Why is it so hard to do nice things, that make a difference, with other people?

Part 1: on the desire to do stuff

I’ve never been to EMF. I assumed I’d be talking to like 50 people tops in a tent about our work which is in many ways in its formative stages. So bear with me. If this goes a bit too fast or a bit too detailed I’ll share a link later where I’ll put all the info on this in a bit more detail.

I run a studio called Geeks for Social Change which I started in about 2015. This came out of a desire to blend together activism, tech and research, so basically by working within groups to make things better, to make truly community-led tech. I’m basically a scrappy activist deeply embedded in feminist, trans, abolitionist, antiracist politics, who couldn’t see myself represented anywhere in tech, and found so called “tech for good” hitting extremely wide of the mark.

As I’ll get into through this talk, I was also very burnt out from this same activism and wanted to do something joyful and fun, to be able to deliver projects with a very “fully automated luxury queer communism” vibe. To get a way from the coalface a lot of activists find themselves stuck in, and find a place to actually start building the world we wanna live in.

This talk is going to go through how I’m feeling about this now, the work we have planned, and (maybe?) how you can take part.

Making as a basis for joy

I imagine almost everyone here uses making, coding, producing, sewing, sculpting, or whatever their creative output is, as a form of coping. Is this true like do people wanna shout out what making activity brings them joy?

It feels like we can’t change the world but we can make some cool doodads. The process of making (or producing) can be therapeutic, keeps us mindful, lets us use our hands, work in non-hierarchical ways, and generally fuck around and find out with low stakes.

This is like, potentially really really deep and at the core of what gives our life meaning. However, we are not really living in a society that allows this joy to be at the forefront of our lives, making it something we have to fit into the cracks.

“We live in a world which is generally disagreeable, where not only people but the established powers have a stake in transmitting sad affects to us. Sadness, sad affects, are all those which reduce our power to act. The established powers need our sadness to make us slaves. The tyrant, the priest, the captors of souls need to persuade us that life is hard and a burden. The powers that be need to repress us no less than to make us anxious … to administer and organize our intimate little fears.” (Deleuze)

D&G talk about desire of production as the basis of our entire being. Desire is an additive process that drives us, be it the desire for a wee, to eat a burger, play with your phone, design a shader on stage, build something out of scaffolding, turn some mercury into gold, or whatever else we’ve seen this weekend.

Doing stuff as an escape from the drudgery

I think the effort that is currently needed to begin and maintain these things that bring us joy is really something that needs attention. Especially given many people have jobs they hate and they do stuff in the evenings or weekend to feel valued. David Graeber for example points out that the more you get paid, the less likely your job is to have value to society. Attempting to do anything has any number of barriers to doing so, and it drastically affects our perception of the world and control over it.

Making is for many our escape from oppressive power structures. From looking at the program it seems almost every talk is not someone’s day job, or they’ve had to jump through hoops to make it so. This is what we do for fun. Isn’t it mad that like our niche interests, the things that bring us joy, and that bring a field of people together, are pushed so far from the margins that we can’t even imaging this being the main thing we do?

Joy in this context doesn’t mean like, the joy you get from going to a party or taking drugs. I’m talking about the satisfaction of setting your mind to a hard problem and fixing it. This is about the stuff that gives life meaning and makes you feel alive, gives you agency over months and years, not days and weeks. Doing good projects that matter can be one of the most rewarding things there is. Anyone whose been part of a big event or group prob has some of this pride about it, it forms part if your identity, changes who you are and how you think.

So in summary: doing and making stuff not just fun but possibly a basic form of interacting with the rest of the universe. Capitalism bad, and gets in the way of this. If you think this sounds like communism, yes you’re probably right.

Part 2: on the difficulties doing the stuff with other people

A completely reasonable desire is then to want to do things with other people. And this is where it gets messy, because people are messy and relationships are hard.

This might be setting up a hack space, form a d&d group or knitting circle, go larping, making a minecraft server, or a weekly meetup at the pub. We could call this apolitical organising (although obviously everything is politicised!)

It could also be trying to mobilise some friends to go to a protest, form a mutual aid group or trans clothes swap, zine fair, putting on a vaguely political film festival, or organising a club night for a minoritised group. We could call this political organising. As you can see there’s really no clear distinction between the two but let’s go with it for now.

