So, what exactly are you doing now for Global Voices?

This is the question that keeps coming up. The one I’ve been meaning to write about since May and have somehow never gotten around to. It is a story that starts in the spring of 2005 while riding my bicycle up San Diego’s coast highway. My fascination/obsession with participatory media was still in its infancy and it was a time when I can safely say that I subscribed to (and actually listened to) more than half of all podcasts in existence. (Now I probably am able to regularly catch about .0001% of all the podcasts just on iTunes.)

One of those podcasts was produced by Doug Kaye of the so-called Conversations Network. It was a series of interviews and recordings from conferences usually focused on technology. On this particular bike ride I was listening to all of the sessions from Dave Winer‘s BloggerCon III in San Francisco, just a day after they took place. Most of the panels, presentations, and questions from the audience were somehow related to finding a business model that paid more than $20 a month in Google Ads.

But then I heard an eloquent comment by a woman who introduced herself as Rebecca MacKinnon from a place called the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. She was the first person I heard at the conference bring up the fact that blogs could be used for much more than gadget reviews, personal diaries, and hyperlocal news. The individuals and organizations that stood to benefit the most from the new medium belonged to civil society – the non-profit and and non-governmental organizations that tend to do amazing work and an amazingly poor job documenting it and networking with others who share their objectives. She proposed a collective of do-gooding blogger-volunteers that would team up with established non-profits and get them blogging.

Jon Lebkowsky, Aldon Hynes, John Stanforth, and a dozen others all got together to form Blogger Corps, a brokerage between volunteer bloggers and non-profits that stood to benefit from the use of blogging. It never really got any further than that. We came to realize that many bloggers (like myself) were quick to volunteer their time, but not as quick to actually commit the dozens of hours that it took to not only set up a blog for each non-profit, but also to sooth their worries about lawsuit liability, brand management, and their relationship with funders. To invest so much time with one organization is to become their consultant – and a booming business of ‘NPTech‘ (non-profit technology) consultants have been able to achieve much of what Blogger Corps didn’t.

Blessed Unrest

Three years later and I’m traveling from Thailand to Cambodia to Indonesia to Kenya to Uganda to Malaysia to Hong Kong to Seattle to Toronto to D.C. to N.Y.C. and back to San Francisco and every day in every city I am meeting the individuals and the small groups that make up what Carlos Fuentes refers to as the ‘third sector’ of the world. Not business, not government, but a growing population that is often referred to as ‘civil society’ or ‘NGOs’ or ‘activists.’ The problem is that, for many, those labels still conjure up notions of teenagers dressed in black and throwing stones through buildings in Seattle and Genoa, or else gigantic White women in purple who babble on about their karmic destiny. These are not the people I am meeting. I’ve written about some of them: Kayiwa Fred, Abramz Tekya, Dennis Kimambo. And there are many more drafts of posts that I hope will be published soon.

Three years later and I’m sitting down at a Thai restaurant in Manhattan with Michael Smolens of dotSUB. He recommends the book Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken, an environmentalist and lecturer who has been traveling around the world and meeting the various groups and leaders of civil society for decades. Of course the book has a subtitle: “How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw it Coming.”

The ‘movement’ is this same idea of civil society. He estimates that there are up to two million small non-governmental organizations focused on social justice. They are implementing permaculture, microlending, reusable energy, sustainable architecture. Notice that they are spending their energy on coming up with solutions, not just protesting injustices. Thomas Friedman should know better than to criticize my generation for not taking to the streets with slogan-scrawled banners because he has met enough of my peers to know that many of them are spending their days and nights coming up with innovative uses of bamboo, documenting disappearing languages, and coming up with more efficient ways of producing hydrogen fuel. But, as Paul Hawken notes, in 2005 the Los Angeles Times devoted one hundred times more coverage to a vandalistic spree by three unaffiliated students who damaged or destroyed 125 SUVs than it did to the landmark U.N. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

Everyone loves to complain about how the world is coming to an end. But what about the ones who are discussing and debating the best ways to make things better? Those are the people I want to surround myself with. That is what Gary Snyder would call ‘the real work.’

Rising Voices

This mushrooming of civil society has coincided with another explosion: a revolution in how we communicate. Three years after Blogger Corps failed, a much larger community has grown worldwide which aims to connect all of civil society using web 2.0 and mobile telephone tools. We’ve learned that it is no easy feat. Among the largest obstacles are lack of internet access and cell phone reception, lack of localized (ie. multilingual) documentation, and a lack of urban to rural skill transfer. Among the organizations involved in one way or another are the various projects featured at NetSquared, some of the Knight News challenge winners, IJNet, Internews, Tactical Tech, WITNESS, Panos, and dozens of others. There are many names for this community: Web2forDevelopment, communication for development, technology for transparency … anything catchy enough to warrant funding for another conference.

We are all aware of each other, we all seek funding from the same sources, and we try our best to work collaboratively and to not duplicate each other’s work. Our objective is to enable civil society groups to improve their ability to communicate, document, raise awareness, and fundraise.

For years major multinational NGOs like Oxfam and Human Rights Watch have invested heavily in media strategy departments. They have compiled lists of sympathetic journalists and editors and have employed professional copywriters to produce compelling press releases that, with a few cuts and pastes, become 300-word articles that eventually make it to the 10th page of your local newspaper.

But the tremendous growth of civil society described by Paul Hawken is being led by organizations with a staff of five to ten. Their objectives are often modest (cleaning the beach each Sunday in Panama or taking young people living with HIV on field trips in South Africa), but collectively they are doing the work that governments haven’t been able to. (An important critique, ‘the economics of civil society’, is another post for another time.) They are all over-extended and most feel daunted by the prospect of delving into the world of blogging, RSS feeds, podcasting, YouTube, and all of the other tools that have become subconscious atoms of our daily awareness.

There are success stories of NGOs taking advantage of new media, but they are only a drop in the ocean. The lack of effective outreach, multilingual documentation, and broadband penetration still constitute major obstacles.

So this is what I’ve been up to since May. My goals for Rising Voices are ambitious. With support from the Knight Foundation we will be able to fund about 15 grantee projects and produce and outreach guide that explains the basics of citizen media in simple terms. But that’s just the start. I want Rising Voices to become the leading network of citizen media activists and small scale civil society organizations. I want Rising Voices to outreach in two directions: 1.) to explain to civil society how participatory media can further their objectives and 2.) to convince already-established bloggers that there is much more to discuss than Britney Spears’ children and that discussion can easily lead to action. And, of course, I hope that we are able to do all of this without righteous preaching.