I spent last November traveling through my country -Venezuela- with the citizen media network Reporte Ya, to give workshops on social media use for coverage of the December parliamentary elections, including tips and tools for digital security. These activities were aimed at ordinary citizens, including college students, professionals from different backgrounds and even politicians. In a sociopolitical context where traditional media is not functioning properly, digital media and social networks have somehow fulfilled, at least partially, the need for information, communication and debate around social and political topics; however, Internet penetration in Venezuela is still somewhere around 62% and digital literacy, even though it hasn’t been measured, is obviously lacking. This is the reason why we thought it was important, given the circumstances, to help people understand and empower themselves in the use of social media tools.
Context is king
Audience’s contexts are always different, usually not homogeneous, and not the same as the facilitator’s. We had to deliver the same workshops in the capital city of Caracas and in villages with very little Internet connectivity; in some places people couldn’t choose their ISP or they had regular blackouts for several hours. Coming prepared with all sorts of tools and apps doesn’t mean that our audience is going to be able to use them; it is very important first to analyze the context and develop a proper strategy that can be adapted to the specific audience and the particular challenges it faces.
Everyone needs data
Not only analysts need to understand how to retrieve and analyze big amounts of data; regular citizens as well can find useful to learn how to interpret a trending topic, or the critical mass a particular piece of information can achieve and its meaning with regards to the particular context and situation. For instance, when a lot of fake photographs are appearing and thus disseminating rumors in the context of a political upheaval, learning how to reverse search for an image can be very useful for anyone, and creating a relationship of responsibility towards the information that we receive, consume and replicate can mean all the difference to a connected citizen.
Beware of jargon
When we train about very specific issues, for instance when we train about technology use, it’s easy to take for granted that your audience shares some previous context with you as a facilitator. However, they all have different backgrounds, and some terms might mean something different -or nothing at all- to them. It’s important to give them the opportunity to catch up to you, and to provide materials that are understandable and in their language. When delivering workshops to indigenous populations, we had to understand that Spanish, even though it’s the official language of the country, is not their mother tongue but their second language, and this means there is already a language barrier. Making guides and materials available in your audience’s language can make an enormous difference.
Plan for the best, prepare for the worst
Depending, again, on the context, it is possible to find ourselves delivering a workshop in an auditorium with WiFi and the latest model of projector available, or it’s possible that there is a blackout and there is no electricity -and of course, no internet-, and you have traveled six hours only to be there for that day. Suspending the activity is not an option, because it means it won’t get done another time. To be prepared means to have a plan B and sometimes, also a plan C for when everything fails: to have offline backups of everything you need, and not to get too overwhelmed when everything that can fail actually does fail.
Your job is not done when you exit the room
In my country, there is a culture of two-hour workshops with no hands-on training or follow-up. This means that the rate of people who actually leave the workshop and apply what they have learned is very low. Understanding that it is your duty as a facilitator to do follow up after the event has taken place, and provide additional support if needed, can make all the difference between someone who only sat there for a couple of hours and then returned to their regular life, and someone who actually applied the knowledge to their life.
All in all, I think that all of this sums up to being aware of differences, which in my opinion is one of the most important skills an activist or an advocate can have: to realise that you cannot assume that your audience has the same background, context, tools, opinions or privileges that you might have, and to see that as an advantage instead of an obstacle to be surpassed: to learn how to navigate, ride and thrive on difference can be a powerful motor for change.