Grassroots Organizing in a #FlatWorld: Technology Lessons from a Slum in Nairobi

Grassroots Organizing in a #FlatWorld: Technology Lessons from a Slum in Nairobi

If you live in one of the world’s poorest places, you probably do not have running water, raw sewage might flow past your door, and doubtlessly your government ignores you. Yet, you get the same 140 characters on Twitter as Barack Obama.

Last week I drove north from the upscale city center of Nairobi, veered right off the Thika Superhighway onto a dirt road, and suddenly found myself crowded in by shoddy metal shacks, people, and piles of trash. This is Mathare, Nairobi’s second-largest slum, where approximately 1/2 million (the more exact number is uncertain) live in extreme poverty in the middle of one of Africa’s biggest cities. Electricity, garbage pick-up, newspaper delivery, and running water do not reach many of the houses or storefronts in Mathare, but the place does have decent cell phone reception. 3G works and locals are using it. In fact new friends I met there have already tagged me in photos on Facebook.

New technology, namely cheap cell phones and the Internet, are upending local and global power dynamics, not because of the machinery itself, but because of new ways people use it. Yet, look close and you might find that the most innovative uses are coming from the poorest places.

Thirty-one percent of the developing world is online and thousands join Facebook each day. While Silicon Valley pumps out telecommunication technologies at a mind-blowing pace, the poorest and most political oppressed are using the new devices and applications to start revolutions everywhere from city squares to rural villages. In 2010, the humanitarian tech group, Ushahidi, famously crowdsourced maps of damage and aid in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake. The social enterprise, Dimagi, arms women in Zambia with cell phone programs that put the women’s entire medical history in their pocket. The UN uses simple tablets in refugee camps to help residents identify needed resources. Communications innovations are changing the way communities organize in slums, refugee camps, and underserved rural communities around the world. Its organizing and collective action that would make MoveOn.org proud.

I traveled to Nairobi as a student to help present a Google web application at the International Conference for Crisis Mappers. The day before the conference a few of us accompanied some locals who work and/or live in Mathare. Sitting in small circles, local groups Vision Generation, Blessed Youth Group and Sisi Ni Amani outlined their problems and their solutions. As they showed how they recruit people online to help rebuild a road or how they create digital maps of industrial pollution leaks from local knowledge, I was reminded of Ohio. Before entering graduate school, I worked as a grassroots environmental organizer – the kind that lobbies with citizens and flags you down on a street to talk about global warming. Years later in the hot and dimly lit metal shacks of Mathare, the scene felt oddly like so many activists meeting in Ohio during a big US House vote or Florida during the ‘08 elections. Locals in Mathare, humanitarian groups, and the UN use the same organizing strategies and technologies I learned as an organizer in the states — but they are using them in more innovative ways, infused with creative technological applications. The youth groups of Mathare are a perfect example.

As we squeezed single file through makeshift alleyways of Mathare, I talked excitedly with Felix, a boisterous youth group leader with Blessed Youth Groups and Sisi Ni Amani. Felix is a tenacious and charismatic community organizer, who sports a head full of dreadlocks. With animated gestures, Felix explained how his organization uses text messaging to resolve violent tribal conflicts between neighborhoods in the slum. After the infamous 2007 riots during the presidential election, Felix’s group began building a list of local cell phone numbers. Today they use the list to dispel potentially violent rumors: When a building recently caught on fire, the organization sent a message to everyone in the local area to confirm that the event was an accident rather than a motivated attack.

Cheap mass communication through Twitter, text messaging, and other technologies allows individuals to reach and mobilize more people quicker whether a vote is coming up in D.C. or violence is breaking out in the streets. But you have to make sure that the people you message trust you. Any new technology needs to be coupled what we already know about reaching people. Face-to-face, personal connection is essential. Organizers teach this, the increasingly high tech US political parties know this, and Felix is implementing it.

“Your message has to reach people in several ways and from at least one person they already trust,” Felix councils me as he stepped gingerly over a stream of raw sewage steadily flowing through the street. “That’s how to get them to signup for your e-list and make sure they listen when you text them in a few weeks.” This is the exact principle I told myself again and again as I sent emails to members of Environment Colorado from my air-conditioned office in Denver.

The world is becoming flat. As the traditional barriers that separate us disappear, brands are getting bigger, political boundaries are fading, and sweatshops are growing more numerous. For decades, everyone from Thomas Friedman to Naomi Klein has warned that globalization increases corporate control and makes the average person weaker. While this may be true, we also need to focus on a concurrent and equally formidable, boundary-breaking effect: How the expansion of the increasingly participatory Internet and other technology is broadening the common space in which the world interacts. In this new paradigm, social media is reimagined as a democratizing force, but the key to this shift may be in the poorest places. Luckily, it’s easy to tune in, like, chat, and follow what’s going on.