I started writing this text from a convent’s kitchen table in the indigenous autonomous land in Colombia where I have been having scrambled conversations in the little Spanish that I know with three nuns at the same kitchen table. We exchanged laughs and alphabets one night waiting for the power to come back.
Two girls are helping the older nun perform post-lunch and pre-dinner tasks. The older nun asks me to write down my number so that we can stay in touch when we leave. She reminded me of my grandma, who would ever since I learned how to read and write, would ask me if I could write phone numbers in her navy-blue notebook. It wasn’t until I was old enough to question why she would ask me to read things to her, that I learned that my grandmother being the elder daughter of eight children had to work the land with her parents and did not get the chance to go to school. I learned at that young age that communication and literacy were intertwined with patriarchy. I taught my grandma how to write her name, and she transmitted to me over the years, her vast knowledge of ritual, earth, food as medicine, and spacetime. She also showed that literacy is not an indicator of knowledge and that education can be in the form of ritual. A tight bond was woven into the relationship that my grandma and I nurtured over the years.
She reminded me of my grandma, who would ever since I learned how to read and write, would ask me if I could write phone numbers in her navy-blue notebook.
The integrative camp where the introduction to community networks workshop was being held is a thirty-minute walk from town and fifteen minutes by mountain bike from the school where the kids welcomed us in dance and ritual. The road is paved with pebbles and mud. The stones massage my feet and the mud relaxes my back – I think that I prefer this to asphalt. The space we are in lacks signal, connectivity and electricity. Five people died from the thunder in the first two days of our stay. The lack of electricity did not threaten the power of community and holding. Communities and their networks, infrastructures and communication methods are constantly challenged. I think of the medicinal rituals and how the lack of hospitals was not voiced as an issue. I get flashbacks of my bomb-shelled village in the South where I spent all my summers with my grandmother, and I feel strangely at home.
The setup and energy of the camp takes me back to when I was a child with a big cast wrapped around my leg spending time at my aunt’s transitionary house that she and her family were assigned to after the war. The conflict had ended but she and her family could not return to their home in the war-torn village. The camp is serving as a transitional home and as a collective healing ground where relationships are rebuilt around communal meals and in the football field. Community networks are working for harmonising communities through communication, diversifying infrastructure and usage and by bringing back circular economies that we are trying to remember.
The moon was rising as a young man held his hands together, before taking a deep belly breath and blowing what sounded like a mystical bird calling her peers to join her in her flight. Soon after, a response resonated from across the hill. Communication is wide and undefinable. Community networks are ever-evolving and expanding.
How can infrastructure systems adapt to communities and not the other way around?
The local medicine woman and plant wisdom keeper takes out herbs and displays them proudly on a black piece of cloth. She shares some of their benefits and tests the knowledge of the young people present; she gets upset when they don’t respond and is worried that this sacred and secret knowledge will not be kept and transmitted. My colleague and friend were documenting all of the process and showing her all of the plants on the intranet. She smiles and shares her desire to create a database for traditional healing in the indigenous tongue.
While women are the guardians of bodily, environmental and mystical technology, they are however being pushed out of their right to access digital platforms. Community-run infrastructure invites us to reflect on what access means for those of us who have to share their digital technology tools and whose data and devices are being surveilled and monitored?
Community-run infrastructure invites us to reflect on what access means for those of us who have to share their digital technology tools and whose data and devices are being surveilled and monitored?
As part of the Connecting the unconnected project, a group of us women who work in community networks in parts of Africa, Latin America and Asia gathered in women circles over three nights. We held space for one another to exchange stories, traditions and our journeys with technologies. The circles held space for us to release, be seen and expand. Some of the women have since recreated these sacred spaces in different spacetimes where the depth of connections and technologies are constantly questioned and brought back to their roots. Advancement in communication technology after all allows us “to connect as humans” and that “the relationships and intimacy is all that matters.” How are we making our connection(s) matter? When patriarchal systems benefit from our exclusion and divisions, weaving relationships stands at the core of the feminist values that connect the unconnected. Women in community networks are questioning the design of technology and how can we reclaim it. Women circles are community networks.
I continue to write this from another kitchen table, miles away from home where a revolution is taking place – my mom worries a communication shutdown will happen the next day. I am silent. Kashmir is on my mind. I improvise a few strategies that might soothe her fears. At this moment in our human history, we are reminded that united peoples and their communication threatens oppressive systems. The value of communication lays in its governance of spacetime. How can technology be designed for liberation and resistance and not in reaction to fear? What value do machines hold when they are used to control us.
I was seventeen years old when my grandma gifted me my first mobile phone. it had basic features, but it could flip open. When I asked her why she had bought me a device, out of concern that it was not a within her economic means, she said she had noticed that most of my friends and cousins had such a device. My grandma had granted me a tool for agency and privacy.
At this moment in our human history, we are reminded that united peoples and their communication threatens oppressive systems.
