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Building the Exosuit

Cayden Mak on Digital Organizing, Community Power, and Responsible Innovation

Cayden Mak is the executive director of 18 Million Rising, an organization promoting civic engagement among Asian Americans. 18MR's work has included VoterVOX, a platform for connecting volunteers with people who need help voting in their language, and campaigns taking on immigration reform, disparities in the criminal justice system, and racism in the media. Before taking the reins at 18MR, Cayden served in capacities of escalating responsibility there: CTO, New Media Director before that, after starting as Social Media Wizard.

Cayden’s a GIF connoisseur and meme expert who knows his way around HTML but also has one foot in media theory, which he studied at University at Buffalo after pursuing Philosophy at the University of Michigan. This combo of applied experience and high-level analysis is actually kind of rare. And so is having one foot in technology and design work - and the other, solidly planted in activism and organizing.

I met Cayden when I worked for Citizen Engagement Lab as a web developer. I caught up with him a few weeks ago in Oakland’s Chinatown to discuss the current state of digital organizing. We wound up talking longer than I expected, so the following interview has been edited to just the highlights. I hope you enjoy Cayden’s unique vantage point on technology, politics and organizing.

Justin Allen: It’s still early days of the Trump administration, but it feels like much longer. We’ve seen a surge of toxic, regressive legislation and speech - from lies and distortions to targeting of minority communities - coming both from the administration and the nationalist movement backing it. How are you seeing progressive groups responding to this?

Cayden Mak: There’s this great upswell where a lot of people are coming forward and saying ‘this is unacceptable to me, this is unacceptable to my community.’ What’s interesting, though, is the struggle the left has been having with an atrophy of our imagination beyond the State helping us.

This challenge is now just more acute, under a Federal administration that has no interest in the multicultural American experiment that sort of is the liberal consensus of the past 30 or 40 years. Now all bets are off. It really shows the limitations of relying on legislation to enforce rules of civility, and to prevent violence against marginalized groups.

These are conversations that have been happening in the activist spaces that I’ve been in for over a decade - the prison abolitionist spaces, led by queer people and people of color. We feel this tension between the solutions that are offered to us, like “let’s pass some hate crimes laws to give people harsher sentences,” if they’re convicted of, you know, gay bashing or racially motivated crime.

Because it’s not a real community based solution. It actually just gives more power to the police, which is like the other underlying problem here.

JA: A whole generation is growing up with their political coming-of-age on the Internet. What’s your quick response to the younger activist who is just now wondering how to channel their online energy beyond updates on Facebook? How to take the next step into digital organizing, thinking strategically about goals and tactics?

CM: So much of the way we think about digital is about mobilizing mass numbers of people to ask a decision-maker to do a thing. Or not do a thing. Whether that’s corporate leadership, or an elected official, or a regulatory body like the FCC.

There’s obviously a role for a lot of these organs and entities, and they do need to be held accountable. But I worry that a focus on that to the exclusion of all else - other potential tactics - in the world of digital advocacy on the left - limits the imagination of what is possible with the Internet.

There’s a tension here between people who are building new tools for collective deliberation, versus the statistical success of using existing platforms to mobilize people to participate in old ways, rather than inventing a new way of participation. I don’t know what the solution is.

My concern is that our failure to address platform monopolies like Facebook and Twitter mean that it’s actually really hard for those people who are building new tools for online action to get the fair shake that they need. Also, we tend to forget that the most important part of building a new tool is the organizing part. My own experience bears this out. Often the technology is not hard, it’s the human part that’s hard.

cayden mak in oakland chinatown

JA: online activism has been around long enough we might call it the “traditional online organizing” model. It’s based around email appeals, petitions. What’s even more visible is the newer phenomenon of fluid, mass online activism that exists on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms. From your vantage point, what are the strengths of each of these models?

CM: I definitely see these things in an ecology together. We can’t wholesale abandon one tool or tactic because in the current environment they kind of feed each other. There’s an old organizing adage that in order to organize people, you have to go to where they are. And they are on Facebook and Twitter. It’s increasingly where people are spending a lot of their leisure time - and also a lot of their labor time.

Increasingly people who are in any kind of information, marketing, or organizing profession spend a not-insignificant number of hours a week on Facebook, talking to people, sharing content. The challenge there is Facebook almost unilaterally controls your ability to reach people.

The conventional wisdom has been, you take people from Facebook and Twitter and you move them onto your email list, right? The problem with the email list is increasingly, younger people could give a shit about email. The place that most people that are under 30 use email is work and school, so they don’t expect to interact with things that move them deeply, emotionally and politically there.

