On April 14, 2014 I took the elevator to the top floor of MIT’s iconic Media Lab with some trepidation. A few months earlier, I had applied to attend a conference called Build Peace that was going to explore the intersection between peacebuilding and information technology.
Given my long-standing interest in both, I really wanted to go. But, since I didn’t know any of the organizers and attendance was going to be limited, I was somewhat surprised when my acceptance arrived a couple of days later.
So, I reached out to the young activists behind the conference and discovered that they were quite a team. Rodrigo Davies (then a student at the Media Lab) and Helena Puig Larrauri had been activists together while undergraduates at Oxford. Rodrigo went on to a career in journalism and business. Helena went into peacebuilding where she met Michaela Ledesma who is an American peacebuilder but was then living and working in Geneva. Helena also brought in Jen Gaskell who was doing a PhD in data science and had attended the same network of progressive high schools that had brought Helena to the UK in the first place. All were then in their late twenties or early thirties.
Still, I had no idea what I was getting into, and my uncertainties mounted when I saw that the program included a dance party. Things didn’t get any better when I walked into the room and realized that I only knew two of the 200 or so people who were milling about waiting for the program to begin. It was also obvious that I was the oldest person in the room, something that has been the case at every event of theirs that I’ve attended since then. Those uncertainties vanished as soon as we dug into the program and I realized that I didn’t have to go to the dance party because it didn’t start until midnight which is way past my bed time.
The conference was terrific in part because it was so upbeat. We discussed how what techies call the affordances ushered in by new hardware and software platforms could aid peacebuilding. These included everything from using simple text messages to defuse electoral violence in Kenya to the ways that new software and data bases could be used to identify potential hotspots anywhere in the world.
By the end of the three days, the founders had become friends and I had agreed to include their work in my blog posts and social media. I also learned that the conference was part of their larger and more ambitious organization, Build Up^ which soon added the arts to peacebuilding and technology to its mandate.
To make a long story short, I have participated in all but one of the annual Build Peace conferences and joined the parent organization’s board of directors when it reorganized as an American-based non-profit. In the years since I first met them, Rodrigo and Jen have gone on to careers outside of peacebuilding, but the team has grown to about fifteen full or part time staff members.
In the process, the team has come to focus on an overarching mission in which they use best practices from peacebuilding and IT to identify and address emerging challenges to the world order. In the process, they have struggled to define and refine that mission. In fact, they are still doing so. Still, they have become arguably the world’s most successful new peacebuilding startup.
Build Up’s Global Mission
Build Up^ does most of its work outside the United States. I’m going to give that short shrift here, because my book, Connecting the Dots, will focus on organizations that are literally doing that across ideological and issue-based divides here. Still, three of its global concerns carry over to its efforts in the United States however different they may seem at first glance. They:
- Use digital technologies to build peace in much the same way that mediators use face-to-face discussions
- Transform the nature of conflict in the digital age especially those that play themselves out in on line spaces, including social media
- Conduct research on digital peacebuilding which they use to bring the broader community up to speed on the use of IT in their work
It also operates from a set of core principles which I’ll also cover separately toward the end of the book because they are shared by all of the other dot connectors I’ve met so far. They understand that they have to live the values they stand for in everything they do. As they put it in their 2020 annual report:
We are not experts. We value knowledge, and we engage in cross- and trans-disciplinary thinking and doing. We give space to learn, encouragement to grow, and sometimes to err. We work with an support non-violence at the heart of our work. And our style is a bit punk: non-hierarchical, diverse and little bit irreverent.
That has led them to undertake projects throughout the Global South, including:
- Organizing and funding fellowships for digital peacebuilders in Myanmar and, now, the Syrian and Yemeni diasporas
- Developing tools for digital dialogues in the Sahel, Mali, Burkina Faso, and beyond
- Providing online support for a number of peace processes
- Taking on the role of large IT firms in fostering and/or deepening existing conflicts
- Developing online courses on peacebuilding, technology, and the artss
The Commons Project
Although it is not true of every organization I will include in the book, Build Up^ does benefit from the fact that it can draw on literally a world of experience when it plans projects in the United States, two of which stand out. One involves creating a dashboard and other digital tools to help the peacebuilding community as a whole work more effectively on line. That project is just getting launched, and will have to be one of the last things I add to the book when I finish it in late 2022.
