When Social Justice Meets Art And Technology

Enter NEW INC's inaugural Create and Advocate.


Illustration by Kevin Cadena.

“We were sitting around in a circle the day after [Donald] Trump was elected at NEW INC," artist Taeyoon Choi told me on a recent Sunday afternoon. "We were like, 'What are we going to do? How can we put our connections and resources and enthusiasm to a place where we can actually make some contribution to support people who are most marginalized and most precarious?'”

In response to an increasingly hostile political climate for marginalized groups, NEW INC organized a weekend-long creative hack-a-thon at A/D/O in Brooklyn from April 14–16. “Create and Advocate," which was spearheaded by Rasu Jilani and Julia Kaganskiy, partnered local social justice organizations with artists, designers, and technologists from the NEW INC community to develop creative solutions to key civic issues.

Choi, who was invited by the organizers to join the planning committee, worked alongside nearly a dozen innovators over the two-day period to collaborate with the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Vera Institute of Justice, the People's Climate March, University Settlement, Just Leadership USA, the Sadie Nash Leadership Project, the Black Movement Law Project, and El Puente

Teams worked at open tables designated for each of the organizations in A/D/O's spacious event hall, but the creative participants often bounced between groups, filling in for design, coding, and brainstorming needs—and given the diversity of usable products each organization aimed to produce, the strategy proved to be an effective one.


Artist Taeyoon Choi, graphic designer Kevin Cadena, and communication strategist Stephanie. Courtesy Adelya Aksanova for NEW INC.

Kindred Motes, the digital community manager for the Vera Institute of Justice, wanted to build a game that demonstrates how individual financial investments in jail reform can affect those who are facing incarceration. Despite it being a deeply nuanced and complicated subject, Motes' team ultimately produced a game where players make their own investments in jail reform and see how their money can be best distributed. “We had no idea whether we would be able to accomplish building a full game,” Motes acknowledged. “I had no idea how to program a game, or how to code, so we [had to trust] that people from NEW INC would know how to do that. We’ve been blown away.”

Similarly, representatives from University Settlement, who came to Create and Advocate with hopes of redesigning a website that would serve its users in a more holistic and engaging way, were impressed with the effectiveness of the team structure. Alison Fleminger, co-director for the arts at University Settlement, came excited to build connections with artists and technologists. “Nonprofits are still hierarchical spaces where there’s often not a lot of collective, collaborative work,” Fleminger told me, “so it’s great to get an example of that in action.” By the end of the weekend, her team had a full design structure for a new website marked by a clean and engaging visual language—and they were so confident in it the resulting project that they delivered their presentation in rap form.

Just Leadership USA, planning its #CloseRikers rally for later this month, asked a team to design a stronger emotional narrative around why the notorious prison should be closed. Using the story of Kalief Bowder as a model, the team, consisting of data analysts, filmmakers, and storytellers, built a narrative that explained why he died and the public's complicity in allowing these stories to go unnoticed, as well as the alternatives that could have kept him alive. “This project is really about envisioning a world in which Kalief would still be alive,” filmmaker and artist Mitsuko said during a brainstorming session.


Panorama view of Create and Advocate.
Courtesy Adelya Aksanova for NEW INC.

For local Williamsburg nonprofit El Puente, designers and technologists struggled with how to best handle a complicated and difficult topic—gentrification. The team built an interactive map that would allow locals to see the community history of the predominantly Latinx Los Sures neighborhood. Entitled Huellas, or Footprints, the map would collect text and images of past and present community memories that are quickly being forgotten. Freia M. Titland, who worked on the project for El Puente, told the audience during the final presentation that Huellas will "help tell the story of Los Sures and help the community create a long-lasting legacy.”

Much of the night was influenced by the community spirit present in the room. The Sadie Nash Leadership Project, a foundation dedicated to empowering girls of color to be leaders in their communities, spent the weekend developing their “Sorry Not Sorry” campaign, which encourages women to donate a dollar to Sadie Nash when they catch themselves apologizing or using softening language to couch strong actions. Throughout the night, presenters caught on, correcting themselves after apologizing for things like technical difficulties or mispronunciations.


Co-organizer Julia Kaganskiy addresses Create and Advocate attendees. Courtesy Adelya Aksanova for NEW INC.

The urgency of the political moment shined throughout the night. The People’s Climate Movement worked on a design app that connects citizens to local environmental justice organizations on buses to the 2017 Climate March, fostering year-round activism and engagement with environmental activism. Similarly, the Black Movement Law Project worked to improve tools used during protests. Focused on jail support, the BMLP's team built better mechanisms to engage people with the necessary steps to track and account for those jailed, particularly in mass arrests that occur during protests.

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) team, meanwhile, aimed to develop a new information strategy to communicate with those facing discrimination and abuse post-9/11—namely Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities. Hoping to convey large, scary, and information-dense topics in a way that would engage people, they developed a new presentation framework that incorporates social engagement and strong graphics.

Dana Rasso, the digital engagement manager for CCR, said the process helped her “realize that so many times you think you’re doing a great job at getting your message across, and you realize you’ve become almost blind to the areas of your subject matter that are hard to convey.” After what most concur was a long and at times trying weekend, Rasso walked away from Create and Advocate feeling inspired: “The experience has been really energizing and exciting," she said, "and I’m not a person to use those terms lightly.”

Rasu Jilani, co-coordinator, hoped the weekend would build connections that continue into the future. "The real question is 'what does intersectionality look like?' I got to see it this weekend," he wrote to me in an email. "When you are a scrappy organization, with very little funds, resources, and manpower, you have to rely on alliances, skill and knowledge sharing, by way of volunteerism to get things done. We saw that here. We can all learn from this process to share more. To give more. Imagining and playing together. Going beyond the skills and tools for the sake of them, instead all in the name of generating social impact." 



NEW INC's "Create and Advocate" initiative was held at A/D/O from April 1416. Participants include: Taeyoon Choi, Stephanie Dinkins, Hang Do Thi Duc, Francis Tseng, Jonathan Bobrow, AUTO/MOTOR, Angeline Gragasin, Ashley Simone, Dimitri Kim, Virginia Black, Marty Wood, Rosana Elkhatib, Rasu Jilani, Julia Kaganskiy, Alex Darby, Adelya Aksanova, and Kevin Cadena.

Author: Adriana Perhamus

Editor: Rain Embuscado