What is the promise of community networks?
Over one year ago, genderIT.org ran a special monthly column on gender and community networks. The aim of the 2018 special column was to have a starting point of thinking around the gendered roles being played out in the establishment and maintenance of community-run connectivity initiatives. There was particular interest to have a better understanding of community networks especially in the global South and from a set of various perspectives from policy to research.
At that time, there appeared to have been a groundswell of support to acknowledge the community network as an alternative approach to internet access. Communities are mobilising to bring self-managed physical infrastructure to their localities to share their content or ultimately bring connection to the internet or information to their localities.
Today, collective interests and alternative community models have advanced in developing overall principles and aims of community-run networks. Principles are important in heterogeneous contexts when people are at different stages in organising to lead the implementation and provision of their own internet. Principles provide a guiding light to what are some of the ideal values for community networks. With such guidance, we see communities engaged with the technologies around identifying local needs and using this base as embedded in implementation and for gaining volunteer action around a community network. Given more self-awareness of local participation and engagement, there is also room for communities to be cognisant of the gendered roles that play out among members.
In regards to policy, telecommunication infrastructure regulation have mainly catered to large scale incumbent operators and ensuring that they are enabled in providing internet services to the general population. There are clear policy gaps which could allow for small scale operators to also participate in providing access to rural and underserved communities. Furthermore, the allowance for affordable spectrum access and lower barriers to entry for small operators, NGOs or cooperatives are not the norm. So besides engaging in the difficult work of gaining local support to build a community network, communities are further hindered in having to broadly seek reform on telecom policy, couched as it is in inaccessible and legal language. There needs to be greater attention given to this policy area and it also needs to be consciously driven by a diverse set of civil society representatives inclusive of women.
Telecommunication infrastructure regulation have mainly catered to large scale incumbent operators and ensuring that they are enabled in providing internet services to the general population.
Dealing with a range of challenges in isolated rural environments can be discouraging especially when technical and policy knowledge around telecommunications is new. We thereby see a project like Connecting the unconnected or Local Access Networks Project (LOCNET) as a positive contribution to the movement and show that there is a collective of community networks all of whom are aiming for the same cause of community-run connectivity. There is much to be shared around the relevant experiences and information across the world on community networks. Communities need to feel that they are not alone in their challenges and can reach out to those with similar issues for solutions. The movement-building of community networks also occurs within international spaces. Such spaces allow for the sharing of experiences, further learning on new developments as well as garnering support from adjacent partners or supporters of community networks. In such venues, encouraging the visibility of diverse panels and developing emerging new spaces of women technical bodies could help to articulate community networks in their heterogeneity. This representation is far from common in international movement-building spaces and therefore community network leaders needs to be to ensure a wide set of speakers that help grow the movement.
Finally, doing research on community networks can be challenging as it is a new area of exploration in regards to understanding the social aspects. In its "new-ness" are the attempts to develop locally appropriate methodologies including the reliance on local community leaders to help find and draw a sample of participants (some of whom are users and non-users as well). Working across cultures and amongst persons busy with their everyday will raise challenges in finding ideal spaces for interviewing women-only groups or seeking women facilitators. Further work could help to refine these methods and ensure that the realities of women in community networks can be genuinely reflected in research and help further our knowledge on their participation.
Clearly, we must recognise the need for gender parity in community networks and what work still needs to be done to ensure women's involvement, and even that of people who are transgender or gender-diverse, queer and others excluded because of the hegemonic performance of masculinity in most spaces. The need for visibility in raising gender-related issues within the profile of community-managed telecom infrastructure is aligned with the growth of interest in improving community participation and dialogue around community networks.
Community networks could open up a space to see where feminism and internet may be applied in a practical way. As an alternative voice, feminism works in parallel with community networks in the global South who are trying to amplify the voice of the unconnected. In itself, it is a celebration of the change of the dominant structures and being led from the ground-up. The global South have their own stories of provision of alternative infrastructure to share and their own ways of pushing for equity amongst all genders. Both are committed to working at improving the voices of the marginalised communities.
How are communities woven and what are the pillars for a human infrastructure that allows a community network to exist? What are the relationships that hold infrastructure to its purpose? What are the values and principles around the labour of care? What are the values that inform governance-models of community networks? How is access shaped and how can we engage in an economy that steps away from extractive systems? What are the relationships that are enabled through access and how do we access the spaces that we navigate in real life and online?
How is access shaped and how can we engage in an economy that steps away from extractive systems?
Connections between principles for a feminist internet and community networks
Feminist principles of the internet are meant to “… provide a framework for women's movements to articulate and explore issues related to technology and to offer a gender and sexual rights lens on critical internet-related rights”. As with the motivation to develop the FPIs, in some ways, community networks straddle a political agenda when trying to break the current mould of reliance of incumbent operators for the internet. Community networks reflect the advances of alternative platforms for underserved communities to demonstrate their dissatisfaction of current structural practice which neglects their value for communication.
