Lessons Learned from the Digital Rights Learning Exchange

By Elizabeth Sutterlin | February 10, 2023

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Digital Rights Learning Exchange

In 2022, NDI partnered with Digital Grassroots to deliver the Digital Rights Learning Exchange (DRLX) program, a six-week virtual course that to date has connected more than forty grassroots activists from fourteen countries across Africa and Latin America. Participants learned the basics of advocacy skills for digital rights through a combination of online lessons, talks from expert guest speakers, and collaborative exercises to design their own advocacy campaigns around digital rights issues including internet access and affordability, online hate speech, freedom of expression, privacy and surveillance, and internet shutdowns. 

Now that two cohorts of participants have completed the program, the course team has taken time to reflect on trends we saw throughout the program and to identify common threads in the experiences and feedback we received. Collected below, we examine three opportunities for further support to emerging digital rights advocates. We hope these findings, lessons learned, and opportunities will be useful, not only to our own course team as we move forward, but to others providing training and designing curriculum for grassroots digital rights and internet freedom advocates.

Activists are eager to build out their "hard skills"

The DRLX program provided an introductory overview to the building blocks of advocacy across six modules that covered a new skill each week and included everything from stakeholder mapping to digital security and self-care. Feedback revealed that some of the most valuable lessons for participants were the modules offered on developing communications strategies, using data to inform advocacy, and monitoring and evaluation for advocacy campaigns. Further, comments received from participants across cohorts pointed to a desire among digital rights activists for further training on "hard skills" that can strengthen grassroots advocacy efforts. Several participants expressed interest in more in-depth digital security training, based on threats they had faced or were facing in repressive environments. 

For many participants, the module on using data effectively was their first exposure to the topic. One participant shared that previously, they thought of data collection and analysis as strictly something done by those with technical background, but that the program helped them understand how to apply and visualize data in their own work. Because many participants were so new to the topic, they expressed interest in furthering their data analysis and visualization skills. 

There are myriad types of data that, when appropriately measured and applied, can strengthen digital rights and internet freedom advocacy campaigns. Strengthening advocates' abilities to utilize everything from quantitative statistics on network measurement and social media analytics to qualitative interview and survey data will help civil society groups make an informed case to policymakers about the impacts of digital rights and internet freedom violations in their communities. Addressing the desire we saw activists demonstrate to increase their ability to gather, clean, apply, and visualize data through more in-depth training is a clear opportunity that we hope future digital rights training programs can address.

Groups need more resources for evaluating success

Throughout the DRLX program module on monitoring and evaluation for advocacy campaigns, participants recognized the importance of monitoring successes of advocacy projects. Many participants shared challenges they had faced trying to evaluate and communicate long-term successes of their past advocacy efforts. These discussions informed another lesson we hope future digital rights training programs can address - the inherent challenges in monitoring advocacy campaigns over long time horizons, given the length of time it often takes for movements to grow and achieve measurable changes in norms or policy. Further resources and training in the area of monitoring and evaluation would both strengthen the campaigns of civil society groups pushing for digital rights, and would also strengthen the ability of these local advocates to secure outside funding and scale the impacts of their work.

Approaches should keep advocacy accessible at the grassroots level

The DRLX program targeted standout local activists, who could strengthen their advocacy for digital rights in their communities through connecting with peers and mentors. The course was conducted and materials were available in English, and the shared language among participants enabled individuals to collaborate and to learn from one another's contexts. However, some participants also pointed out that having the course and digital rights advocacy materials available in local languages would have been beneficial. This feedback illustrates a key trade off faced when working with grassroots advocates: groups like The Open Internet for Democracy Initiative often seek to "level up" the work of local civil society and elevate their voices to a regional or global stage. This approach is crucial for ensuring high-level internet and technology policy is informed by the concerns of underrepresented groups (civil society across the Global South,) but at the same time, it should not discount the efforts of these groups at the local (or even hyper-local) level. Providing future courses or translating existing digital rights training resources into local languages could allow community advocates to scale down, in addition to scale up, raising community awareness of pressing digital rights issues, allowing activists to build broader, diverse coalitions to push for policy change and democratic digital spaces.

Mentorship opportunities are highly valued - by both mentees and mentors

A key aspect of the DRLX program was connecting each project group with a mentor with established careers in the digital rights space, who could give feedback and advise on the work each group did in the final two weeks of the course. Across two cohorts, 84% of participants reported that they found the mentorship helpful or very helpful, and 93% of mentors reported having a positive experience working with their mentee groups. After the course, many participants indicated they wished they had been able to connect with mentors earlier on in the program, to have more time to gather feedback on their proposed ideas and learn from the wealth of advocacy experience each brought. 

The course team opted to keep the mentorship period to two weeks for the second cohort, recognizing the large time commitment a longer mentorship program would require. After the second course cohort, however, the course team received feedback from mentors as well as participants that suggested they would have enjoyed a longer time horizon for mentorship. This revealed a key lesson of the program: opportunities for mentorship and relationship-building are not only valued by those getting their start in the digital rights space. Established advocates also find value in being connected to newer, emerging voices.

Finding follow-on opportunities is crucial to keep a community engaged

Participants in both cohorts took eagerly to every opportunity to get to know one another and hear about the work others were doing in the field. Participants repeatedly emphasized the value of being connected with digital rights experts - both their mentors and the guests who delivered lectures during the course's live sessions. Participants indicated an interest in continuing to engage with peers from their cohort after the conclusion of the program. Several members from the first cohort served as group mentors in the second iteration during the fall, and others returned to watch the second cohort's course finale event where project teams showed the results of their work. 

This continued engagement was encouraging, and emphasized to the whole course team the importance of building on this momentum. Based on our experiences, we would encourage those designing digital rights training programs in the future to plan for this groundswell of interest, and to look for ways to keep the communities they create engaged through additional resources, activities, and opportunities that allow participants to apply their new knowledge immediately after completing the course. Going forward, as we look to expand the reach of the DRLX program through asynchronous modules and translations, we hope to find ways to meet this appetite to keep course alumni engaged through both programming and opportunities for networking with each other and with new participants we reach in the coming year. 

The Digital Rights Learning Exchange was at every turn an exciting project as the course team watched participants connect, learn, and collaborate throughout the course on their advocacy project ideas. As we head into a new year, we hope to continue building on the successes of the DRLX program. The course team, and the entire Open Internet for Democracy Initiative, will seek ways to address the opportunities we have identified to further strengthen this community of grassroots digital rights activists to share best practices and build an internet that works for democracy. Want to stay in touch? Follow OIDI and DIGRA on Twitter, and keep an eye on our websites for upcoming opportunities!