The Problem

Right now, we don’t have a good model for getting folks up to speed at scale:

  • Very short, one-off trainings on how to use the basics of one data tool can be helpful, but they don’t provide either the support or a clear pathway forward for continuing to build a Data Chef’s competence and skill
  • Data camps just don’t scale: most people don’t have the time to focus solely on data for many weeks, and most camps can only train a relatively small number of people. And data camps set the bar high for entry; many people don’t have enough experience to know whether they enjoy working with data enough that it makes sense to invest a significant amount of time in a data camp

And in the nonprofit world, we also face other daunting problems:

  • Even though many of the problems we face are the same or are similar, we rarely learn from each other. Instead, we keep reinventing the wheel – from basic cheat sheets to data models, despite our commitment to community, we rarely share what we’ve developed or learned
  • Most large grassroots groups can only afford to have a small number of staff who are skilled at working with data – nowhere what they need to keep up with demand. At the same time, they rarely take advantage of the unique opportunities that are built into how their organizations are structured:
    • Skilled Members: many nonprofits have members who are either already skilled with working with data or would get good at it with some training and support
    • Regional Partners: while one individual black church in a big city might not have much capacity, they could have plenty of capacity if a number of black churches, unions, etc. in that city or region came together

The Solution: Learn from Other Grassroots Efforts to Democratize Knowledge at Scale

Luckily, we don’t have to start from scratch. There are lots of lessons to learn from our history. For example:

  • Extension Services, which powered the agricultural revolution by democratizing agricultural knowledge at scale — and whose failures as well as successes have a lot of teach us
  • The 1960s Civil Rights Movement’s Citizenship Schools, which not only trained staggering numbers of African Americans in the South how to read and right but also trained more than 10,000 community leaders who were critical to the Movement’s success

What these and many other grassroots efforts at democratizing knowledge show us is that we can accomplish extraordinary things if we harness the power of community at scale.

Here are some of the strategies these grassroots efforts have used:

Identify and Develop Natural Leaders

Agricultural Extension agents often focused on identifying and so developing natural leaders: farmers who were already widely respected in their community. These natural leaders had preexisting social networks and relationships they could use to recruit other famers. And they were also likely to understand the concerns and fears that agents needed to address if farmers were to be convinced to adopt new techniques. Similarly, when recruiting teachers for a Citizenship School, organizers targeted people who civil rights activist Dorothy Cotton described as “people with Ph.D. minds who never had the chance to get an education who were the natural leaders in their communities.”

Create Multiple On-Ramps, Grounded in Where People Are

For someone living in a community our society has written off, the idea of getting started in coding can be daunting. The obstacles they face can feel overwhelming. And if classes will put a big strain on your life because of the cost and time they require, how do you know it’s worth the sacrifice? At this point, you don’t even know if you like coding enough to want to do it for a living. That’s why we need to create multiple on ramps. We need to go where people are, where they are surrounded by their peers, and create opportunities for them to get their feet wet.

In Extension Services, for example, they used the following tactics:

  • Nurtured Neighborhood Clubs. Extension agents helped farming communities form neighborhood clubs and worked with clubs to ensure farmers got a steady stream of ideas about how they could improve their farming. As a result, farmers weren’t just hearing about an idea brought in by an outsider, they were learning while surrounded by their peers who spoke the same language and understood the realities they faced.
  • Produced Informal Learning Materials. To supply these clubs, extension agents provided lots and lots of pamphlets and other written materials that were crafted to help teach farmers new techniques and address any concerns they had. Many extension agents also were heavy users of radio broadcasts and other new forms of communication.
  • Fostered Community Events. Extension agents helped foster state fairs and other places where farmers could see demonstrations, compete to see who could use new techniques to grow the best crops, etc.

Where it makes sense to create on ramps will depend on the community. For example, churches and other houses of worship who could offer a short program before or after one of their weekly sermons so members could try a little coding and talk to people who are already doing it. Union locals are another great place for creating multiple on ramps.

To Overcome Insecurity And Other Psychological Barriers, Foster Peer-To-Peer Support

Community-based approaches also have the potential to knock down obstacles that many are afraid we can’t overcome. For example, some have argued that many people – especially men – who work in blue collar jobs won’t want to become fluent working with data because their sense of identity is tied to working with their hands. This could be a real obstacle for an outsider who’s trying to convince them. But if someone who’s resistant is being recruited by a natural leader they trust, and if they know they’ll be making this transition surrounded by their peers who’ve also spent a lifetime working with their hands, this is a much easier nut to crack.

Foster Diversity From the Ground up

One of the painful lessons we can learn from many Agricultural Extension Services programs is how much damage efforts to democratize data can do if they either aggressively lockout or simply ignore communities of color.

Given that today’s ecosystem of data science, data engineering, analytics, etc. aren’t diverse, how do we ensure that as we democratize working with data we also build an ecosystem that’s truly inclusive? The key: don’t make diversity an afterthought. As we grow an ecosystem of Data Chefs, we need to:

  • Design in diversity from the ground up
  • Start by putting diverse community grassroots groups at the center of the ecosystem – especially diverse grassroots groups that operate at scale