2016.11.23

Making Space for Notes: The Newsletter

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The research for Making Space for Democracy is taking a whole lot more time than I even expected (and I expected a lot of research). So instead of publishing half-researched thoughts here, I have created a newsletter to document the unfinished research that I’ve done while I write. It also previews a lot of the branches, offshoots, and side considerations of MSfD’s project to create a civics of love and joy.

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Sign up if you’re interested in keeping up with the research.

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2016.11.14

Building A More Holistic View of Sustainable

Post-Trump Edition

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(Note: This essay is adapted from a talk I gave for World Usability Day DC on November 10, 2016 at Gannett. The original version of this talk was prepared for Sustainable UX 2016 in February.)

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I had a talk prepared. It did not require any of these.

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Content Warning

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I did not have to tell you that my talk might include discussion of sexist harassment, racism, or immigrant intimidation. I did not have to tell you that I will have no graphic images, and I will blank the screen when it is time. I did not have to tell you it is completely okay to leave if you are not in a good mental state right now.

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I did not have to tell you that it is very likely that I will start crying half way through.

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No, the talk I had prepared started with a simple question.

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What is within the scope of UX? And what is the designer’s role in fighting climate change?

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I was going to tell you how I would deconstruct three examples in tech to get to this question:

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What is sustainability?

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I would tell you to think of this as moving through the socioeconomic, cultural, and regulatory stack that lets us do our work as technologists.

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It would have talked about how our phones and iPads and fitbits contribute to slavery in Congo and toxic lakes in Mongolia.

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Racism trumps class. Even middle income African Americans are more likely to live in more polluted neighborhoods.

Dr. Robert Bullard
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I would talk about how even recycling centers—the most championed tool of environmental responsibility in the US—contribute to marginalizing Black communities.

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Those with power put the ugly parts of our world out of sight so they stay out of mind because their wealth depends on our ignorance and our apathy.

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And how power keeps us ignorant to make us complicit.

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The real problem with cars is not that they don’t get enough miles per gallon; it’s that they make it too easy for people to spread out, encouraging forms of development that are inherently wasteful and damaging.

David Owen, Green Metropolis
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I would have talked about how Tesla fails to fix the environmental disaster of suburban sprawl.

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The key is not to make human industries and systems smaller, as efficiency advocates propound, but to design them to get bigger and better in a way that replenishes, restores, and nourishes the rest of the world.

William McDonough & Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle
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But I had inspirational quotations to make us feel hopeful.

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Green America promotes social and environmental justice through economic action.

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I would have talked about how I used to work here but how most projects from major environmental orgs are made for rich white folks…

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The language of sustainability—as commonly practiced—is in the language of affluence.

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…while completely ignoring the marginalized groups most affected by climate change.

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Designer is just a fancy word for “creators of solutions to problems”.

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I would have had more fancy quotable lines to make us all feel good about what we do.

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We must understand cultural contexts of our work and the systems we work in and perpetuate, intentionally or otherwise.

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Even if some of the ways we do it are problematic and need some work. And that would have been 9 minutes 47 seconds.

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We design for the problems we know.

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I would have then spent 11 minutes 24 seconds on how this happened and how to fix it. and if you’re quick at math you would notice I was going to go a few seconds over 20 minutes because this is supposed to be a 38 minute talk. So sorry for breaking the rules in a parallel universe.

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You all would have been inspired and applauded. Which would have been great for me since I am an introvert who doesn’t like bothering people so one of you might have come up to me and we could talk about social justice and the environment and made a new friendship and i’d be know as the optimistic content strategist with a penchant for social justice, which is a pretty good brand if you’re looking for a job.

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[trashfire]

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But then Tuesday happened.

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Which is terrible for me because now you get the angry queer climate justice witch of color with a content strategy habit. And when you are an angry [blank] of color. White people automatically see visions of race riots in their head. Not very hirable.

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You see, when Tuesday happened—one of the things I immediately saw was this.