In 2019, The Feminist Principles of the Internet have inspired conversations in APC’s Connecting the unconnected project about the infrastructure that we are working for. In various discussions held with and for individuals and collectives involved in community networks, the FPIs around Access, Economy and Governance served as thinking points that articulate some of the values of communities and their networks.
The FPI on access speaks to what has been laid out by several of us who are doing work on gender and the digital divide as well as the intersection of the public and private in relation to technology, safety and agency. We questioned literacy as a barrier, the effects of shared devices on women’s lives and what does it mean to install access points in a space that women cannot physically be, out of concerns for their safety. Some women are not allowed to use their own devices while others cannot attend workshops are because of imposed curfews. How can we factor in all of the specificities of our spaces and times to ensure accessibility? What does access mean if access to safety is not in place? When constructing a network we ought to design networks that ensure that women are safe enough to gather in connectivity points. This also means that our data needs to be safeguarded and private. The conversations allowed us to think of access in terms of what attracts women to the web: what is the content that is relevant to the communities that we work with and how does purpose influence usability? How can access be addressed in a way that speaks to what is meaningful to us?
What does access mean if access to safety is not in place?
And how can access and fair economy come together through purposeful connectivity?
In Economy we exchanged unique models that are not translatable and that aim at harmonising technology and the natural resources. What are the common models that we are learning from and that inspire our understanding of ourselves and of our systems of distribution? While the current worldwide economic models are failing, what is the potential of a sustainable collective economy to start and provide longevity for a community network, which in turn might provide economic independence and sustenance for communities.
We looked at what are the systems that we imagine creating with sustainability and protecting the Earth. How can we return to ancestral knowledge of applying care for the land and for one another through circular economies where we learn to trust and share? How can we share and dismantle gender power imbalance when technology has been largely dominated by men? What are the governance models and how do they interact with economic models that are trying to adapt to the needs of their communities?
Governance allowed us to constantly question who is and who is not in the room when decisions are made about access points, aim and usability of connectivity.
Community networks invite us to question and not to assume those of us who have the power to govern infrastructure. How can we ensure access and control and design infrastructure all at the same time? What can autonomous infrastructure look like for working women who are also mothers, caregivers and dream seekers? How can community networks respond and reclaim the desire for women to be independent agents of choice? How can communities develop technologies that reflect their very own values and priorities? How can communities through infrastructure gain agency over various forms of their lives?
Community networks have gained popularity in recent years with communities trying and demanding to connect themselves to the web, others connecting themselves to resources, and others using them to broadcast content that is valuable to them. What are the values that go into community networks, what do we mean by access and how can we engage in an economy that questions profit and extractive systems? While engaging with women who take on the role of community organisers, articulators, policy makers, and engineers, how can a collective body of diverse women reclaim infrastructure with purpose and value? While also recognizing that this is not a short-term solution and that conflicts arise.
How can we think of connectivity as more than an end? How can we learn from the resilience of our ancestors and offer supportive spaces, despite systematic and structural hurdles imposed by regulating bodies that prevent communities their right to gain access into the soil and air?
Working in community networks has served as a personal and collective reminder for all of us “to connect as humans” and not as consumers. One of the pillars for community networks is in holding each other and holding ourselves conscientiously for how we can create more hopeful and harmonious communities. I learned that community network advocates and enablers do not mystify the internet; they offer insight on the exploitative and capitalistic nature of the web to their communities. They are aware of memory, privacy, consent, resistance and other feminist principles too. They know that communication is an act of exchange. Communication is play. Community is a continuum. Community networks are spaces where some of us go back to for reclaiming and reimagining our individual and collective mindscapes.
Working in community networks has served as a personal and collective reminder for all of us “to connect as humans” and not as consumers.
Community networks is also playing under a bridge, watching older women stretch for longevity and good health, it is hands cradling a child so that her mother can troubleshoot her connection. It is covering a five-year old’s birthday cake with a jacket to keep it safe from the rain, it is tasting various coffee aromas.
Community networks remind me that feminism is personal and collective.
This edition brings back the conversation to its roots. To the essence of why we desire to connect ourselves. It sheds light on who the unconnected are and dispels the myth of the underserved as powerless and in need of saving. It brings back power to the endless creative possibilities of self-determined communities. We are invited to gain a closer look at the realities of the women in their communities and their networks.
Women who guard space.
Who gather together and create space for freedom.
Women who tell and capture stories.
Women who are speaking for themselves and their communities.
Women who are designing, making and maintaining networks.
The ones who speak to the communities.
The ones who step up and take on a role and those who are there, making sure everyone is well taken care of.
Women who create spaces for women to get together and share what they are carrying in their days and in their minds.
Women who share remedies for resistance and herbal skills.
Women who exchange knowledge and experience and weave and interlace systems.