While the core of the activities is very different, the actual activity becomes the same: building relationships and literally community organising, for whatever value of community we are working with. In both cases these relationships are usually the ones that give our lives meaning — doing things with like with people we love is the best feeling on earth. In other words: relationship work.

We’re not really taught how to work coopertively at any point in our educational or work systems. Despite the fact it’s more or less way of working between friends and hobby groups, we don’t really learn about different ways of doing consensus or consent, conflict resolution, restorative justice, or a bunch of other stuff that would really help. So it can be tricky because we’re just short of tools and experience and we’re short of other people to help fix things when stuff goes wrong. So just as it can be great it can also suck.

It is this relationship work that is the thing the rest of this talk will really focus on.

Communities of Place and Interest

We all exist within communities of place, and communities of interest. These both deserve a bit of attention.

Communities of place are, basically, where we live. This is our immediate neighbourhood, the things we walk past every day. This used to be the main space for what we would consider “community life” but now to many can feel really alienating. I live in a very mixed inner city area (Hulme in Manchester) and see this as enormously divided by age — the student population keeps itself to itself (not half because of the gigantic fences erected by the university) while older people, especially minoritied ethnic groups, end up living near each other in ways that are invisible to outsiders.

This is self-selecting in itself — postcode at birth is still the single biggest predictor of your life chances and choices — but in the rareified world we live in it feels like this can be the closest thing we have to meeting people outside our self-selecting hobbies.

Communities of Interest are what they sound like. The stuff I talked about in the first section of this paper. The rise of the internet has made these far far easier to do (and sort of shoved out the ones of place for those who are really online).

The interplay between the two can be hard, and is why I think it feels so hard to do stuff right now. We are sort of in a new era where such a large proportion of the population is a bit too online, in ways that are entirely controlled by gigantic oppressive companies, who directly set what behaviours are possible and impossible. This has both increased alienation between the on and offliners, as communities of place all of a sudden seem really difficult.

On some level we are all working in a crossover of the two. The size of the geography expands as the size of our interest gets more niche. So for example it doesn’t make any sense for me to think about trans organising in my ward, there’s just not enough people (ok, where I live specifically there might be but in general not). As a group that is 0.3-0.5% of the population we need to cast a net over wider areas. But if I’m thinking about protecting local parks or meeting neighbours for coffee I’m thinking you know, 200m from my house. And I’m also expecting people outside that radius to not really care where I go for coffee or to a park because they have their own. But these interest-based groups silo fast, and then get more and more niche, and eventually scene drama somehow becomes your life.

And then let’s just not leave it unsaid…

Doing stuff right now, under a Tory government

I hope it is not controversial to say: politics in the UK (and world) fucking sucks right now.

We live in extremely disempowering times. It feels like it’s hard to talk about possibility and change right now as we spend so long struggling to exist: the intersecting cost of living crisis, ongoing pandemic, corrupt and fascist government, social isolation and loneliness crisis, upswing in structural racism and hate crime, and highly coordinated and well funded attacks on trans people are creating an incredibly intolerant environment. Covid has torn apart a lot of the normal functionings of how people go and find communities of place and hyperfocussed the ones of interest.

I think a lot of us, especially those who are perhaps two or more of trans, disabled, of colour, neurodivergent, working class, queer, carers, and other marginalised groups have never been further from representation at the ballot box. This is the rant part of the talk before I get talking about more constructive things. The Labour Party in waiting looks like tory-lite, and on many issues is more right wing than the Tory party. The minority parties never look like serious contenders on any issues and don’t even have any real teeth outside of just “not that guy”, and the mainstream alternatives to that suck too. Join that up with the billionaire press in this country, and yeah. A lot of us simply not only see no representation of ourselves at all, we have almost daily attacks on our rights to exist everywhere we look.

To be clear I really respect people trying to make change in any of these big institutions. I’m just increasingly finding that this whole sorry mess is not something I care about any more, and most of the community organisers I work with locally feel the same. I think it’s time for us to go back to basics and figure out what community means again, as this is very often taken for granted where I live at least.

Injecting big-P politics into our work unfolds in confusing and complex ways. Theres something inherently cringe feeling about doing any politics. I feel like everyone I talk to who does organising feels this hard. We do everything we can to avoid the terms and spend an awful lot of time annoyed at other activists. This talk even I fucking cringed putting together. But hey, I am cringe, but I am free.

