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Security Education Companion
A free resource for digital security educators

Tech Learning Collective: A Grassroots Technology School Case Study

Grassroots education is important for making sure advanced technical knowledge is accessible to communities who may otherwise be blocked or pushed out of the field. By sharing this invaluable knowledge and skills, local groups can address and dissolve these barriers to organizers hoping to step up their cybersecurity.

The Electronic Frontier Alliance (EFA) is a network of community-based groups across the U.S.  dedicated to advocacy and community education at the intersection of the EFA’s five guiding principles: privacy, free expression, access to knowledge, creativity, and security. Tech Learning Collective, a radical queer and femme operated group headquartered in New York City, sets itself apart as an apprenticeship-based technology school that integrates their workshops into a curriculum for radical organizers. Their classes range from fundamental computer literacy to hacking techniques and aim to serve students from historically marginalized groups.

We corresponded with the collective over email to discuss the history and strategy of the group's ambitious work, as well as how the group has continued to engage their community amid the COVID-19 health crisis. Here are excerpts from our conversation:

What inspired you all to start the Tech Learning Collective? How has the group changed over time?

In 2016, a group of anarchist and autonomist radicals met in Brooklyn, NY, to seek out methods of mutual self-education around technology. Many of us did not have backgrounds in computer technology. What we did have was a background in justice movement organizing at one point or another, whether at the WTO protests before the turn of the century, supporting whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning, participating in Occupy Wall Street, or in various other campaigns.

This first version of Tech Learning Collective met regularly for about a year as a semi-private mutual-education project. It succeeded in sowing the seeds of what would later become several additional justice-oriented technology groups. None of the members were formally trained or have ever held computer science degrees. Many of the traditional techniques and environments offering technology education felt alienating to us.

So, after a (surprisingly short!) period of mutual self-education, we began offering free workshops and classes on computer technologies specifically for Left-leaning politically engaged individuals and groups. Our goal was to advocate for more effective use of these technologies in our movement organizing.

We quickly learned that courses needed to cater to people with skill levels ranging from self-identified “beginners” to very experienced technologists, and that our efforts needed to be self-sustaining. Partly, this was because many of our comrades had sworn off technical self-sufficiency as a legitimate avenue for liberation in a misguided but understandable reaction to the poisonous prevalence of machismo, knowledge grandstanding, and blatant sociopathy they saw exhibited by the overwhelming majority of “techies.” It was obvious that our trainers needed to exemplify a totally new culture to show them that cyber power, not just computer literacy, was a capability worth investing their time in for the sake of the movement.

Tech Learning Collective’s singular overarching goal is to provide its students with the knowledge and abilities to liberate their communities from corporate and government overseers, especially as it relates to owning and operating their own information and communications infrastructures, which we view as a necessary prerequisite for meaningful revolutionary actions. Using these skills, our students assist in the organization of activist work like abortion access and reproductive rights, anti-surveillance organizing, and other efforts that help build collective power beyond mere voter representation.

Who is your target audience?

Anyone who is serious about gaining the skills, knowledge, and power they need to materially improve the lives of their community, neighbors, and friends and who also shares our pro-social values is welcome at our workshops and events.

Importantly, this means that self-described “beginners” are just as welcome at our events as very experienced technologists, and we begin both our materials and our methodology at the actual beginning of computer foundations...

 We know what it's like to wade into the world of digital security as a novice because we've all done it at one point or another. We felt confounded or overwhelmed by the vast amount of information suddenly thrown at us. Worse, much of this information purported to be “for beginners”, making us feel even worse about our apparent inability to understand it. “Are we just stupid?”, we often asked ourselves.

You are not stupid. [...]  We insist that you can understand this stuff.

The TLC is incredibly active, with an impressive 15 events planned for June. How does your group share this workload and avoid burnout among collective members?

There are three primary techniques we use to do this. These will be familiar to anyone who has ever worked in an office or held a position in management. They are automation, separation of concerns, and partnerships. After all, just because we are anti-capitalist does not mean we ignore the obviously effective tools and techniques we have at our disposal for realizing our goals.

