What inspired you to become an activist?
I think I've always been an activist. As a kid, I read everything I could about MLK and obsessively watched the video of JFK telling America, "Ask not..." on Encarta. Remember that groundbreaking "interactive" encyclopedia that had words AND videos?
But mostly my activism comes from my history -- My great grandparents came to the US from Eastern Europe in the 1920s as religious refugees, like so many other Jews at that time. I grew up hearing stories about how my grandmother shared a bed with her sister in their tiny Bronx apartment til her sister moved out to get married. My grandfather was mayor of a small southern town during desegregation and oversaw a peaceful transition, and he always understood that blacks experienced the same kind of marginalization that his parents did. So, I grew up with an acute sense understanding that oppression wasn't just a theoretical concept and that I was lucky to have a stable environment, access to excellent education and incredible opportunity.
But I got my moment to really stand up against this oppression when I heard about the genocide in Darfur, Sudan in 2004, when I was a college student. I helped build what became an international movement to end genocide. While that movement has dwindled, I could never shake the almost spiritual power of what happens when people find their voice and collectively refute injustice.
When and how did you start RHIZE, and how is it changing the face of community organizing?
The idea of Rhize came to me when I was working with an incredible youth movement in Albania in 2009. They were asking the same questions I had as an activist like, How do you recruit and maintain a volunteer base? How do you craft effective messages? How do we know what tactic to use and when? And I realized that, while every context is different, the fundamental concepts were the same, yet activists in every country I worked in were all making the same mistakes over and over again. I thought that if more people had access to the foundational tools of community organizing, we would be more effective in our work and the power of collective action could be more fully realized.
I wouldn't say Rhize is changing the face of community organizing. We are making the tools of community organizing more accessible. To do this, we work directly with social movements to provide training, coaching and to connect them with a global network of other activists and allies. Creating a global community of "catalysts," as we call them means that activists get power from knowing they're not alone in their struggle and that all of our struggles are connected. We all want the space to make decisions about our lives, be included in society and have access to what we need to live our potential.
Activists are on the front lines of making societies more participatory, accountable, and dignified. In other words, they are reshaping democracy to be truly people-powered. Rhize seeks to amplify that vision so more people can find their voice and learn from others about how to make progress, even when it seems like there are no options. We want people to realize that democracy is a form of government but democratic societies work together to create change.
How can technology be unleashed to change community organizing?
Over the past decade, with social media now on the scene, we've seen technology's incredible power of mobilizing thousands of people very quickly. We saw it in Tahrir Square, in Brazil, Turkey--every continent. And, as exciting as those moments are, we can't dismiss the power of relationships. As an Egyptian activist said -- Facebook helped them communicate but not necessarily collaborate.
Effective movement-building is about collaboration. Rhize is working to use technology as a connective tool for activists to learn, share and get the resources they need to transform their societies while also knowing they are connected to something much bigger than any one struggle.
What is the craziest travel adventure you've experienced?
Hmm. "Crazy" can mean different things. Some things that come to mind: Participating in an all-night sit-in in Albania for the right to assemble; finding a way to meet with a prominent Cuban activist without being followed; participating in The Gambia's national youth conference, where the President donated 21 bulls to be slaughtered on-site in honor of the nation's youth; arriving in Taksim Square [in Istanbul] from the subway only to come face to face with hundreds of police officers in riot gear waiting for a signal during the Gezi protests.
But, mostly traveling is this incredible opportunity to connect with people in a way that constantly pushes me out of my comfort zone and forces me to see the world differently. It helps me understand at a very deep level what makes all of us human but also to examine the systems that prevent most of us from getting the freedoms and agency we need to live full lives. But the fact that I get to work with some of the most generous, courageous, visionary people in the world and call these activists my friends is by far the "craziest" part of my work.
Photography by Arturo Stanig