Hacking Mozilla’s Stories for Local Impact

Sue Smith

This is a guest post by Sue Smith, Mozilla contractor and co-founder of Hack Aye.

Ever hear yourself explaining something and realise you’re understanding it yourself for the first time? Storytelling helps us make sense of how we got to where we’re at, formalising that understanding so that it can be reused later. It can also be a key ingredient in a culture of openness that fuels collaboration. By sharing resources, ideas and stories, encouraging others to reuse and remix them, we can stimulate creativity throughout a community.

In this post I’d like to tell the story of how Mozilla’s learning programs led me to co-found a new creative technology organisation in Scotland, and hopefully get my own head around what’s been happening along the way.

Mozilla Learning

Mozilla encouraging reuse of its stories.

I’ve worked in education technology for a number of years, creating digital resources to help people learn programming skills. Since early 2014 I’ve been fortunate enough to work intermittently with Mozilla, initially as a technical writer on the Open Badges team, then assisting in storytelling and documentation with Hive NYC. It’s no exaggeration to say that this experience has completely changed my perspective on work and learning, not to mention the impact on my own personal confidence, ambition and belief in the power of communities.

Remixing Mozilla’s work

Earlier this year I started a new collaboration with my long-time friend Jen Hunter, who got here via arts development and trade union environments. With Hack Aye, our goal is to develop an engagement model exploring open source practice as a method to increase participation in work, education and community, initially via the arts, technology and activism. The idea is inspired by many of Mozilla’s initiatives, particularly Hive Learning Networks.

Hives are city-wide networks of educators who come together to create new kinds of learning experiences for and with youth. With a focus on innovation, co-production and openness, Hive contributors connect participants to opportunity and empowerment. The flagship Hive NYC has generated a host of project ideas and practices we’ve fed into our own model, such as Design, Collaborate, Integrate, through which Brooklyn Community College Partnership engaged young people in the co-design of a maker space. Mozilla’s role is not to deliver the activity within a Hive itself, but to provide support for each Hive community in order to drive educational change within the local context.

BCCP Maker Space

Youth co-designing BCCP’s maker space project.

Our local context

Last year’s independence referendum in Scotland changed the cultural landscape in ways we’re still trying to understand. It caused a huge upsurge in activism, with young people rejecting apathy and instead collectively imagining the kind of country they wanted to live in. For a generation with fewer options than at any time in recent history, this deeply creative act was itself an empowering one—they felt able to express their vision of a better future for themselves and their communities. Journalist George Monbiot commented on the “outbreak of hope” spreading across the UK.

The type of activism that was on the rise was interesting, too. It wasn’t coming from the mainstream political system—local grass roots movements were connecting in creative, dynamic ways, with people engaging on their own terms. Like other recent movements such as Occupy, the Fast Food Campaign and Black Lives Matter, the activism we saw in Scotland last year was equitable and inclusive, connected to wider networks amidst a growing culture of international solidarity.

Scottish Rapper Loki

Scottish hip hop artist (yes, you read that right) Loki, one of many creative voices during IndyRef, talking about class and communication at one of our first events.

We wanted to maximise on the momentum created during IndyRef. Looking at the groups involved in the Yes movement—Radical Independence Campaign, Common Weal, National Collective and many others—we saw similarities to open source communities like Hives.

What if we could create opportunities for young people to again visualise change? Would it still be worthwhile? It would if we could also connect them to the skills, tools and networks to make that change happen. That might seem impossibly ambitious, but if I’ve learned one thing working with Mozilla, it’s to have a go at things that seem impossibly ambitious.

Not more hacking of hacking..?

While I was in London last year (for MozFest obvs), I visited Disobedient Objects at the V&A museum. This record-breaking exhibition highlighted the role of making in collective action, innovations shared between movements—exhibits included printouts of a downloadable makeshift tear-gas mask “How To” guide, as shared between protesters all over the world, from Turkey to Ferguson. This is the hacker ethos we want to spread—learning how things work, making new things out of them, sharing them around. As Hive Research Lab contributor Rafi Santo explains, the hacker mentality is fundamentally about seeing things as changeable.

Hack the Planet Post-Its

Participant contributions during one of our brainstorming activities.

Networked networks

Early partners in our work have included trade union organisations here in Scotland. We’ve facilitated a few “campaign hacks”—hackdays engaging groups of young people in the design of campaigns on issues that matter to them. We use internet tools for collaboration, but more importantly we use open source organising principles to stay decentralised, with participants leading, deciding on direction and outcomes in cooperation with peers, their contributions recognised and valued.

Hack the Boss

We created the Hack the Boss teaching kit for one of our first events, using X-Ray Goggles to make opinionated remixes of employer websites as part of a campaign against insecure work. Vandalism? Aye! We could hardly use the word “hack” without being a wee bit subversive.

Hacking the Boss

Hacking the boss…

Open source stories

In the spirit of the programs we’ve been influenced by, we’re committed to sharing our stories openly. Making sense of your own story is often about figuring out how it relates to other, bigger stories. Intuitively, it seems like there is a general trend towards more distributed organising powered by the Internet, as well as creative projects prioritising cooperation and peer production, exploring the intersections between art and the Web. Whether or not all of this represents a truly meaningful shift away from prevailing social systems and structures remains to be seen, but as journalist Paul Mason says, it’s time to be utopian.

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