By Todd Cohen
Civil rights groups are stepping up efforts to harness technology in the cause of social justice.
A new Web site – partnersagainsthate.org — 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 of those initiatives has transformed civilrights.org into a portal to collect and share rights content.
“There’s a disconnect,” says Brian Komer, director of technology programs for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a 50-year-old coalition in Washington, D.C., of 180 rights groups.
While rights groups recognize the importance of technology and tech policy, he says, 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.
The three groups, which previously offered the materials in print form only, now can update them online.
The site also supports 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 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 says. “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.
The site now aggregates and publishes 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.