This is a transcript of the July 9 edition of Working. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.
Jacob Brogan: You’re listening to Working, the podcast about what people do all day. I’m Jacob Brogan. For this season of Working, we left the East Coast behind and flew to Detroit. We’re speaking with eight people who are drawing on the city’s complex history as they work to create its future. In this week’s episode, we’re speaking with Diana Nucera, director of the Detroit Community Technology Project. Almost 40 percent of Detroit’s residents have no access to broadband internet in their homes, which, among other things, potentially deprives them of economic opportunities by cutting them off from job possibilities.
Nucera talked about the ways that she and her organization are aiming to allay that severe digital divide, telling us about how they try to cultivate tech literacy in Detroit communities and how they train organizers. She also goes into her own day-to-day role as a nonprofit director in Detroit, and tells us a little about her own background in the DIY punk movement.
Then, in a Slate Plus extra, Nucera shares her perspective on what net neutrality means for Detroit.
What is your name, and what do you do?
Diana Nucera: My name is Diana Nucera and I’m the director of the Detroit Community Technology Project, which is a sponsored project of Allied Media Projects.
Brogan: What does that involve?
Nucera: I think the easiest way to explain it to folks that maybe ask gets them to ask more questions is that I help people make their own internet. And I also demystify technology in a way that allows people to teach it in a more community-oriented way—so I’m able to disseminate really complex technological concepts to folks who often aren’t considered when they think about technology education. So, for instance, I work with poor neighborhoods in Detroit that are highly affected by having access to digital technologies, or with technologists to be able to teach in a way that is more inclusive and accessible to a more diverse audience. One of the big things that we work on is this problem that we have in Detroit, which is that 40 percent of Detroiters are without internet at all.
Brogan: So not just broadband but also not on phones or other—
Nucera: —Right, so it’s both broadband and mobile, so any sort of fixed connection. Folks don’t have that here, so it’s a big problem when you consider the economic issues of Detroit and also the rapid change of Detroit. Classism exists already, where you have newcomers coming in and saying, “Whoa, these houses are so cheap. I’m going to buy them all,” and people who have lived here for a very long time and have struggled to stay in the city. One thing I’m really aware of and worried about is with this new gigabit internet that we have been being built in Detroit, that we’re bringing that economic class system into the digital space and creating this digital class system, that is really determined by how fast your internet is and what you can do with it.
Brogan: As I understand it, one of the real crises of extreme digital divides of that nature, especially in a developing economy, is that people don’t have access to the economy because job applications and even job listings are all happening online so ...
Nucera: Yeah, I think that’s a very common narrative, too—that the internet equals jobs—but it’s so much more. It equals connection to your community, to your loved ones, even to community outside this country, and also social services—like, you can’t apply for a bridge card in an office; you have to do it online. How are you going to access that if you don’t have the internet? It is jobs but it’s also social services, community and other resources because the internet is interwoven into our lives in really complex ways, from your fancy watch that shows you what to do all day today, to my ability to even communicate to have this interview take place.
Brogan: Right. So, what is the nature of the organization? Is it a governmental institution or NGO? What’s your status?
Nucera: Allied Media Projects is a 501(c)(3), so it’s a nonprofit. Because we are sort of a sponsored project within that, we are a nonprofit, but we do intersect in all these different ways of community organizing, art, technology and policy. Some of our work is around thinking about open data ordinances, specifically, the one that just happened in Detroit. How does that affect people’s lives? How do people have access to that in a way that really enhances the way they’re already doing work?
Brogan: What does that involve here in Detroit?
Nucera: The open data project that we’re doing here involves working with this group called the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, which formed in 2009, when the big question about Detroit was, is it worth being saved?—which is completely different from today’s narrative of opportunity in Detroit. At the time our question was, what can the role of media and technology be in building new economies based in mutual aid? So the Digital Justice Coalition formed to create a body that is full of multiple perspectives from seniors, to artists, to technologists and different NGOs around the city—to really think about the value of technology and the internet.
The ordinance that was created around open data in February 2015, I believe, what it did is put people’s data online. Not just the cities, not just the interactions that people are having in government to make government more transparent, which I think is mainly the goal of open data, but it also put citizen data online so—
Brogan: When you say “citizen data” what does that mean?
Nucera: Resident status. Basically like your unpaid parking tickets, your license registration, your taxes, your water shutoffs. All of that then becomes a part of that portal.
Brogan: Things like that could potentially be privacy violation.