Increasingly, what email capture means is being sent two petitions a week. I think there’s a bit of healthy skepticism, healthy cynicism, that has arisen over the past 5-10 years around that model, since so much of the efficacy of a petition depends on what that organization then does with those signatures: and often they don’t do anything with them.

“Ultimately … organizing is about building networks of trust”

JA: To further complicate things, there’s also traditional community-based organizing which is now facilitated by the Internet, and there’s also big-money political and party campaigning - which might try to look like it’s grassroots.

CM: This is the challenge, right? Anybody still kind of can be anybody on the Internet - with some obvious caveats and exceptions. But in terms of organizations? Anybody can be anybody on the Internet. This is one of the core risks of doing online organizing.

Ultimately, when I think about it, organizing is about building networks of trust. It doesn’t matter what sort of tools, or what sort of vernacular you’re using, to do that organizing - you could be organizing workers in a factory, you could be organizing young people online, you could be organizing students on a college campus, you could be organizing seniors at a retirement home - ultimately it’s about building networks of trust, to get people to take risks together, to create the change that they want to see.

cayden mak in downtown oakland

JA: Let’s talk about 18MR - how, when and why did the group come together?

CM: We originally started in 2012 as a project just to register people to vote online. Which is actually really hard, it turns out, because people who are likely to opt-into an audience of an organization that’s already talking about Asian American racial politics - are likely to already be registered to vote! So most of our registrations in 2012 came through a vast network of community partners who previously had not had online tools.

From there we moved through a series of pivots, trying to figure out what the sweet spot was for us. At first we were like well, alright, emails and petitions, since that’s kind of the given form of online organizing. We discovered that our base - 18 to 35 year old, tech savvy, already somewhat politicized Asian Americans - had a great deal of cynicism about online petitions. This was right around the same time as the explosion of social media based organizing. Which ultimately, is sort of a similar model in that you’re trying to build an audience, so when something really screwed-up happens you can mobilize that audience to take action.

And I think we had a fairly decent amount of success with that. Actually the greatest area of success we had there was building a volunteer core of people to help us find and frame content for our audience. Asian Americans constitute a really big, diverse bucket. Our staff could not speak for everybody. So that has become one of our most powerful assets.

Since then, we’ve really done a lot of experimentation with new forms, taking advantage of quirky opportunities like the time we pretended to be The Gap and announced on their behalf that they were going to be signing on to a legally binding trade agreement to protect their workers in Bangladesh.

It’s amazing how, if you’re thinking creatively about what are the tools at your disposal and what is going to capture both the attention of your members and the mass media, there are a lot of opportunities that will present themselves, and that require swift, decisive action to take advantage of. The work we do now is sort of a finely honed combination of a lot of these things. When the moment calls for a petition - we still run a petition.

And I think there a lot of cases where there aren’t good solutions for some problems outside of the State. The FCC, and the regulation of the Internet, is a great example of that. We are not going to be able to build, from scratch, an organ to regulate Comcast at the same velocity that the FCC is able to, to preserve net neutrality.

So those sorts of things are really important. By the same token, we’ve gotten into building products, thinking about what are really knotty problems that we face as a community that maybe need a little lubrication to get those ropes moving.

“We raise money to be sustainable so that we can be a robotic exosuit for a lot of grassroots organizers.”

JA: One of those products is VoterVox, 18MR’s web app for matching up volunteer translators with people who need that support. In keeping with 18MR’s original mission, it’s about voter enfranchisement and civic engagement. One of the things that interested me, learning about the project early on, was how you were approaching the design process.

CM: Yeah, so there’s been a sort of grassroots movement of people pushing for community-based design as a core ethic of designing and building new technology. Especially the folks that I know through the Allied Media Conference - Diana Nucera, who runs the Detroit Community Technology Project, and Laurenellen McCann who used to be at New America - they’re the people who supported and encouraged this work.

When we started thinking about VoterVox, the way that this started was a conversation with our then-director Samala and a friend of ours, Sabrina Hersi Issa, who told us the story of helping her grandmother, who had just become a naturalized citizen before the 2014 election, vote. Her family is from Somalia, her grandmother is not fluent in English, and so she was able to help her grandma vote.

And I was thinking how crappy our user interfaces are for voting. They’re really some poorly designed stuff, that’s generally only in English. What are ways we can call upon our community to make that user interface more legible to people who, especially, have a hard time speaking English?

