Building Community in Brooklyn: A Grassroots Case Study
Grassroots-level organizing has long been an important tool for advancing policy goals and activating a constituency. More importantly, local organizing can provide an avenue through which the skills and knowledge of some are leveraged to support the previously-unmet needs of the wider community.
As a member of the Electronic Frontier Alliance—a network of independent local advocacy groups in the U.S.—The Cypurr Collective is offering down-to-earth tech guidance to their neighbors in Brooklyn, New York, and holding space for greater digital rights and privacy awareness.
Cypurr utilizes such engagement methods as tea socials, digital security workshops, and cross-issue allyship, which enables the group to speak on local organizing from a people-focused perspective. We asked group members Grey Cohen, Rory Mir, and Sam DiBella to share a bit of what they’ve learned in their quest for digital equality.
How did Cypurr originate?
Grey: We started up The Cypurr Collective because we were in activist spaces in which folks had only recently begun to reckon with the importance of tech within modern-day activism. With these discussions came a lot of anxiety around the limits to personal and group security when using tech. We wanted a way for folks to lessen the stress around tech stuff, as well as help them create a framework to better understand these tools and devices. We started with our first workshop at a local feminist bookstore about three years ago, and we went on from there.
Rory: Something that I think makes our group unique is that it was a group of activists turned technologists, when it's often the reverse. We all came to the group with a very wide range of experience in cybersecurity, which made being accessible and beginner-friendly a must from day one. This focus helped us foster a relationship with Brooklyn Public Library, which was a major source of stability for the group.
How did that relationship with Brooklyn Public Library come about? What steps did you take that others could possibly in their cities?
Grey: Libraries are such an important community resource. We were lucky enough to have one member of the Brooklyn Infocommons come by one of our presentations, and we began our relationship from there. Since then, we have had monthly workshops at the BPL, with a significant amount of attendees each time. This showed us that 1) libraries can reach audiences that we might not be able to reach ourselves, and 2) there are enough folks out there who are concerned about their cybersecurity (or who are looking for others with whom they can discuss their concerns around cybersecurity). I think finding a way to develop a long-term relationship with your local library/librarian is a super useful effort that can help folks in tech education get in touch with folks who really need some cyber-HALP!
How is intersectional allyship factored into the group dynamic?
Grey: Seeing that our project began within an intersectional feminist space, intersectionality is at the center of the work we have done and continue to do. In short, it didn't make sense for us to spend our time sharing cybersecurity skills if this effort was not in a framework that acknowledges the socio-economic inequalities that create gaps of access to tech, education, and the general safety/security of our audience.
Rory: At every workshop, we start by having a frank discussion about space and sometimes use a progressive-stack. It's easy for conversations to be dominated by a handful of voices, and for folks to make assumptions about others, particularity when discussing tech. We try to push back on that and make space for folks to engage without being talked over. It's typically those silenced voices who have a greater need for our workshop, and everyone benefits from hearing marginalized voices and the unique concerns they bring to the table.
What do you find to be the core needs of your community? Does that differ from your original expectations?
Sam: I have a distinct memory of our first cryptoparty at the bookstore. I was so excited that I taught myself PGP email encryption and we had a great discussion about the panopticon. When it came time for my partner and I to present at a table, we didn’t get to email encryption at all. One person wanted to learn about recovering hard drive backups and the other was worried about images of her art being stolen online. I’ve always kept that lesson about building on what people are already interested in for workshops. Now that we present at the library, computer literacy is one of the skills we try to build into our events. We want people to be more comfortable with computers, so they feel safe to try things out on their own too.
Rory: On that same note, I consistently need to relearn the same lesson. I sometimes go into workshops expecting the most specific and technical questions and get a little blindsided by pragmatic concerns I hadn't considered. As a result, we've tried to give participants more control over the workshop over time. Less "save your questions for the end" and more group discussions.
How are organizing duties assigned among organizers to avoid burnout and ensure continuity?
Grey: It is very important for us that we value the time of all the volunteers involved in the project. We prevent burnout by trying not to put too much stress on ourselves while doing this project. Sometimes this means we do more, sometimes it means we do less. But most importantly, it means we have the energy to continue this work and put on great workshops for folks.
Sam: I also think having the steady support of presentation spaces has made our work a lot easier. Having regularly scheduled workshops makes it easier for people to find us. It makes organizing easier, as well.
What does the future hold for Cypurr?
Sam: There’s a lot of community-based tech work going on now, from local mesh nets to tech worker organizing. I hope that we, and other cryptopartiers, can help those groups build a less hierarchical digital world.
Grey: We hope to continue helping those who are continually oppressed by machines and machine learning, whether that takes the form of a workshop, a tea-time chat, or supporting those doing the work of increasing the security of marginalized communities and other activist groups.
Our thanks to The Cypurr Collective for reminding us that showing up for your community—however you define community—is an excellent way to help foster the tech future you want.