As our country celebrates the life and legacy of Dr. King, we are reminded of the work he and his fellow organizers did to advance social justice in their time. From civil rights to poverty, Dr. King led the charge to address the inequalities that plagued our nation. Half a century later, we face our own battles for social justice. While few possess the ability to inspire as King did, many have embraced his mantle of advocacy through the use of tech.
The adoption of social media technology has changed the way communities organize. During the 1950s and 60s, organizers like Dr. King, Bayard Rustin, Diane Nash, Dolores Huerta, Larry Itliong and Caesar Chavez spent weeks and months to connect with the hundreds of thousands of activists around the country to effect change. Today, social media tools allow organizers to reach millions of people around the world — nearly instantaneously — to deliver a uniform message of advocacy. Moreover, this new platform allows activists to bypass traditional media outlets, which have often been accused of overlooking social justice issues for underrepresented communities. From Troy Davis and Renisha McBride to Michael Brown and Eric Garner, we have seen the ability of social media to quickly raise awareness of an issue on a grand scale, organize communities for direct actions and influence key decision makers.
However, it is critical to note that social media is a tool to enhance social justice organizing, not a replacement for it. Social media lacks the personal influence honed by trained organizers. Additionally, as the technology has evolved so has the bar needed to reach critical mass. Given the relative ease of “liking” a post or retweeting, the numbers needed to influence those in power has increased exponentially.
Fortunately, organizers have become adept at using these new tools in their efforts. A decade ago, both Voto Latino and Color of Change were founded with a focus on online organizing and activism. Additionally, the DREAMer movement has demonstrated immense success with social media. By reviving strategies and tactics of the past and merging them with tech tools, this coalition of youth immigrant activists led a movement that reshaped national immigration policy.
In addition to serving as a tool for organizing, tech has also helped to directly minimize exploitation. The app Pigeonly provides a low-cost alternative to exceptionally expensive phone calls, ensuring that low-income family members can afford to stay in touch with their incarcerated loved ones. And thanks to the ubiquity of cameras on smartphones, apps like Five-0, created by three teenagers, and the ACLU’s Stop & Frisk Watch can serve as an instant reporting tools to document potential police abuses, so that police are more accountable for their interactions with the community.
As important as the tech itself, new tech training programs for underrepresented communities have the potential to become a tool to address income and employment inequality. Research indicates that jobs in tech are some of the best paying in the country. Unfortunately, diversity in the tech arena is minimal, leaving people from underrepresented communities out of the tech pipeline. That is why groups like the Level Playing Field Institute and Code for Progress have created programs to teach the next generation from these communities the skills they need to succeed in the thrive in the global tech ecosystem.
Dr. King created an unshakable foundation for social justice that we all stand firmly on. Today we honor his legacy by building on his efforts with the assistance of tech so that we can one day see his dream become a reality.