Digital Activism

On March 19, 2019, the people pictured above along with 50 others, spent five hours in a sun-drenched room at the CUNY Graduate Center in a convening entitled Digital Activism and Community-Youth Development 2.0: Activation, Infrastructure and Resistance. Together we asked: “Will technology inevitably be used for surveillance and control, or for liberation and cooperation?” The technologist and digital media makers gathered for this event make it their life’s work to ensure the latter. Equity and social justice are at the center of their work transforming youth and communities.  

Although this group of adults and young people convened under the banner of “digital activism,” it seemed like part of the collective charge was to delve into what that term meant to all of us.  The words and actions of those in the room created a layered definition as those using digital tools to: activate and amplify youth power (see Amplify for an example of youth-developed tech and data to promote intergenerational policy-making);  educate and empathize (see the use of video games developed by and with youth Global Kids and Dr. Cogburn’s 1000 cut journey); construct technological infrastructure with youth at the helm (see The Digital Stewards at the Red Hook Initiative and The Resilient Communities initiative at New America); and document what is, in the hopes of transforming it into what should be (see the work of Educational Video Center). 

Some programs like The Knowledge House in the Bronx and Silicon Harlem are changing the future of their neighborhoods by providing youth with job training and placement in the digital economy. These programs ensure that young people in the Bronx and Harlem have equitable access to jobs that are building the tech infrastructure and brain-trusts in localities. This type of community-youth development (CYD) work transforms individual youth skills sets and earning potential, while simultaneously improving the community in partnership with the young people living in the neighborhood. This version of CYD, which I will call CYD 2.0, leverages digital spaces while being deeply rooted in place and relationships. CYD 2.0 emphasizes cooperation, solidarity, mutualism, equity and at the same time achieving multiple levels of impact (on individuals, communities, the field of tech and/or CYD). With nods and profound gratitude to the founders in the CYD field (Karen Pittman, Melvin Delgado, Francisco Villarruel, Daniel Perkins among many others), these organizations are pushing our notions of “development” to expand in new ways.

While there are exciting opportunities to hack status quo using digital tools, it became clear during our conversations that there are also threats.  Young people’s data is being used/misused, their digital life being monitored/mined for predictive analytics, scanned for police purposes, their faces “rekognized”, and their genetic material commodified. It seems imperative that adults partner with young people in the next period of time to help protect data bodies (see Our Data Bodies project for a great youth-developed self-defense playbook), net neutrality (see Mozilla’s valiant fight), digital rights (see NYC Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer ), internet health (see Mozilla again), and access (see DeBlasio’s broadband initiative).

In some ways, we surfaced more questions than answers. The connections built in the convening space left us feeling secure in the promise of mutual aid, the thrill of our collective power, and the potential for amplified impact across our projects. Participants left armed with knowledge, a toolkit, and a community of social-justice oriented techies (along with some luddites like myself). The collective takeaway was that we must be ready to step into tomorrow in intergenerational partnership with a commitment to ensuring data justice using participatory methodologies to produce transformative results. Next level CYD.  

Sarah Zeller-Berkman, PhD

Academic Director of Youth Studies Programs, CUNY SPS

Director of the Intergenerational Change Initiative