Reflecting on 8 Years of Digital Democracy

Emily Jacobi
November 25, 2016

This month marks the eight year anniversary of Digital Democracy. When we started in 2008, we had a vision — that new technology tools could be used to serve grassroots movements in innovative ways — and we felt urgently compelled to respond to requests for capacity building and support from the grassroots activists we were working with in Southeast Asia.

2008 was also an election year, and it was the height of economic crisis in the US. When I think back on choosing to start Digital Democracy then, I feel a little grateful for the naiveté of my younger self. I had no idea just how hard it would be. The early years were lean. Our initial team — Liz, Gabe, Mark & me — were all volunteers. I remember surviving on $4 falafel sandwiches, dollar pizza slices, and most of all the generosity of others. Friends and family donated office space (bless you, Bill Hopkins!), offered couches and beds for us to sleep on, volunteered their time, and more. I remember many late nights working at the office in Manhattan, grateful that the subway still ran at 3am as I took the train home to Brooklyn.

Those lean years were important; we learned a great deal. Sometimes we found success in unexpected places. Other projects never really got off the ground. Because we never secured a big investment or any funding fellowships, we never had the illusion that our work was infallible, nor were we tied to a large donor's vision. In retrospect, those early "failures" gave us the freedom to find our place of strength.

More than anything, I believe the strength of Digital Democracy is in our approach, which puts our local partners at the center of the story. Despite their often marginalized status, we recognize they are the true experts of their situation, as the ones best poised to address whatever problems they face. This was the concept that baffled would-be-donors all those years ago — we do not come in with solutions. We don't believe true solutions can come from outside. We only work in communities where we are invited. We match our technical expertise and toolkit with the wisdom of our partners to co-create solutions to their own challenges. From this collaborative process, amazing things are born. A 24-hour women's health helpline in Haiti. The world's largest technology unconference. The first drone built by indigenous people themselves to monitor illegal deforestation. An easy-to-use, open source mapping tool that works offline so that even remote communities can map their own territory and reduce dependence on outsiders. I'm proud of all we've accomplished. And we are on the cusp of much more.

To be honest, when we started Dd 8 years ago, I didn't fully know where we were headed. I had no idea I would still be doing this work 8 years later; I wasn't thinking that far ahead. I didn't know we would someday work in Haiti, Guatemala or the Amazon, or that we would build tools to be used by people all over the globe. But it was our early willingness to experiment and learn that led us to today. By the time we became our own 501c3 in 2012, I knew enough to believe that Digital Democracy was an institution that should exist beyond any individual projects. Now, I feel in awe of all I have learned from our partners, and all we have learned has shaped our vision for what comes next.

Digital Democracy has evolved, and so have I. After a life-threatening health scare at 28, I started taking better care of myself. Dd moved from New York to California, as did I. Our team no longer survives on falafel sandwiches — but we still like them! Thanks to support from the Knight Foundation, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, Abundance Foundation, Channel Foundation; partners like ClearWater, Forest Peoples Programme, and Hivos; and many individual donors and friends, we've been able to professionalize and grow our team.

We have a vision for the next five years

The tools we have been building help communities collaborate to tell their story through maps, video and photos, and document environmental and human rights abuses against them. We are rethinking how technology is built to truly empower local people and reduce dependency on technical support from organizations like ourselves. We will be responding to requests for support from local struggles across the Amazon, and also expanding the scope of our work to other communities around the globe, and to our own place of residence — the United States. We've always disbelieved in the false dichotomy between "international" and "domestic" work, but up until now we didn't have the capacity to serve communities in the US. In the coming year we are changing that; as we believe the effectiveness of our approach is urgently needed here, too.

Although Digital Democracy began 8 years ago, my career really began in 1996, when I was trained as a youth journalist and traveled to Cuba at the age of 13. After two decades of working with and learning from ordinary people around the world, this is what I believe:

  • Everything is connected. Oil extracted from indigenous territory in the Amazon is refined in California. Political decisions made in Washington, DC affect people all around the world. Drought and war in the Middle East can bring refugees right to our doors. The past, present & future of human life is inextricably linked.
  • All life is sacred. The earth and our star, the sun, provide us with everything we need to live — water, land, air & fire. Whatever harm we do to these elements, we do to ourselves.
  • Technology tools reflect the values of their makers. The tech tools that will best serve our partners are those they they have a hand in building.
  • A true democracy is one where every voice matters. This requires removing the barriers that persistently prevent some people from participating in the decisions that rule their lives. Can we call a country a democracy when pipelines are built without the consent of people who live near them? When people of color make up 30% of the population, yet 60% of the prison population? No.
  • As humans, we face an unprecedented crisis of epic proportions. Climate change is real, and it is happening. Global destabilization is visible in the form of ongoing wars, mass migration, economic turbulence and a desperate grab for resources in the face of dwindling reserves. Political division is not only high in the US, it is happening around the globe.
  • We all have a part to play in the great turning. No one has all the answers, but collectively, we can do so much. The world is shifting, and all of us can play a role in shifting it in a direction that honors life and the rich diversity of our precious planet.

Over the next few weeks, we'll be sharing what the Digital Democracy team has been up to, and what comes next. And we're going to highlight stories of our partners and inspirations, from North Dakota to Ecuador, people working at the grassroots level who are on the frontlines of protecting life so that future generations may thrive.

As I write these words, it is Thanksgiving weekend in the United States. This complicated time offers us a chance to do one of the most important things we can do — come together and give thanks in community — and yet it is a holiday rooted in some of the worst aspects of our national story. While retailers implore us to spend money on holiday presents, indigenous people and allies are facing militarized force for their peaceful protection of clean water against the Dakota Access pipeline. This mirrors threats that our partners face in the Amazon, and it is unacceptable.

In these urgent and turbulent times, we don't want to only reflect on our organization, we want to point our lens to grassroots movements that need your support more than we do. We invite you to consider giving your financial support to US-based organizations who need support more than ever in this politically urgent moment.

Our work depends upon strong local partners like these. As we celebrate our 8th anniversary this month, we believe more than ever in the importance of embodying a practice of solidarity and support for marginalized communities.

The past eight years have been an incredible journey. We are grateful to all who have partnered with us and supported Digital Democracy along the way. If you have the capacity to give beyond the grassroots movements listed above, and would like to be a part of our long-term vision for technology solutions that support marginalized people to challenge power structures and fight for their rights, then please do not hesitate to contact me at

The future hangs in the balance. I believe we all have a role to play to act on behalf of human dignity, our precious planet, and the kind of world we want to leave for future generations. What role will you play?

Published by
Emily Jacobi
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