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3℃

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Because on November 8, 25% of the US population likely condemned the entire world to at least a 3 degree inrease in global surface temperature because without federal movement, no amount of server efficiences, electri cars, or behavior shaping design will ever offset the amount fossil fuel drilling or community destroying policies of Donald Trump’s energy agenda.

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So I asked myself. What went wrong? In a world where 3℃ is likely an inevitability, what can we as designers do? Are there any possible paths out of this?

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What. Went. Wrong?

Screenshot of Washington Post article Facebook has repeatedly trended fake news since firing its human editors
Facebook has repeatedly trended fake news since firing its human editors from the Washington Post, October 12, 2016
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Oh no.

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You see, when I saw these pieces on how Facebook’s Trending news was pushing outright lies into people’s news feeds, I was reminded of this research

Screenshot of article When Corrections Fail: the persistence of political misperceptions
When Corrections Fail: the persistence of political misperceptions
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There is a wealth of research that says the first thing we read on a subject is set in our minds as true by default, especially when it matches our worldview. And evidence to the contrary has a “boomerang effect” that reinforces false beliefs. So when you have a content algorithm that reinforces the echo chamber and outright lies (and no corrections), you create a civic dialog space that is constantly filled with falsehoods during a contentions election year.

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Because when I see these political lies on facebook and connect them to 3℃, I see New Orleans still rebuilding.

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I remember white environmentalists in the largest nonprofits telling me that it is too hard to partner with environmental groups from marginalized communities. That creating programs to galvanize those with the most at stake in the fight for climate justice is not financially sustainable.

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I remember friends who worked on Obama’s campaign who are now unable to vote because they have been doxxed in the last few years and voter rolls are public records. I see Trump saying that climate change is a hoax perpetuated by China as the lede but the fact check doesn’t happen until paragraphs later.

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I see xenophobic attacks of my Muslim friends. I see Facebook comments full of white men saying there is no sexism in this election and telling women to eat a bag of dicks in the same sentence. I see that there were at least four trans suicides in 24 hours after Trump won. I see Twitter full of people with chronic illnesses worrying about medical care.

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I remember getting on a bus to go speak on social justice and a man yells “Go back to China!” and none of the white people defending me. I see news of people stalking gay bars an attacking men as the exit. I see stories of husbands holding women’s children hostage for Trump votes on a private Facebook group.

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I hear the news of an education secretary who doesn’t believe fossils exist. Black children drinking lead tainted water. The Marshall Islands sinking below the sea. The Dakota Access protestors being treated like animals and their connection to the outside world jammed. I see white men writing articles about how we must come together while my family is bleeding.

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Sustainability must care for every community. Not just the communities that can afford it.

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In creating tools that lower barriers to entry and emphasize engagement, we have created tools that empower the loudest voices, not the ones we need to hear most.

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Wherever there is an injustice and wherever people are exploited, the ecosystem as a whole will collapse.

Sarra Tekola
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We have expanded access, but not democratized it. The most marginalized communities are the ones who are hurt most by climate change and et we technologists are building nothing to help them even as we fawn over self-driving electric cars and solar panel roof tiles.

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This is a problem. We need to fix it. Here’s how:

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Hire for inclusion

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First. Is a large portion of your team monochromatic? Mostly men? Figure out why. Are you queer friendly? Are you family-friendly? We’re UXers, if we can’t even come up with a decently diverse sample size in our hiring pool, how the hell are we going to come up with one in our user research?

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Empower people to speak up

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Second. Finding people with experiences outside your own is only the first part: then you’ve got to empower them to dissent and make change.

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i know there are fantastic people on Facebook’s content strategy team, so why the fuck was noone on that team empowered to say say “this product decision will spread lies and hurt people”.

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Make space to listen

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Third. If inclusion is not built into your product from the beginning, it’s going to be very hard to tack it on in the future. Make space for marginalized groups at the start. Inclusion is not an add on feature, it needs to be core functionality.