Nucera: Well, yes. It can also potentially harm and further criminalize people who are already often criminalized. When you think about a neighborhood, for instance, that is maybe facing some crime or whatever but is in the midst of this real estate change, the open data about that neighborhood can shift the opportunities those residents have. As we dove into it, that’s what we asked the Digital Justice Coalition to really think about—like, what does open data mean to the day-to-day person? Not just the journalists, not just the app developers, not just the building developers—but how can it be beneficial, and also harmful, to those who just live in the city? We realized that there are actually not a whole lot of cases of people using it to their benefit, so we started really working on understanding, what is people’s relationship with data? We’re in this culture where we’re constantly giving away our information.
We have this one workshop called What’s in Your Wallet? And it’s basically picking out all the cards in your wallet and thinking about all the information you had to give away to get those cards. Where does that information live? What kind of data trail does that leave for you, and how does that affect your life, and your neighborhood? Because I don’t think people realize that their consumer data, and having access to all of this, actually flips a neighborhood. Like, let’s say with this new legislation around the internet service providers being able to sell our user data, they can sell to a company that’s trying to figure out where they’re going to build the next—blah blah blah.
And that will flip the neighborhood, especially here in Detroit. So, we wanted to give that same opportunity to organizers, specifically folks who are organizing land trusts, who are trying to buy homes in their neighborhood that are in foreclosure to ensure that their neighbors can stay there. To buy up homes from a community perspective so that you’re not just getting strangers who are coming in saying, “This is a cheap house.” We are keeping the residents of Detroit who stayed here throughout this whole, long, painful revitalization process, so they actually get to stay.
We’re learning that the barrier to being able to interact in the digital age is digital literacy. What we know about technology is really limited to what it’s capable of. We know that our phones can do X, Y, and Z, but then how they’re used and how they’re developed, I think, needs to be more in the hands of the users. Our work is really trying to figure out how to shift that to where instead of having Apple and Microsoft tell us what’s next, the neighborhoods are able to say what they need and then develop what’s next.
Brogan: So, you’re leading classes with folks in Detroit to help them better understand their digital footprint?
Nucera: Yes. We have two approaches. One is called the discotechs, which is short for discovering technology. (And yes, there is disco music played during the discotechs.) Basically, those actually were formed from the Digital Justice Coalition in an effort to understand what digital literacy people want. The idea is that you work with a community [inaudible]. For instance, we’re working with a library coming up, and we’re saying, “What do you think people will want?” Then we’ll try to solicit these stations to create almost like a science fair of people teaching and learning tech with each other. Sometimes that looks like elders teaching other elders how they use Facebook, or someone getting someone else an email address or sharing something like what a mesh network is, or having people do the What’s in Your Wallet? workshop I talked about earlier.
And the idea is that you’re not necessarily bringing experts to people, but you’re bringing the expert out in people. Because the digital technology, whether you have access to the internet or not, is infused in our lives—whether it holds your Social Security benefits or it’s like your day-to-day life on your phone or your Google calendar or whatever. It is infused in our lives in a way that is as essential as water. People are already experts at it, but the way technology is being taught, we honor only those with computer science degrees to be able to tell us what’s possible. Our work at the Detroit Community Technology Project is trying to shift that narrative.
Brogan: It’s about connecting people with others who already are using the technology in powerful ways that are potentially civically important.
Nucera: Right, in ways that relate to them—because what Joe Schmo from downtown who works at the big tech firm has no idea what Sally in the North End needs, so how will he know what to teach her? It’s an assumption, and not all techies know how to interact with communities, to ask, or to even begin by listening. That often is most of the work—teaching people how to begin by listening.
Brogan: One part of what you do is this discotech educational event. And there’s a second part?
Nucera: Right. We also recently created this book called The Teaching Community Technology Handbook, and that has been the foundation for training trainers, basically, on some of our other curricula. Our main curriculum is the Digital Stewards Program, which essentially trains neighborhood residents how to build, organize, and maintain a wireless network. We’ve been doing this work for the past five years, and understanding mesh technologies, wireless technologies, and been working with this group, the Open Technology Institute in D.C., the New America Foundation.
Brogan: Disclosure, I’m a former employee of New America.