The other and, frankly, more important, Commons Project will also evolve between now and then. Indeed, we held a meeting on the future of the Commons on the day I wrote these words.
Build Up^ was hardly alone when it looked at the toxic polarization that seemed to be on the rise everywhere by time of the 2016 American presidential election, if not before. If nothing else, it had become clear that the early enthusiasm about the affordances of the new technology for social change that we all felt at the first Build Peace conference was overstated. And not just in the United States. It is now widely agreed that fanning the ideological flames was built into the very business models unicorn companies like Facebook, Twitter, or Google so profitable.
However, like all of the groups I will be covering in the book, Build Up^ were not satisfied with arguments that pointed out what was wrong with, say, surveillance capitalism. They wanted to go beyond what George Lopez once called “Doom and Gloom 101” in describing peace education in the 1980s and offer some constructive alternatives that point toward more positive outcomes.
So, they launched the Commons Project which has gone through a number of iterations in the four years since it was launched and will be going through another one.
It did not, of course appear out of thin air. It reflected the growing interest in using technology for constructive change that began surfacing as soon as the Internet became a part of our everyday lives in the 1990s. By the 2010s, peacebuilders had used platforms like Ushahidi to warn us about impending problems and provide aid when and if disaster struck. More generally, Build Up^ and other new organizations like the Peace Tech Lab which has since spun off from the United States Institute of Peace looked forward to a string of successes as we learned more and more about how to use the new technologies to make the world a better place. Colin Rule, now of Mediate.com, developed online tools for dispute resolution for eBay that are now use throughout the commercial world by companies like Amazon (with whom I easily resolved a dispute over a mistaken delivery on the day I wrote these words!).
As Build Up^ and many others saw it, the problem was not the technology itself, but the algorithms and the other software that shaped what we saw, how reacted to that content, and more. That led Build Up^ to focus more explicitly on how its staff of peacebuilders and technologists can use the new tools to address the problems that the rapid growth of social media platforms are leaving in their wake. The Commons team began experimenting with ways of using the affordances the new platform technologies provide to host dialogues that could bring left and right together in much the same way that Braver Angels or Living Room Conversations do in face-to-face venues.
As was also the case in the construction of those platforms, the Commons Project had more than its share of false starts, and you could even make the case that it is still finding its footing. They started by experimenting with ways of using bots to identify individuals on Facebook and Twitter who both took extreme positions but also seemed open to dialogue across ideological lines and invited them to dialogue sessions led by facilitators trained by the Build Up^ team.
Although results were promising, two things happened that forced the team to pivot. First, changes in the way the platforms dealt with privacy made the work technically far more complicated and expensive. Second and more importantly, the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, the recession, and the heated presidential election campaign led the team to rethink the Commons given its own governing principles.
Therefore, they decided to pivot and redefine the Commons so that it could be what they described as non-neutral, non-polarizing, and non-violent. Although the use of the prefix “non” can lead one deeper into Gloom and Doom 101 style argument, this time it has allowed the Commons team to take the project in a new and constructive direction
Unlike organizations like Braver Angels or Living Room Conversations who do terrific work, Build Up^’s staff clearly sees itself as sitting on the right side of history on issues like racial injustice which is why it describes itself as non-neutral. But unlike a lot of other anti-racism activists, they want to be open to people they disagree with which is where the non-polarizing and non=violent sides of their self-definitions come into play.
In particular, they want to draw as many people as possible into constructive dialogue. That’s the non-polarizing side. They also sought ways in which all parties can avoid the emotional and psychological damage that is all too often a result of online (and offline) discussions in which insulting and otherwise harmful language, images, and other forms of communication are used.
