Same storm, different boats!”: Reflections on online collaboration in the midst of a pandemic​​​​​
Written by GeDIA member Amy O'Donnell // Adviser on applications of digital technologies in programmatic contexts at Oxfam.
How do we work on inclusive co-design at a time when opportunities to meet face-to-face have been impossible? How can we harness online spaces to rethink ways to counter problematic power dynamics?  The COVID-19 pandemic — with associated travel restrictions, distancing measures and personal pressures — is the storm we all face. A new reality that forced the GeDIA network to go online from the outset.
When the network set out to research the importance of inclusive co-design in digital spaces, little did we know that we would inadvertently find ourselves in the process of going digital and needing to look honestly at how we practice collaborative digital working for ourselves. This dual insight has offered rich and unexpected learning in what inclusive online collaboration looks like, as we are conscious and purposeful in whose voices are heard or who shapes decisions.
Intentionally designing online spaces
The network started early in 2020 and had originally planned to hold two 2-3 day workshops in Zambia and Uganda. By March 2020 we knew this was not an option. We all know how challenging it can be to maintain attention while looking at a screen, so we had to intentionally design different spaces. These workshops were converted to eight shorter online sessions spread out over several months. The unintended benefit was this resulted in longer-term relationship building and time to reflect and build momentum between the sessions.
Despite many of us dialing in from all over the globe, the workshops attempted to replicate the feeling of being hosted as we “visited”  Asikana Network, Zambia then Makerere University, Uganda - down to detail of the agenda being presented in East African Time. We built in time to listen to ‘notes from Zambia and Uganda’ sharing insights about gender norms and learning about each other’s cultures. I have been reflecting with Chisenga Muyoya – a co-Investigator - who hosted sessions from Zambia on getting the tone right. “I wanted to share something about the colour and vibrancy of my culture and one of the ways we express ourselves is through dance. I intentionally chose a modern dance” Chisenga explained, “too often there’s a tendency to package up culture to suit an audience who want to see something more distinctly and stereotypically ‘traditional’.”
Start with wellbeing
The saying “we’re in the same storm, but all in different boats” couldn’t feel more relevant as so many GeDIA members face unique circumstances in our personal and professional lives affecting our involvement in the network. Situations involving childcare, job security, health or political stability to name but a few. From the outset we focused on wellbeing, making time for check-ins and being flexible. Acknowledging our emotional situation has felt extremely important, in this past year especially.
For me, a highlight was during a session led by our PI, Dorothea Kleine, in which we were invited to share “lockdown” activities and express them through doodles. We connected at a personal level with each other as we came to the network as whole people whose lives had all changed - not just to get down to work. This is a step so often skipped in the interests of efficiency, especially in online meetings where there is limited opportunity for informal chats around lunch or breaks. I believe this emphasis on care is a manifestation of feminist approaches held by many in the network as we dedicate attention to flexibility and support to one another.
We immediately noticed the inequality in our ability to meet virtually. Some network members faced varying practical challenges when switching online. These challenges included Internet speed/connectivity and the implications of the choice of platform, including considerations for bandwidth when using video functionality. The project financially supported mobile Internet devices and data  costs, which in our online reality was a vital foundational investment to make to enable basic steps towards participation.
Existing inquiry into the use of technology has taught us that being connected is necessary but not sufficient to create equitable and inclusive spaces for voices to be heard. Tony Roberts’ 5As of Technology Access offers a framework to understanding barriers to using technology in a non-binary way that extends to the “social and economic factors that (digital tools) reflect, reproduce, and amplify.” These barriers go beyond having a phone in your pocket or a laptop on your desk with reliable connectivity (‘access’) to exploring ‘affordability’, ‘ability’, ‘awareness’ and ‘agency’. I have heard others add ‘attitude’ in terms of whether you want to engage. Within GeDIA, this framing reminds us to look holistically and give extra consideration for how comfortable people feel when contributing virtually – whether verbally or in writing. We are reminded to be conscious of what might be going on at home - and seek to understand choices and preferences, without making assumptions, and adapt accordingly.
Often it’s not enough to just “open the floor” for reflection or ask “if anyone wants to add?” For this reason, as a collective, we have intentionally designed spaces using collaborative tools, such as online sticky notes and virtual mapping boards that have gone some way to break down barriers, so we have multiple channels to contribute in our own way and in our own words — without having to wait for the moment to come off mute.
Top-down vs complexity
We have found that ideation online is one thing, but there are further challenges when it comes to analysing collectively. This is relevant as we are currently developing a set of proposals for longer term funding. As open ideas generation moves to synthesis, a top-down approach can be more straightforward, resulting in a more coherent proposal. But participation and inclusion can get lost in such processes and we don’t always articulate the reasons for this or acknowledge the power dynamics that come with facilitating, synthesising or writing.
In contrast, all GeDIA Focal Areas — subgroups of four to five people — have had a great deal of freedom in developing proposals and invested more time in collaborative drafting than usual aspiring to create co-led, inclusive spaces for project development. Even though diverse approaches might appear ‘messier’, this diversity has ultimately made our research proposals stronger.