Nucera: Oh, wow, there’s a lot of them. It’s like how you’ll find a Detroiter wherever you go. but yes, they really taught us a lot about what mesh does. They were building this software called Commotion and we were a test bunny, and we combined our abilities to do popular education and to create really accessible technology to create this deeper curriculum called Digital Stewards that trains people in wireless engineering, and it’s at a very high level and—
Brogan: —So this isn’t just about setting up a router in your house that your neighbors can use?
Nucera: No. This is about building a full-on infrastructure in your neighborhood.
Brogan: How does that work?
Nucera: First, we have to teach people how to organize, so we actually focus more on training residents who are already organizers because it is so much easier to teach someone technology than it is to teach someone organizing. We focus on those active residents in the neighborhood, and then we teach them about James and Grace Lee Boggs and their philosophies around organizing, which are really based in relationships.
Brogan: Tell us who those people are.
Nucera: James Boggs and Grace Lee Boggs are incredible activists and mentors of mine and my colleagues here in Detroit. Grace Lee Boggs recently passed away at 100 years old, just a year ago. What I learned from her is that if I transform myself, I transform the world around me, which I believe is something Gandhi used to talk about, too. The way you do that is through building relationships, making connections, and then you can cultivate things that are meaningful and purposeful and sustainable.
Brogan: So, if I can be corny about it, you’re trying to help people build networks, to build networks, to build networks?
Nucera: Yes, yes. Our model is that, yeah, it’s super meta. I believe that economic revitalization actually starts from within a very microscopic moment of people relating to each other, and that’s really intertwined into our curriculum. We talk a lot about relationship building. They learn collaborative facilitation: How do you generate ideas? How you facilitate conversations in a way that is inclusive, not just top-down? Things like having people collage together to come up with a new idea or whatever—so really deconditioning the way in which we’ve been taught in some ways. We also teach a little about preparedness plans. Like, how you then activate your community to create a preparedness plan, so that when you build this network, it has a purpose, you can prepare for a flood or a water shutoff, for that matter.
The class thinks about the purpose of the network before they learn the tech, and they go deep into organizing and the history of organizing in Detroit before they go into the tech. Then they learn about wireless engineering, and they go deep into different routers, line of sight, mapping assets, rooftop assessments, all that—organizing building owners to get on their rooftop to be able to put a router up. The class itself looks like people messing with routers and doing a little bit of programming and learning IP addresses, what the internet is. It’s really complex. Sometimes I think, “I don’t know how we do it,” but I do. It’s through popular education. It’s through taking the moment to figure out how to teach in a way that’s relevant to people. That’s why we built the handbook because we realized the foundation of all of this is how we teach and learn with each other.
Brogan: In communities where people don’t have access, or at least easy access to internet, what are the material or personal or communal effects of that? How does that bear specifically, you think, on the lives of Detroit residents?
Nucera: Yeah. That’s a good question. I think the way to answer that is for you to think about all the ways the internet is interwoven in your life, and then imagine not having that. I can’t speak to what people’s experiences are because I think they’re so different, but if you just take a second to imagine what life would be like without the internet, I think you’ll have your answer.
Brogan: Sounds impossible.
Nucera: I know, right? Sometimes when I’m with my elders I feel so lucky because the organizing community here is so packed with amazing elders. We are always like, “Wait—how did you guys organize this without the internet?” There’s this interesting symbiosis happening in Detroit that I love so much, where the elders really keep us informed about what the old processes were, so we don’t lose sight of connecting with each other while we’re also teaching our elders how to use social media to advance their efforts.
Brogan: How to connect in new ways.
Brogan: When you actually are able to help a community set up internet for the first time, give people access, how does it change? Are there particular things you’ve seen people get excited about or particular things that have shifted in the patterns of their lives in the communities?
Nucera: It’s so hard to track because we use the internet in so many different ways, and it has such a function, but specifically working in the discotechs, I see elders get really excited about the capabilities of their phones and their ability to connect with their grandchildren, to see pictures of their grandchildren, to take photos and send them online, to put out an article of their business without having to wait for someone to write it, and to create a website that allows them to sell products. To have this intranet they can use as a bulletin board so they— for example, an organization or a black club—can disseminate information a lot more easily.
The thing I’m most excited about with our news project is that the Grace in Action group we’re working with in southwest Detroit—which is one of the most polluted areas in the United States because of the oil refineries and everything around it—they are excited about finally being able to do air quality monitoring. They haven’t been able to move any sort of legislation around air pollution in that area because they keep getting told that there’s no way for them to collect that data. So, they’re excited about being able to collect the data and make a case for legislation, while also being able to communicate and share with each other when something’s wrong.