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Especially in climate justice. communities of color aren’t only the most impacted, they are the ones who care most and are more likely to do climate justice work in their communities that whites are. it’s that white groups don’t bother to listen.

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Make space for democracy

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When I look at what happened tuesday. all the ignorance, all the hate, all the lies, the racism. I know our initial inclination is to say the mob won. democracy has failed.

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Fight that urge. What we need is more democracy, not less.

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We call the vote the epitome of democracy. What if it isn’t. What if it’s only the cornerstone?

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Since we’re here at the largest newspaper publisher in the US, I want to ask, what if the role of journalism in America was not just to inform, but to connect?

screenshot of the Talk To Taiwan Facebook page
Talk To Taiwan is a new form of policy journalism that exists as a parternship between scholars, policymakers, journalists, and the public.
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This is a media org called Talk To Taiwan.

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But they don’t just use the comments section on the video: they set up a system where a viewer can ask questions and everyone else can answer agree, disagree, pass. Through this they have been able to build citizen coalitions and mandates for national policy, live.

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This is not merely journalism to voice the opinions of political leaders, this is journalism as a bridge for creating citizen-informed policy. They are creating spaces for entirely new forms of democratic participation where everyone has a voice and is able to contribute substantively.

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So to come back to the US, the majority of Americans care about sustainability and climate change, yet have few avenues to affect either government nor corporate policy. what if we created space for them to start talking to us? and have their voices lend weight to the governance of our work?

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What if instead of all policy made only through legislation, we had processes for everyone to give their input and let that shape what we wanted out of our laws?

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Design is no longer about designing the thing, you design the conditions for the thing to emerge–the conversation.

Indy Johar, Democratizing Cities
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What if journalism was about creating spaces for communities to work with their policymakers. What if we could raise the voices of the Dakota Access protestors and other marginalized communities up to the same level as the oil lobbyist. Not just about hearing opinions to vote on transportation or school referenda, but actually participate and shape the policies being made.

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We would create new spaces for collaboration to build new partnerships between journalists, lawmakers, and community members. spaces where people are not just yelling at each other, but understanding one another to come to consensus.

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And this is not just a technologists’ dream. Taiwan does this to create binding policy from local neighborhood planning to national corporate tax policy and regulation for car-sharing services and national health care.

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This is hard work

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If sustainability work is to succeed, we need to look at the whole system. It’s not just shaping individual behavior, it also about the behavior of our community, and the entire social system. we need to make space for marginalized voices to speak up and teach us. And it has to all happen together because they’re so deeply interrelated.

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We are the designers of this world.

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We are the people who are literally reshaping society and the physical world to our vision. And that is tremendous power and a tremendous privilege. And with that privilege comes tremendous responsibility.

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The first duty of those with privilege is to listen and to understand the issues of those without. The second is to make space for others and confront how the tools that power our own privileges shackle us to its structure to perpetuate itself.

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We all have privileges and we all have disadvantages. Our unique set of each shapes our particular worldview, knowledge, and ignorances. They are like sets of lenses that shape how we see the world, how we see ourselves, and how the world sees us.

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Privilege is invisible to those who have it.

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And this is hard, right? Privilege is as much about what we see as what we don’t because we assume certain things as default. So we must use our disadvantages to understand how our privileges make us unaware of the disadvantages of others, empathize, and use our privileges to raise the voices of those without.

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The global economy has tied all of us to distant lives. Our simplest decisions as consumers affect the living standard of people in distant nations who are involved in the production of products we use. Our daily lives put pressure on the global environment. It is irresponsible to bury our head in the sand, ignoring the many ways in which we influence, every day, the lives of distant people.

Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit
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As people working in design and tech, our work is impossible without worlds of knowledge and production to support us.

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It is easy to feel that we are the center of the world.

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And it is easy to assume the world we live in is how the world works for everyone and how the world should be.

