Summer Research Dispatch: Tonya Nguyen on Mutual Aid Organizations' Use of Technology

20 Aug, 2021

Summer Research Dispatch: Tonya Nguyen on Mutual Aid Organizations' Use of Technology

Each year, the Berkeley Center for New Media is thrilled to offer summer research awards to support our graduates in their cutting edge work. Below, Tonya Nguyen details how she used the funds to research how mutual aid organizations utilize technology and to compensate interviewees for their time and labor.

Thank you for supporting me with the BCNM 2021 Summer Research Award. This award funded my project studying mutual aid organizations and their use of technology. To preface, the COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a new era of technologically mediated organizing and emphasis on mutual aid. However, when mutual aid organizations adopt productivity tools and large-scale platforms, they are introduced to unique socio-technical tensions between mutual aid values, scalability, and new media. With the summer research award, I was able to pursue my research, pay participants, and use transcription software which enabled me to analyze data at scale.

Mutual aid values center on solidarity, community resilience, and radical trust. To uphold these values, mutual aid organizations face complex decision-making processes about what kinds of technology platforms they wish to use and how they manage their digital infrastructures. The decentralized nature of mutual aid organizations requires a steady and sustainable stream of volunteers and a viable decision-making process that honors the voices of the most vulnerable community members. How mutual aid organizations choose information organizing platforms, productivity software, and communications technology affects how organizational decisions are made, methods they use for mobilizing and organizing community members, and determination of community needs. Thus, the adoption of technical platforms introduces unique political and organizational consequences for mutual aid organizations. The constant need to streamline their organizational practices and increasing community demands also illustrates how mutual aid organizations must either scale in size (volunteers, infrastructure) or scale in knowledge sharing across communities. For example, reliance on large, usable, and scalable data storage platforms may introduce privacy risks and concerns about surveillance among incarcerated or homeless members, and choices about which platforms to use may exclude marginalized community members that are most at risk. In light of these challenges, we ask: what are the values, structure, and needs of mutual aid organizations that leverage scalable technology?

To answer this question, I conducted 11 semi-structured interviews with mutual aid organizations located across the United States. These interviews lasted an hour-long, and at the end of each interview, I compensated interviewees with a $30 gift card for their time and labor. We used the funds provided by the BCNM summer research award to pay our participants. This was especially important because we wanted to make sure that we weren’t solely extracting knowledge from marginalized communities, which usually are the groups that need the most mutual aid, without compensation. In general, we found that (1) mutual aids must manage their governance structure, services, and operations while maintaining foundational mutual aid values, and (2) that mutual aids have forged partnerships via inter-mutual aid networks to exchange both tangible and intangible resources while sustaining internal networks within their local communities. At a higher level, mutual aids also need to complete internal tasks from determining their community’s needs, recruiting and maintaining volunteers,to collecting and organizing events for resource distribution. We also found that to respond to needs and sustain services at a granular level, mutual aid organizations and networks must scale in a variety of ways. Mutual aid organizations must (1) scale in operations and (2) scale in knowledge sharing. An increased need from the community or supply from volunteers introduces the need for mutual aids to scale in size via one-to-many relationships instead of one-to-one relationships. With regards to knowledge sharing, mutual aids curate knowledge which they seek to spread across knowledge-sharing communities to meet needs across borders and geographical vicinities. Without the BCNM Summer Research Award, these results would not have been possible to achieve
within such a short period. Again, this award enabled me to pay and recruit participants in an ethical manner, as well as purchase data analysis software that led to the formation of key themes and findings. This September, I am planning to submit a paper about the mutual aid project to CHI 2022. This would not have been possible without the support of BCNM.