Let’s say people need to not be out smelling the air, they can use their network to warn them. It’s incredible, the ideas people have. There’s no one particular thing that will change once you get the internet; it really depends on what your interests are. Once, we had this class and asked people, “What was your first experience online?” There was an elder at the table who was 78 and used to work on the Morse code, so he remembers the switch from bell to the internet and creating the first network in the ’60s, and then we had a millennial, a young person in the room who had gone on the internet in 2002—someone who experienced internet in the ’60s and someone who experienced it in 2002. And you know what? Their reflections were exactly the same.
They were completely overwhelmed with the possibilities. I think that’s true of a lot of people when they get online for the first time, even people who are very seasoned. There is just so much out there—what do you concentrate on? I think that’s why we try to bring people online together as a community because it’s a scary place. It’s like space, what do you expect? Can we breathe in here? As a community, you can start to build the equivalent to parks, and bike lanes, and sidewalks people can navigate because essentially the internet is this digital architecture that overlays all of our lives. And just as we develop and build land, we develop and build the internet with what we consume and produce on it. That’s a really long way of saying that I think it completely changes someone’s life when they’re able to access information in a way that makes sense to them.
Brogan: Do you work with people to help them negotiate the darker, more troubling sides of the internet? The troll factories of Twitter, or even the more mundane problems of addiction to social media and such?
Nucera: Yeah, and I think that actually happens in more of a physical form. That’s where the community organizing and the participatory facilitation teaching comes into play. If we can foster relationships and understand how to navigate hard times with each other in the physical world, we can do that in the digital world as well. One way we help navigate the darker side of the internet is really training people in producing rather than consuming. We’re not teaching people “This is the website you go to for this” or “This is this resource.” We’re teaching them how to make media, how to tell their stories and then how to then put them online because that’s how you shift that darker side—by flooding it with things that actually are relevant to you and that you care about.
Brogan: What is your role in all of this?
Nucera: As the director of the Detroit Community Technology Project, I think I hold the overall vision as far as developing the program and the intricacies of how one thing leads to another. My job is to make sure everyone is aware of that, and help them troubleshoot problems along the way because no plan ever goes as planned. My day-to-day is a lot of conversations. There’s drama that occurs, we’re human. Some people want to fight other people and I say, “Don’t do that. We just spent a year training them.” Some people get stressed out because there’s stuff like contracts and negotiations that we have to do. My job is to make sure that I really build the capacity of my team to be able to do this work, so they can then build the capacity in these organizations that we work in.
Brogan: How many people are you managing, overseeing?
Nucera: Currently, I have four staff members that work in the office and I’m working with six folks throughout our sites, but that will double in a couple months and we’ll have another six, so it will be 16.
Brogan: And are they full-time people or are they volunteers?
Nucera: No, I truly believe in paying people for this work. It’s a labor of love and it’s very stressful. Organizing is no small feat, so I have two part-time employees. One who works specifically on our data justice work, doing a lot of the research on people’s relationship with data, and then I have a graphic designer. I have a full-time coordinator, and a full-time IT coordinator, but I also have a contracted IT network engineer. That’s my team.
Brogan: Where is the funding for all of this coming from? You’re a 501(c)(3), you’re a nonprofit. You didn’t say you have a fundraising person, did you?
Nucera: Oh, yeah. That’s the other part of it. There’s working with the people to make sure that life is good and we’re relating well—I call it deep-tissue massaging rather than firefighting because I think the massaging prevents the fires. I’ll put out a fire if I need to. The other side of it is thinking about fundraising, and always hustling contracts, always hustling ways we can take the materials we’ve already built and earn income with them or support other people in doing the same project so this idea of community technology is more spread out. There’s a whole lot of thinking about the future, always. I feel like my brain is a year ahead, so I’ve become really good at time hacking.
Brogan: In the sense of making the best use of your time? Or anticipating?
Nucera: In the sense of stretching time out. If I know in May that in July or September fundraising has to begin, how can I lay the seeds so that I get more done? The more you know about the work you do, the more you can get ahead of the game. You start to think about triangulation with people you want to support or invest in your project, so it’s sort of like—I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like a psychic or something, like I have these weird calendar powers. Just the fact that we were able to schedule this interview is like a miracle.
Brogan: I’m so glad you did. Is that sort of future or logical thinking just a function of running a nonprofit generally, do you think, or does it come from working on technology, helping people catch up to the present moment, and also anticipate where they’re going, how they’re getting there?
