A Grassroots Praxis of Technology: View from The South
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Grassroots social movements led by Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) in the southeastern United States have survived and fought through centuries of systemic oppression. In the recent age of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs), these movements often turn to popular, centralized technology systems like Facebook or Google Drive for support in accomplishing day-to-day tasks of organizing. Toward organizing their actions, grassroots social movements follow praxis---a combination of theory and practice. At the core of this grassroots praxis is the belief that our social movements must be centered around the people at the margins of a society. Popular centralized ICTs used in these movements, however, are often not made with grassroots praxis in mind. Though grassroots communities may be aware of this conflict, they have few alternatives to choose from. In fact, more value-aligned technical solutions are often more expensive and less inclusive. This poses interesting questions for the field of Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW)---how can we make sure community organizations are critically informed of the ways ICT values can affect their culture? How can we support them as they practice ICTs in ways that center their own values? What does it mean for us to design in solidarity with communities marginalized by hegemonic cultures of technology? In this dissertation, I aim to contribute to these broader questions with findings and analyses from four years of community-centered, participatory action research I have conducted with grassroots social movements of the US South. Specifically, my research has been in collaboration with two grassroots social movement communities of the U.S. South: i) Science for the People-Atlanta, a local grassroots organization that I also helped build, and ii) Southern Movement Assembly, a regional grassroots movement consisting of 110 local organizations located over the U.S. South. I conducted two interview studies, three participatory workshops, and four years of ethnographic work while simultaneously supporting the movements by volunteering my labor as a community organizer. I also designed tools---both physical and digital---with and for these communities. Specifically, I designed a web platform with SftP-Atlanta and a handbook of movement communication with the SMA. Finally, I analyzed this grassroots experience of ICTs in the light of notable theories of social transformation and technology-use---namely, liberatory pedagogy of social action, technocultural theory, and the body of work in CSCW and Social/Critical Informatics theorizing technology as enactment of structures. The tools I created as well as the overall process of my research were evaluated through ongoing reflections within the communities. I show that the consequences of value-conflicts between grassroots organizations and popular ICT culture have significant implications of exclusion and marginalization within these communities---e.g. favoring community members who have the privilege of technology access and ability, which is further related to the racial, gendered, classed privileges held by these people. For grassroots organizations situated in the U.S. South, this perpetuates hegemonic patterns of the past---especially since they end up excluding the same subjugated groups of people who have been historically excluded by systems of power these movements aim to resist. Through my analysis of their lived experiences of existing ICTs, as well as through material explorations of designing new technologies with and for these communities, I offer a critical perspective on technology-use by grassroots social movements. I argue that while popular ICTs largely came as a blessing to these movement communities that are often overburdened with the work of social transformation, relying on popular ICTs also came with a cultural cost. These tools and their surrounding culture of technology play a steady role in excluding the marginalized people in these communities by making invisible the power differentials underneath technical solutions---systemic issues such as lack of technological access/ability get foreshadowed by accounts of progress, efficiency, connectivity, etc. Thus, even in communities that actively question power, relying on ICTs can lead them to default to the values these technical solutions were often produced with. I further show that with adequate grounding and critical infrastructuring we can begin to imagine means of ICT-use that center grassroots praxis---an outcome that I present through my work in the field. Finally, I envision a future of critical technology practice where technology systems are designed, used, and held accountable with the liberatory values of grassroots praxis.