In the Asian American immigrant community here in California, 46% have a very hard time speaking English. And that’s a higher percentage than the Latino community in California, which is more like 32%, 34%. So it’s clearly a problem, and the other issue is the Voting Rights Act only is triggered in cases where a county has a critical mass of people. Even then, if you have a large population of Asians in a community, they may speak 5 to 10 different languages.

The experience that Sabrina shared with us is a common experience. Kids and grandkids, serving as translators to their parents. So if we’re already doing that in this family context, our question was: how do we take that family interaction and make it into civic action? And use it to build power in our communities?

Because not only are older folks who have limited English proficiency often isolated socially, they’re also definitely isolated politically. A lot of Asian Americans come from countries where political involvement is very risky, and have this historical-political trauma around civic engagement. Speaking up about what you want to see the government do can result in death, deportation, destruction of your family or whatever. So having somebody from your culture, from your community, come to you and tell you that yeah, this is valuable, let me help you - I think is really powerful.

cayden mak in oakland chinatown

JA: What’s the current status of VoterVox and where do you see it going?

CM: We’re raising money to make some critical tweaks that we saw as major bottlenecks, especially for the community based partners who are users of the tool. We’re looking at L.A. County in particular as a good testing site, where there are critical masses of Asians in a lot of different precincts, so we can test rollout and get some solid stats on what this could mean for turnout. So that’s what we’re looking at in 2018, and honestly, I’m really concerned about 2020 and not just the fact that there’s a presidential race, but also that it’s a census year, there’s gonna be a lot of activity around redistricting and that kind of thing. And historically, Asian Americans are undercounted in the census.

These are really non-trivial problems that there’s just not a good existing solution for. So how do we use technology and the Internet to leverage a lot of the grassroots energy we’re seeing right now to solve intractable problems that can’t be solved by centralized forces?

The opportunity that this represents is mobilizing people in a much more distributed way. In their own local contexts, on their own time, doing whatever small amounts of work they’re willing and able to do. That’s incredibly powerful.

JA: One of the things that you’ve been thinking about, I know, is how technologist/organizers can act as a connective tissue for the grassroots. People who have the media and digital literacy working to bridge these worlds for people who just have human skills and traditional organizing skills - and really taking sort of a service orientation towards working with people.

CM: Well, I think a lot of it just comes back to humility. We are good at some things. We are not good at some other things. But with our powers combined, we can do things that are outsize in terms of their impact. Having spent now, almost 5 years working professionally in this digital organizing space: there’s not a lot of humility.

And I think some of that comes from this techno-utopianism. “We can move half a million people!” Well, that’s great but to do what? I think that it’s sort of accidentally baked into 18MR’s DNA this sort of “servant leadership” model. We raise money to be sustainable so that we can be a robotic exosuit for a lot of grassroots organizers who really need their stories to be inserted into the mainstream.

Part of that humility is being honest about what we’re good at and what we’re not good at. Part of the reason why we can do this work is not because we’re ‘special’ in some way, it’s because we have specialized. Which is different.

To me what’s really important here is: we share a political analysis with our grassroots partners, we share a technical understanding with the technologists and developers that we work with. But the two of them don’t necessarily share politics or analysis or language to talk about technology. So having someone be that intermediary and that connector - be able to vet technologists who will work well with grassroots groups and not sort of stampede over them, or finding grassroots groups who really have a clearly articulated idea of what they want from an online partnership.

Often it’s like “the grassroots has so much to learn about how technology works.” Well actually, technologists also have like a shit-ton to learn about how organizing works. Ensuring people are thoughtful and humble about this partnership on all sides is really critical.

“If it were as easy as one new tech tool, we would have already done it.”

JA: For someone who is already a technologist with that skillset, who is considering contributing to social justice or political movement work, what’s the most important thing to bear in mind?

CM: One of the things that I think is really important especially if you’ve never worked with the grassroots before is: don’t just show up at a meeting and be like “I have this and this skill, tell me what to do.” That’s actually creating a lot of work that you’re asking those organizers to do, that may seem trivial to you, but can be huge for them because they may be in the middle of executing this huge campaign.

Starting by listening is the most important thing to do. Show up, be yourself, but start by listening. Know that you have valuable skills to contribute but you’re unlikely to be the only expert in the room.

Orienting towards the long haul is really important. Building real relationships with people. Getting to know what the actual problem is, and not just the elevator-pitch problem, but really digging in.

What is the landscape of power around this issue? What are the resources that are already in play? And what are the resources that you can leverage - even if they’re not tech resources?

If it were as easy as one new tech tool, we would have already done it.


You can find Cayden on Twitter at @cayden