People think of activism as protests or being obnoxious on Twitter, and for many that’s the front door, but we simply need to find better and more ways of being able to resist this sorry state of affairs that are inherently joyful, sustainable, inclusive, and can actualy pay people a wage to do. Ways that centre the needs of structurally marginalised groups and take us back to what really matters about all this: enabling collective joy.

On the classed and gendered nature of free time

I was invited here to do a talk under the EDI banner, because this festival isn’t very diverse and realises it wants to try and fix this, and doesn’t represent the UK’s wider population. And there are a lot of structural reasons why this is the case. This is probably for a whole host of reasons, and the idea of it being someone’s “fault” is unhelpful and deffo not a topic for a big stage. I’m going to talk about the more structural issues behind this.

I saw one study which said men have more than five hours leisure time a week than women. A week. That’s a whole hobby. So there’s a side of this “free” labour that is radically classed and gendered, and tied to disposable income and caring responsibilities. Leisure time is therefore something people have highly varying quantities of and is drastically classed, gendered and probably racialised, before we even decide what to do with it.

In 2015, men took, on average, 43 hours of leisure time per week, whereas women took around 38 hours of leisure time. (ONS, 2017, based on 2015 data)


Men enjoy five hours more leisure time per week than women

I think this dynamic by itself results in so much of what we see unfold in terms of group makeup. And a lot of this is because of larger issues to do with the unequal distribution of care labour, unequal pay, etc. But it also ties into a disability activism narrative where if activities are uncritically based around the idea of the normal, normative, able bodied person, who grayson perry calls “default man”, we are just always going to be reproducing the harmful construct we’re within.

Jos Boys talks about this basic tension in a disability studies context:

Why does the idea of disability being creative and avant-garde seem so absurd? Is it because of the taken-for-granted assumptions about disabled people that they are in need of the help of others, are passive consumers of services, constitute a minority of individuals in society who (unfortunately) must bear the brint of their own medical problems? […] What if, instead, we see that rethinking disability enables us to explore critically and creatively assumptions about […] disability and ability, which, in turn, can offer better ways of understanding the […] implications of both bodily diversity and everyday social-spatial practice? (Boys)

Why is this so hard!!!???!!!!!

Anyone whose tried to organise anything can attest to how goddamn thankless most of the time. I think especially for the political spaces a bunch of the following are common experiences I’ve heard over and over:

  • Tried to help out with some activist stuff but everyone was just too busy yelling at each other
  • People on the left are complete dicks and I got in stuff for some stuff I don’t really understand
  • Tried to help out at a community centre but they were just really disorganised and never get back to me

From the side of the groups needing help this can be just as frustrating:

  • People keep coming to us with what they want to do and not asking what we need. The real issues here are complex and layered and don’t suggest simple fixes.
  • We had a volunteer make a website but they didn’t really listen to us and noone knows how to operate it.
  • Volunteers keep coming and promising us the world and then vanishing.

There’s no easy fixes to any of this stuff. Becuase of the vast underfunding of this sector by the Tories, groups can have an awareness they’re putting people off but don’t feel they can make the time to find out why.

A lot of this though is simply because when you step outside comfy setups where people are in heirarchies, or of similar social capital, you start dealing with the actual breakdowns and that can be really jarring. Structural discrimination is very ugly, operates on multiple scales, and the dynamics have existed long before you were born and will continue long after. Putting your toe into it can feel like getting it bitten off. It takes a lot of hard work to do the work of decolonising yourself, unlearning racism, transphobia, classism. It’s meeting people where they are that they have the power and that can feel disconcerting.

That’s where we’re trying to change things.

Part 3: on Community Technology Partnerships

Alright that was a lot and I hope I didn’t go too fast. In the last bit of this talk I’m gonna talk about GFSC’s approach to navigating all this stuff, and how we sort of want to take apart how people think about tech and put it back together again in a way that overcomes these ideas from the ground up. We’re still working through this and are very much at the start of our journey so come talk to us after if you like, I’ll go to the picnic benches opposite the bar after this. We’ve got some little flyers you can take too with our info on.