For example, in one session, we wanted to create linkages between many ideas and suggestions across the different themes that had bubbled up in our mini events. The aim was to intentionally ensure space and seek out perspectives from the diverse participants in the network to contribute to defining the bigger picture and the transformational change we seek in collective. We tried an exercise of ‘throwing the thread’, a typically offline activity that requires participants to throw a physical ball of string to each other to create a spider’s web. We adapted this idea virtually as we set out to include everyone’s voice in identifying the bigger picture of what the network was aiming to achieve.
After one participant had shared a short reflection on an active idea in their theme, we invited others to pick up this ‘thread’ and connect it to their theme. The quick tempo and lightness of ‘throwing the thread’ allowed everyone to make short, focused points before passing to the next person. Instead of long interventions dominated by one or two people, this helped us create diverse thematic connections. Our challenge now is to respect everyone’s participation as we move from participatory complexity to a cleaner, crisper narrative that donors or researchers feel is worthy of funding. Aware that the team developing this will bring their own perspective to shaping the narrative, our worry is what we will miss in doing so and the steps to ensure consistent validation and collective ownership.
Diversity and Power​​​​​​​
Unpacking what equitable digital inclusion looks like with a racial justice and gender justice lens– and applying this learning in our practice as a research network - is one of the challenges the GeDIA Network has sought to tackle. Intersectional dynamics of race, gender, social status and beyond are mirrored from “real life” in digital spaces and in some instances can be exaggerated to effect who speaks up, who decides, who is seen and who is heard.
“Nothing about us, without us” is a crucial reminder when understanding the digital landscape and related barriers. Those who design tools and methodologies (or who chairs the online meeting!) affects who engages and how. This, in turn, affects who informs decisions or dynamics of power. If our actions are positively influenced when we relate to likeness we recognise in ourselves, the answer to inclusion has to involve diversity in design. In GeDIA we have a diverse network where ensuring inclusion, elevating lived experiences from network members proximate to work of GeDIA and reciprocity of privilege is inherent to realising success.
Given our project’s name, there could be a tendency to focus on gender justice at the expense of other forms of inequality. However, if we only focus on one form of oppression or marginalisation, we will never be able to fully understand or address root causes. As part of GeDIA’s activities, Brenda Wambui’s literature review surfaced a strong argument for a non-binary conceptualisation of gender with a racial justice lens. Conversations in GeDIA have been progressive in taking on a systemic and multifaceted approach to intersectionality in the transformational approaches to change. In our pursuit of a more inclusive digital future, we need to ensure that oppressions are not ranked or rated but viewed intersectionally with a lens of power.
A cross cutting group within the GeDIA network is focusing on ‘Decolonising our Research’ to increase systemic understanding and awareness of history and power across our research agenda. This history is reflected in inequalities inherent in the adoption of technology and the current landscape of power, with Silicon Valley and tech giants at the centre. The very business models in this technology architecture, often based on online advertising and exploitation of data, are primarily designed to extract power and profit, overwhelming any potential for competition. A deep reflection is needed to understand power dynamics at play in this space, an active challenge for the GeDIA network to not ignore the extreme power imbalances inherent in the technology landscape that we want to make more inclusive.
The journey to intersectional inclusion starts with being much more intentional about who is shaping the agenda, and genuinely realising the ways lived experience counts for more. Part of this is being more upfront with unspoken tensions and honest about what shifting power really entails (beyond the rhetoric to real consequences) in our working cultures and practices.  One place we can look is the catalytic opportunity of the digital revolution to ensure we are explicit about specific dynamics affecting participation in online spaces — spaces that have become our new reality — and seizing the opportunity we have to use this storm to steer our diverse boats, collectively, in a different direction.
I work on Digital Programme at Oxfam, working alongside staff and partners to explore the practical and policy implications of the digital reality. My passion lies in Responsible Data – considering data to be an issue connected to rights and dignity, as well as human-centred, inclusive methodologies using a combination of on- and offline approaches.
I humbly share this learning perspective about experiences of the network going online with the intention that there is always room for improvement and value in sharing successes as well as tensions and challenges.  I acknowledge the invaluable support of Focal Area co-lead, Chisenga Muyoya, who has been a rock over this past year, in formulating these reflections.
The Gender-Just Digital Innovation in Africa (GeDIA) network is uniting women changemakers and their male allies to ensure women have an equal say in Africa’s digital futures. The network is structured around three Focal Areas, one of which Chisenga and I convene focused on digital advocacy.
I want to say something about how I've tried to be conscious of my own positionality when coming at this blog because my standpoint and my lived experience matters to the context of the words I write. As a white woman based in the UK, I think listening, reflecting and acting are important emotions and reactions to feel. Someone once told me when it comes to racial justice, “if it doesn't make you uncomfortable, then you’re not listening or thinking about it properly.” I feel discomfort because of the tension of walking the talk in reciprocating my privilege and countering systems of oppression versus conscious about taking up space, centering myself and avoiding tokenism or rhetoric.  Discomfort because learning matters as we all grow and reflect on participatory practice, it causes us to rethink past experiences and the ways we may have approached things.  And how we do that in a way that extends kindness. I am open to learn and on my journey I have learnt so much and been so often humbled by the context of the lived experiences of the diverse and incredible members of the GeDIA network.
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