In that sense, they are becoming what my colleagues at the Mary Hoch Center for Reconciliation call insider reconcilers. They are themselves at the heart of the dispute roiling their communities (the insider side) but they are trying to build the broadest possible movements in addressing the underlying problems (the reconciler side). For good or ill, I will have to leave this part of the story hanging until I take up MHCR and its work in a couple of weeks.
By early 2021, the Commons Project’s goal had become much simpler—to use social media to bring Americans closer together rather than drive them farther apart. That, of course, is easier said than done.
Concretely, they decided to try two pilot projects that explored partisan polarization and racial liberation respectively. After some encouraging results, they shifted the project once again toward creating online spaces for building movements that could use conflict resolution tools to build ever broader and more inclusive movements for social change that would, in turn, do so by explicitly advocating for non-neutral and non-polarizing policies and practices.
The project was based on the finding that social media shape what a growing number of Americans learn about current affairs and, then, how they respond to what is taking place around them. Similarly, it drew on the growing research consensus that existing social media algorithms and the like tend to bring people who think alike closer together while magnifying whatever divisions already exist among us.
As they put it in an online handbook they wrote for this iteration of The Commons:
Often the conversation around our social media use is centered around the binary of: remove yourself from social media or resign to using social media but recognize its issues. Through The Commons (and inspired by many other individuals and organizations globally), we have shown that when we use social media intentionally, we can positively impact the norms of our society and also, the norms of our social media use.
That starts by showing up on social media and not ceding it completely to the Silicon Valley powers that be or the trolls. The team recruited groups of self-selected Americans who were willing to participate in facilitated discussions about polarization and racism in which it was clear that Build Up^ was working for progressive social change. In that sense, they tried to help participants develop many of the same skills that MHCR stresses in training insider reconcilers, including effective listening, empathy, reacting to people one disagrees with as non-judgmentally as possible. Each group was put through a process in which the participants were encouraged to:
- Reflect on what they heard from other participants
- Understand and analyze how that information contributes to toxic polarization and/or sustaining institutionalized racism
- Develop together an engagement strategy for using social media more constructively
- Putting those ideas into practice and taking them to scale with the ongoing support of the Build Up^ team
To that end, it has developed self-guided and facilitated courses on rehumanizing relationships around race and toxic polarization. About 10,000 people have participated in beta versions of those courses which will now be unrolled in a more systematic way. I plan to facilitate some of them at least in part because I miss being in the classroom. Along those same lines, it has developed a digital peacebuilding handbook which you can also access by clicking the link earlier in this paragraph.
I am assuming that the specific initiatives the Commons pursues will change. However, the four goals outlined in this chart are going to remain for the foreseeable future.
- It will start by healing our wounds by helping participants listen to and not dehumanize “the other” in ways that would be familiar to any peacebuilder but already takes the Commons farther than many better-known dialogue projects
- It will simultaneously start weaving or creating connections among the people it reaches by building and/or strengthening relationships that cross existing divides
- Building connections on and off line that can amplify positive messages that could spark new cultural norms as well as public policy
- While shaking things up in ways that range from combatting misinformation all the way to mobilizing networks of people who are willing to disrupt the status quo
The 2021 Build Peace Conference
Finally, if you want to learn more about the Commons and Build Up in general, you still have time to sign up for the 2021 Build Peace conference which will be held from 18-24 October. We had originally hoped to host it live at the Bertha Center at the University of Cape Town. For obvious reasons, the pandemic forced us to hold the conference wholly on line for the second year in a row. If you are interested in attending, click here. There is no set fee for attending; donations are welcome.
The conference will cover a lot more than the Commons which only makes sense given Build Up^’s overall mission. However, there will be plenty of discussion of racism and toxic polarization including in a workshop I’ll be leading that will feature efforts that could take us beyond the digital and peacebuilding communities.
Hope to see you there.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.