in my talks and lectures. In a world of technology organizing and policy that focuses only on access–i.e., the Digital Divide–and consumer privacy–i.e., ‘Net Neutrality–DDJC is building practices based on participatory design, common ownership, and healthy communities.

By not prioritizing access to IT as the blackbox solution to our community, social and political struggles, they’ve opened up ways to connect technology to the other social justice issues that impact our lives: environment, food and health; labor, economic inequality and community ownership; feminism, gender identity and reproductive justice; civil rights and immigrant justice.

They are probably best known for their DiscoTechs, or DISCovering TECHnology Fairs, community-building events that are simultaneously pop-up technology schools and grassroots leadership development opportunities. DiscoTechs don’t just teach technology, they help develop a shared set of principles, identify and strengthen existing community resources and networks, provide spaces to tell community stories, and challenge public policy that exploits and attacks poor and working communities and communities of color.

Here’s a video recap of their February 2012 DiscoTech at Mt. Elliot Makerspace. The video is by Patrick Geans-Ali and Imad Hassan.

But that’s not all that DDJC does. In fact, DiscoTechs are just a tiny piece of their work. They’re also involved in Detroit Future Media, which provides media training for the economic and community development of Detroit; Detroit Future Schools, which place visiting artists in classrooms across the city; and Detroit Future Youth, which supports youth social justice organizing.

Illustration of a mesh network from Colorlines.com

And there’s still MORE! DDJC has recently been focusing on developing mesh networks, community-owned and powered wireless networks that center around routers on rooftops that act as hubs to facilitate the internet access of their neighbors. More importantly, they make neighborhood INTRAnets possible, which allow neighbors to share important documents and media among themselves. There’s a great description of this amazing work in the Wednesday October 3 issue of Colorlines, from whence I stole the great graphic at left of how mesh networks work.

That’s a whole mountain of social justice! Detroit’s digital future bears some serious watching (and probably even some imitating), if we want to figure out how to create an information age that works for all of us.

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