Social Justice

June 1, 2001       Todd Cohen      

Civil rights groups are stepping up efforts to harness technology in the cause of social justice. A new Web site has been launched to help fight bias, while a series of initiatives are underway to help rights organizations become more savvy about using technology and influencing tech policy.

One project would transform www.civilrights.org into a portal to collect and share rights content.

“There’s a disconnect,” said Brian Komer, director of technology programs for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a 50-year-old coalition of 180 rights groups, based in Washington, D.C.

While rights groups recognize the importance of technology and tech policy, he said, most have a tough time integrating technology into their own organizations, and little has been done to help shape tech policy at the national level.

This spring, the Leadership Conference Education Fund — the coalition’s education arm — along with the Anti-Defamation League and the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence, formed Partners Against Hate.

Supported by a three-year federal grant from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, the partnership has launched www.partnersagainsthate.org, a Web site that will feature anti-bias materials. The three groups, which previously offered the materials in print form only, now will be able to update them online.

The site also will support middle-school and high-school students, as well as community leaders, business executives, law enforcement officials and others who are being trained to train others to do anti-bias work.

Also in the works for the site is a kind of WebMD for the anti-bias world — an interactive database of frequently asked questions that visitors can use to understand and deal with incidents of hate and bias.

“Every day there are teachable moments where someone is faced with an instance where a child or young adult says something or has a question about bias or has a moment where you could teach them about bias or stereotyping or prejudice,” Komer said. “We don’t do a good job of providing people with the skills necessary to make the most of those teachable moments.”

The database of questions and answers will be organized by category of bias, with a range of answers geared to people of different ages.

A separate collaborative project of the Leadership Conference aims to help its members better use of technology and involve themselves in tech policy issues.

The Leadership Conference last year surveyed rights groups to assess their access to and use of technology, as well as their understanding of communications and Internet policy. The survey found that groups have a tough time building technology into their operations, and that national organizations could provide more leadership to state and local groups.

To help boot up rights groups, the Leadership Conference in December, 1999 launched the Digital Opportunity Partnership. With funding over three years from the AOL Time Warner Foundation, the partnership is holding a series of forums on tech issues for rights leaders.

The partnership also has hired Philadelphia-based TechRocks, a supporting organization to the Rockefeller Foundation in New York, to help rights groups assess their technology use and develop tech plans. And with funding from the Ford and Markle foundations in New York, the Leadership Conference is revamping civilrights.org, its four-year-old Web site.

The site will aggregate and publish content from member organizations, including news and headlines, and will let visitors send email messages to members of Congress, track their voting records and monitor state and federal legislation.

The site also includes a national directory of civil rights organizations. A calendar feature initially lets any group post civil rights events and, this fall, will allow member groups to build the same calendar into their own Web sites.

The Leadership Conference itself has consolidated all its offline databases into a single online database accessible to its entire staff. That database also is linked to the group’s Web site. The partnership also will host technology assistance forums for staff of members groups, and is convening task forces to track policy on Internet and technology issues.

And with funding from the Kaiser Family Foundation, the partnership this spring ran a TV campaign of public service announcements aimed at raising awareness among poor youngsters about where to get access to community technology centers. Other campaign partners included the AOL Time Warner Foundation, American Library Association and the Digital Divide Network of the Benton Foundation.

Doing good online

The online world for nonprofits and philanthropy is maturing quickly from a scattered collection of Web sites into a tech-savvy, self-organizing and collaborative community that can transform society, according to a new report.

“We’re moving from that sort of fragmented, wonderful bubbling up of innovation to more of an emerging community, emerging ecology, of sharing and learning together,” said Tom Reis, program officer at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Mich., and co-author of “e-Philanthropy v2-001: From Entrepreneurial Adventure to an Online Community.”

Just 18 months ago, e-philanthropy “was like a highway with no signs, interchanges, service centers or welcome bureaus,” according to the report, at www.actknowledgeworks.net/ephil, which tracks 350 Web sites, up from 140 that Kellogg surveyed more than a year ago.

The past year has seen the emergence of a sophisticated and interconnected online community that helps people donate time and money, provides tools and resources to help nonprofits be more productive, and delivers charitable, educational and humanitarian services.

Online services range from news and directories to links and promotions, with many sites offering multiple services and links to other sites. And a new open technology standard, known as OPX, has been developed to make it easier for groups to share data.

Still, while nonprofit sites tend to be open about the people and financing behind their operations, online entrepreneurs tend not to disclose data on the ownership, management and effectiveness of their sites, according to the report. Also, some sites have failed or continue to struggle because of inadequate investment or philanthropic support, insufficient revenue or poor business plans. Sites that succeed tend to offer multiple services and enjoy a strong offline base of constituents, supporters, members and branding.

The report also hints that a “killer app” — a breakthrough technology application or “platform” that will pull together the online philanthropic world into an integrated “ecosystem” — is the focus of talks among large Internet players and philanthropies.

“These discussions are focused on building a nonprofit enterprise-driven technology platform serving the knowledge, practice and giving needs of individuals and the nonprofit sector in general,” according to the report. It does not identify possible partners, which are believed to include AOL Time Warner, Cisco Systems, Yahoo! and a group of large foundations.

Todd Cohen is editor and publisher of Nonprofitxpress, an online newspaper at www.npxpress.com. He can be reached at tcohen@ajf.org

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