Nucera: I think it’s a little bit of both. I think because we’re working with technology we have to think about five years down the line because what we’re doing now may not make sense then. We need to understand the root of the problems, so we’re heading in the right direction. Then the other part is yeah, we live in Detroit, we are a nonprofit, we’re hustling like everybody else. There’s a saying “Detroit hustles harder”; it’s so true. And so many people wear a million different hats to get their work done out of love. I think that’s why people love Detroit so much and why when they come here they want to be a part of it because people do what they love. A lot of them do. There’s a lot of folks who are not able to do that, but I feel like working as a nonprofit in Detroit, you are faced with navigating a low-resource area.
There’s a culture within nonprofits in general to fight for funding rather than to join forces for funding, and I feel like that’s also what Allied Media Projects is addressing. You also constantly have these other things besides the tech that are changing. The landscape of Detroit is changing so rapidly. You have to be aware of what issues are important because they can change from week to week. It feels like we just have to be grounded in what we’re doing and understand that purpose so we can sort of drown out the noise, or at least not ambulance chase because it’s very easy to do. The city’s flipping around. It’s wild every day, it’s so different. It’s not the same as when I arrived in 2008. My own rent has gone up a ton.
Funders really own the landscape at some points, so I think the hats and the time hacking and the calendar stuff is also a sense of understanding your purpose—a sense of what is needed—and sticking to it. And not being changed, but changing the narrative of what other people think needs to be changed. Because you’ll have moments of funders trying to say, “This is the new hot thing” or (trying to change the name), “This is not community technology, this is civic technology.” A lot of the work is really holding your ground and saying, “No, it’s actually this.” Honestly, I think that’s why some of the respect we’ve gotten is to not like sort of flow but to balance out changing and evolving with the times, while also holding who we are and being very true to the needs of Detroit and the people we work with.
Brogan: How did you get into this work in the first place?
Nucera: The Allied Media Conference. The Allied Media Conference changed my life, brought me into Allied Media Projects. It happens every summer in Detroit, and I went to the first one when I was 17 years old, a little Midwest zine hopper and little punk. And in 2005 I found myself going back as a youth media educator.
Brogan: Were you focused on technology at the time?
Nucera: Yeah, I’ve been focused on technology a lot of my life. I don’t know if I’m a millennial or not—I think I’m in the weird Generation-Y zone or something—but once the internet was introduced into my life I was like, “Wow. Let’s do this.” I was like, “Yes. Thank goodness I was born in this era.” I think I saw the potential of it really early on. I remember in my junior year of school having to use it, the internet, and that really changing my perspective on life.
Brogan: Are you from Detroit originally?
Nucera: No. I was born in Chicago; grew up in a small town in Frankfort, Indiana; did my schooling in San Francisco and Chicago; and then was recruited to come help move the AMC—the Allied Media Conference—from Bowling Green, Ohio, to Detroit, and to bring my education, my media and technology education skills, to Detroit for there to be more local programming (the conference is a national conference). Beginning in 2005, that day that I went to the AMC again, I just started really getting into this work, and one thing has led to another and now the Detroit Community Technology Project’s my baby.
Brogan: When you were a zine-scene kid, what was it that attracted you to the Allied Media Conference?
Nucera: Well, I was fortunate enough to have a crew of friends that was like a punk pack basically. I hung out with a lot of the older kids, some of them were already out of school, and they were involved in this DIY punk scene. Punk Planet, which is a magazine that Anne Elizabeth Moore—who now lives in Detroit, I’m so excited—created in Chicago specifically for folks like me, who were different—I think that’s where I got a lot of information. I think Bitch Media also started around that time. It was like that scene, which I think really came out of the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, which is now known as the Battle of Seattle.
Brogan: And when was that, ’99?
Nucera: 1999, yeah. The Battle of Seattle was basically this movement around anti-globalization, so thinking about the United States and Western powers really impacting the global economy. And this was prior to the internet having a huge push on that. Allied Media Projects came out of that moment, the Beehive Design Collective came out of that. A lot of what we know now as these media-based organizing projects came out of that.
Brogan: At that point, what was the Allied Media Conference? Is it something that has changed over the years?
Nucera: Oh, yes, absolutely. At the time, it was the Midwest Zine Fest, which was an independent publishing conference.
Brogan: Zines are these usually handmade, super-personal mini-publications?