The first pillar, automation, is really what we are all about. It's what almost all of our classes teach in one form or another. In a Tech Learning Collective class, you will often hear the phrase, “If you ever do one thing on a computer twice, you've made a mistake the second time.” This is a reminder that computers were built for automation. That's what they're for. So, almost every component of Tech Learning Collective's day-to-day operations is automated. [...]  The only time a human needs to be involved is when another human wants to talk to us. Otherwise, the emails you're getting from us were written many months ago and are being generated by scripts and templates.

Without that we would need to at least double if not triple or quadruple the number of people who could devote many hours to managing the logistics of making sure events happen. But that's boring, tedious, repetitive work, and that's what computers are for.

Secondly, separation of concerns: this is both a management and a security technique. In InfoSec, we call this the compartmentalization principle. You might be familiar with it as “need to know,” and it states that only the people who need to be concerned with a certain thing should have to spend any brainpower on it in the first place, or indeed have any access to it at all. This means that when one of our teachers wants to host a workshop, they don't need to involve anyone else in the collective. They are autonomous, free to act however they wish within the limits of their role. This makes it possible for our collective members to dip in and out whenever they need to, thus avoiding burnout while increasing quality. If one of us has to step away for a while, the collective can still function smoothly.

Finally, partnerships allow us to do things we could not do on our own. This also helps distribute the overarching workload, like creating practice labs or writing educational materials for new workshops. We work extremely closely with a number of other groups [since] our core collective members straddle several other activist and educational collectives.

At the time of writing, we are in the middle of the COVID-19 health crisis. Many groups are struggling with shelter-in-place, but fortunately TLC seems to have adapted very well. What are some strategies you are employing to continue your work?

This is almost an unfair question, because the nature of what we do at Tech Learning Collective lends itself well to the current crises.

The biggest change that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to adapt to is the shuttering of our usual venues for in-person workshops. Fortunately, we were already ramping up our online and distance learning options even before the pandemic. So we simply put that into high gear. The easily automatable nature of handling logistics for online events also made it possible to do many more of them, which is one reason you're seeing so much more activity from us these days.

In certain ways, for many in our collective, this "new normal" is actually a rather dated 90's-era cyberpunk dystopia that we've been experiencing for many, many years. In that sense, we're happy that you don't have to enter this reality alone and defenseless. We kinda’ built Tech Learning Collective for exactly this scenario. We want to help you thrive here.

Finally, what does the future look like for TLC?

We're not sure! When we started TLC, we never thought it would end up becoming an online, international, radical political hacker school. In just the last two months since we've been forced to become a wholly virtual organization, we've held classes with students from Japan, Italy, New Zealand, the UK, Mexico, and beyond, as well as many parts of the United States of course. Many of them are now repeat participants working their way through our entire curriculum, which is the best compliment we could have asked for. We hope they'll stick around to join our growing alumni community after that. We're also (slowly) expanding our “staff” outside of New York City, which isn't something we thought would happen for many years, if at all.

But right now, we're primarily focused on moving the rest of our in-person curriculum online and creating new online workshops. Many of the workshops unveiled this month or planned for next month are new, like our workshops on writing shell scripts, exploiting Web applications, auditing firewalls and other network perimeter defenses, and an exciting "spellwork" workshop to learn about the "spirits" that live on in the magical place inside every computer called the Command Line. So in the near future, expect to see more workshops like these, as well as more of our self-paced “Foundations” learning modules that you can try out anytime for free right in your Web browser from our Web site.

After that? Well, some say another world is possible. We're hackers. Hacking is about showing people what's possible, especially if they insist it could never happen.

Our thanks to Tech Learning Collective for their continued efforts to bring an empowering technology education to marginalized peoples in New York City and, increasingly, around the world. You can find and support other Electronic Frontier Alliance affiliated groups near you by visiting eff.org/fight

If you are interested in holding workshops for your community, you can find freely available workshop materials at the EFF’s Security Education Companion and security guides from our Surveillance Self-Defence project. Of course, you can also connect to similar groups by joining the Electronic Frontier Alliance.

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