To recap…

On the surface of it it seems simple: tech and maker types have skills they enjoy using, and community groups have unmet needs that could be helped by these skills. Why then does it feel so incredibly hard to make these collaborations happen in reality?

What we increasingly found trying to do this as GFSC was that the methodologies we have to do this work are just not fit for purpose. Design Thinking and Human Centered Design are two such approaches that proclaim to be liberatory but actually just end up revolving around the idea that what we need is expert white middle class able bodied people on high salaries to come and helicopter in and fix things and then leave. This is the kind of “uber, but for…” model. Uber, but for poverty. Yeah, no.

The Capability Approach

“What are the people of the group … actually able to do and be? (Nussbaum, 1999)

This is a human development approach used by the UN and WHO for their sustainable development goals developed by Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen that asks what people are able to be and do, and works to remove blockers to these concrete actions and states.

This seems like a simple question but is both a concrete ethical test that respects people’s fundamental existence, rather than having choices ‘made for them’ on the basis of external characterisation or assumptions of their abilities, feelings or opinions. By basing our work on this human development approach, rather than something from within product design or the tech industry, we think we’ve found a way to reconfigure this.

Community Technology Partnerships

In other words, people are the best judges of their own personal circumstances and neighbourhood. They therefore are the best placed to fix it. Our approach to codifying this has three stages:

[emma - put this as slide]

  1. direct engagement with and involvement of,
  2. multiple stakeholders in a place-based creative partnership,
  3. actively enabling realisation of self-defined opportunities for individuals and groups. (White & Foale, 2020)

The explicit goal of this approach is therefore to increase collective power to act, to increase the things we can do or be. Have you ever felt like it’s not possible to get stuff done? And then moved to another city or a maker camp like this, or fell in with the right group of people, and suddenly you feel like you can do any number of things? This is what we’re getting at. How do we make places feel full of potential, creativity and joy?

I’ll give a few examples from our work of things that have come out of trying to work this way: by working with various local communities to develop projects.

Example 1: imok

We worked with No Borders Manchester to create a tool for their Signing Support Network. As part of the Tory government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy, people seeking asylum in the UK must regularly ‘sign in’ at one of 14 ‘signing centres’ around the UK. In Manchester, this is Dallas Court Reporting Centre.

This has repeatedly been described by people seeking asylum as the most dehumanising aspect of the whole asylum process. The #AbolishReporting hashtag is widely used on this issue by a variety of groups including Right to Remain and Migrants Organise. Reporting centres tend to be in the middle of nowhere with no seating or shelter for waiting family members or friends provided. On attending, an immigration official asks a range of inane questions that seem designed to waste everyone’s time, but can theoretically impact your case for asylum.

If the government does decide to deport you, then you can be immediately detained from the centre and taken to the airport for extradition often with no recourse to a phonecall or way of notifying next of kin1. This makes the entire process extremely stressful as it can happen at any time with no prior warning. Currently, No Borders Manchester and other groups manually support individuals going in and out of Dallas Court. This is obviously enormously labour intensive and requires a constant on-the-ground presence by volunteers.

imok is a simple bot designed to support people undertaking potentially risky activities. It’s primarily aimed at community groups working together to support these people.

The bot lets users ‘check in’ to the service with a messaging app or SMS message. If users don’t ‘check out’ after 30 minutes (for example), it raises an alarm in a Telegram groupchat that project admins can join.

The partnership here was the existing No Borders coordination. They basically described to us exactly what they needed and we made it to fit in with the tools they already have. We’ve sadly not been able to pilot this yet due to Covid-related politics and some changes in how the government operates but hope to soon. You can download it from our GitHub!

Example 2: Taphouse TV Dinners

So at the start of Covid we were chatting to a community pub we’ve worked closely with about food provision for older people. The landlady got together a group to do delivery, they had an empty kitchen. They didn’t know how to do logistics and signup tho. So they had all the bits but the service design seemed insurmountable.

Screenshot 2022-06-04 at 13.46.18.png

Screenshot 2022-06-04 at 13.50.58.png

We ended up making a database in AirTable, linking this to a simple static site, and got the word out through our existing networks. I made a pretty simple service design and helped them untangle what they needed.

This has now delivered over 5,000 meals for free to residents, without seeing a penny of support from the local council. This is where a small splash of specialist skills makes a project literally possible or not.