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But that is an illusion. Most of you enjoy privileges of infrastructure that makes basic necessities background considerations. And in many ways we live in a world that is being designed and built specifically for our wants and whims. We are the ones who are designing the things that shape the world, and we’re doing it for ourselves because that’s what we know. But the rest of the world doesn’t have the same view.

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Be diverse in who you are creating for and what you create.

Emily Gorcenski, Social and Design Factors in Video Games for Therapy and Rehabilitation
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How are we protecting our users, not just their data, but creating spaces that are safe for them to exist?

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And there is no easy solution, right? But we (humans) built this broken system, so we should be able to fix it.

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Malice did not create this world. Neglect and ignorance did.

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We often see the malice most, it was not malicious intent that created the mess of environmental injustice.

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It was neglect. Neglect of the environmental damage of our tools. Neglect of the miners and factory workers. Neglect of the black father who has to drive 30 miles to buy fresh groceries, and the Hmong mother who lives in a banking desert but can’t use our app because she doesn't read english. Neglect of the developers who missed their children’s first steps out in the living room because they were working 60 hours weeks and spending their nights in the home office shipping another line of code. Neglect of the independent consultant who can afford health insurance, but not the high deductible for their medication.

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It is from that neglect and ignorance that malice festers.

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It is cognitively easier to blame marginalized groups for their plight than it is to accept that society is fundamentally unjust.

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It is so much easier to go back and pretend that the world that we live in, the world that tells us we are amazing and everything we do is important, right, and everyone who dissents is wrong.

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It is so much easier to says marginalized groups are falling over because they needed more grit. That they need to “lean in” more. That they voted against their own interests. That we who are on top are here because of nothing but the labor of our own hands.

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But what opportunity to create Facebook did the child slave in Congo have? With what app was she supposed use to report the abuses of the local general? How much do the Solomon Islands have to lean in to keep their homes from sinking? How much more grit do indigenous protestors need to convince North Dakota’s police to stop treating them like animals?

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Sustainability work is social justice work and social justice work hurts.

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Sustainability work is social justice work. And sustainability work is hard. And that work can hurt. Because it means constantly banging against the illusions that so many people in power refuse to let go.

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But we with the most privileges have a duty to our siblings with less to work harder to raise them up because we are the ones with the resources to do so. Our role is not to co-opt their voices, but to hear them, to understand them, and to amplify them.

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We can not let our work as technologists working in sustainability become yet another tool of oppression.

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Because the fruits of our work in sustainability must include everyone.

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Taking care of people is not always profitable. But we must do it because it isi right and just, and also because that’s the only way we can create sustainable communities.

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We can’t change the whole system overnight. But we need to know what we would put in its place, and we can take advantage of the present crisis to begin working to create new models with [those] who have given themselves permission to think differently from the powers-that-be

Grace Lee Boggs, The Next American Revolution
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The book Cradle to Cradle wants us to think about the cherry tree. The traditional system of production exploits the land and returns nothing, its values are efficiency and reducing consumption while increasing production. But the cherry tree is horribly inefficient, every year it produces thousands of flowers to reproduce just a few saplings, the fruit return to the earth, nourishing the animals and ground around it. And we call it beautiful.

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Unless we actually find a means of change to deal with the complexity we’re in…we’re stuck between the hard choice of centralist populist ideas or actually really investing in democratizing the the capacity for people to change society.

Indy Johar, Democratizing Cities
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And this won’t happen in trump’s white house. So we must do it everywhere else. In every statehouse, every city council, and school board. and we must start now because 3 degrees is looming.

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Do not get me wrong, this is nothing short of reimagining our entire social, political, and economic system. But that is what we must do because the world is deeply intertwined.

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Social change will not come to us like an avalanche down the mountain. Social change will come to us through seeds in well prepared soil—and it is we, like the earthworms, who prepare the soil.

Ursula M. Franklin, The Real World of Technology
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And so we must find ways to bring everyone in to create the change in the world we all seek. Only then, when everyone’s voice is heard and understood, will we be able to create a society that sustains and nourishes all.

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Thank you.