Example 3: PlaceCal & The Trans Dimension

PlaceCal is the flagship piece of work our studio has been working on to develop this. We wanted to examine the causes of social isolation and loneliness within neighbourhoods in order to figure out how to combat them.

The parent project we were part of spoke to over 6,000 people in Manchester and divested over £200,000 in funds directly to community groups.

A key finding was that people who were isolated commonly thought “There’s nothing to do in my neighbourhood!”. In communities up and down the country, this has led to social isolation and loneliness for a number of citizens, and therefore a lack of community resilience.

This is a big issue in the UK in particular, where it is estimated that 2 million older people will be lonely and isolated by 2024. Studies show that social isolation and loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking two packets of cigarettes a week.

Despite massive investments of time and money by big institutions such as city councils and health providers into event listings, asset maps and community directories, still no one could find out what was happening in their area.

We continued to work with age friendly partnerships in Hulme and Moss Side (our pilot area, where we are based) to find out why.

We found three big problems

People were not working together.

Every large institution was working on their own community information websites, with different organisations gathering the same data.

This top-down approach of people in large institutions trying to gather information on small community groups was inefficient and missed out large swathes of activities and groups.

It also resulted in duplication, or several low quality results rather than one really good one.

Instead of this we created a new CIC to enable collective, not-for-profit ownership, and a working approach that gets people to work together on a common system.

Current software wasn’t working

Existing community information websites were either maintained on behalf of the groups by institutional staff or required community groups to regularly log in to keep their events updated.

This meant that community groups had to input their information in one site for each provider, in addition to social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, creating an ever-increasing amount of work for a very small amount of publicity.

Our software builds on top of tools that community groups are already using, such as Google Calendar, Outlook 365, and Facebook.

These listings are then converted into super simple, highly accessible and constantly updated listings for each neighbourhood, community group and venue.

Tech skills are very low

Digital exclusion has affected community groups disproportionately, particularly in deprived areas such as Manchester. Groups often don’t have the skills or tools needed to promote themselves effectively.

Staff at many institutions have felt equally left behind by recent innovations.

Most groups in our neighbourhood had never published anything online about their group at all, relying completely on word of mouth and thereby missing out on many opportunities to connect with new and enthusiastic participants.

We therefore made a training program for institutions and community groups alike walks everyone through the process of publishing and updating their information using the software they already have (most commonly Outlook or GSuite).

This worked shockingly well: we found like 250 a events per week in our little ward of like 10,000 people. We put on two big festivals.

The Trans Dimension

[add screenshots]

So I’m probably running out of time now but I’ll give an example of this:

We’re working with Gendered Intelligence, who are the biggest trans charity in the country (probably).

They work in London and don’t want to continue just to grow and grow — they want to make a network of groups across the country.

We therefore helped them to set up a partnership of trans groups in London.

All the groups have been chatted to and we’ve now got this network. And a bunch of groups importing events. We have 26 groups and about 30 events per week. We did a survey before hand that found that in a poll of very online twitter people, the average groups trans people in london knew of was 3. So yeah. We think this will make a diff.

We’re launching this along with PlaceCal in July. And then we’re planning on using this as a gateway to working with groups in other countries that are happy to become this support organisation that onboards their area.

Final thoughts: emergence and complexity

I’m really happy to announce we’ve won lottery funding over the next couple of years to spend working on this concept and approach. So hopefully this is just the start.

This work is really hard to talk about at the moment because we’re trying to create a basis for emergent systems, not deterministic ones, and we are barely off the starting blocks working on it. I’ll end on this quote from Joyful Militancy a friend sent:

“the space beyond fixed and established orders, structures, and morals is not one of disorder: it is the space of emergent orders, values, and forms of life” (bergman & Montgomery, 2017)

How can we disrupt the monopolisation of the internet by the big five tech companies and create our own structures based on mutual support, joy, inclusion and accessibility, that allow us to centre our basic desire as humans to create things?

I have no idea but ask us in a year.

Talk to us!!

Let us know if you want to get involved in this kind of work. We’re working with this national partnership now.

GFSC discord

@gfscstudio insta / twitter

[email protected]

lets have a link like gfsc.studio/emf22

Making a place for technology in communities: PlaceCal and the capabilities approach