Nucera: Right, right.
Brogan: In many ways, progenitors of early blogs and things like this were totally offline, for the most part.
Nucera: Yeah, that’s a great way to put it. I never thought of it that way. But yeah, it was like people taking publications into their own hands and saying, “Hey, we’re going to do this.” Just like at the time, the DIY punk scene was that you were going to publish your own music, which was pre-Napster or whatever. Maybe not pre-Napster, but I feel like Napster has something to do with it.
Brogan: So you’ve always been embedded in this scene that’s about taking agency not just over media consumption, but also media production and engagement—well before the rise of the modern, commercial internet, in some ways?
Brogan: Or at least the modern, commercial internet as we know it now.
Nucera: Yeah, and I think that being a part of that DIY punk scene really politicized me in thinking about class war and classism. I think it really struck me because I grew up in Indiana and I was one of four families of color. I didn’t understand why people treated me different. I wasn’t aware of what it meant to be a woman of color till I left Indiana, but I think that that inherently politicized me so that when I found this scene I was like, “Oh, yes. I understand.” Like, I understand why we need to fight for a difference and why homogeny is so destructive. Yeah, essentially that’s led me to where I am now—really thinking about the internet and technology and how that can really foster a difference, and I just enhance people in so many ways.
Brogan: How has your role within this work changed over the years?
Nucera: It’s been so interesting. Gosh, I feel like a whole different person because I’ve been able to do this work, but also just the time has gone by—I’m no spring chicken anymore. But I went from organizing this “how to” track—which is what it said, people teaching how to do things—that turned into a DIY tech track, which then turned into this thing called the media lab, which was a potluck of technology for people to teach and learn together.
Brogan: Were you learning a lot about technology in this period?
Nucera: This is how I learned about technology.
Brogan: Right. So you didn’t do formal schooling or something in this stuff?
Nucera: I did my undergrad in art and technology, but it was weird. I learn differently from the way I was taught, so a lot of my interactions with technology have been taking it apart or experimenting what I can do to combine things. My thesis in grad school was making a program for my cello to control video, so I could play a thunderstorm—stuff like that. But I was always intimidated by it because, one, men were always teaching me and they undermined me a lot, so I never got to fully go into it, or ask questions in a way that felt comfortable. I think that informed the way I approach technology now. One thing just led to another, so this media lab turned into the idea of a discotech. The discotech showed us what digital literacy can look like in the city.
I had this just deep love for education, and also this personal experience of not being taught in this way, so I needed to figure out this pedagogy of community technology, and then be able to teach others that. It’s a long, twisted line but all with this underlying tone of accessibility and fostering difference and really making sure the things we do are rooted in need, which seems so simple, but because of all the bells and whistles of tech I think it’s hard for people to do that.
Brogan: How long have you been in Detroit itself now?
Nucera: Nearly 10 years.
Brogan: Has the city’s relationship to technology changed during that time, you think?
Nucera: Oh, yeah, it’s nuts. We recently got a chief information technology officer. I don’t think we had one before the open data portal, or if we did it was a long time ago. Just the fact that the city even opened the data is nuts because our infamous [former] mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, actually had an ordinance that forbade that. That’s probably why he got to do a lot of the corruption that he got to do. And we also have smart city conferences coming to Detroit thinking about what’s possible, with this clean slate—I think that’s how people think about it.
Brogan: Do you think that’s an accurate characterization of the city? That it’s a technological clean slate?
Nucera: Absolutely not. No. I mean, it’s the home of the automobile. It is where I think where a lot of technology was incubated. If you want to track our cyborg-ism, it goes back to the car. So there’s been a deep history of innovation and technology in this city that I think people forget about because of our economic decline lasted so long.
Brogan: You also have here offices of major tech companies. Microsoft has a big office here, I think, Oracle, I think IBM does even. Does the presence of these tech behemoths make a difference at all in a city that seems like it’s also really marked by huge disparities of access and education and understanding around technology?
Nucera: Does their presence make a difference? No. Because they’re not talking to any of those people, and that’s why we do what we do, and that’s why we’re important, I think, in this landscape. They also come to us a lot for advice. I think even though we’ve been doing this work for so long, recently now people realize, “We don’t know how to get into that neighborhood.” It’s actually an opportunity for us to allow people to be better players, or teach them how to do that—or at least swing people in a different direction to say, “Hey, that’s not going to make any sense.”
Like, OK. You’re going to put internet in a light pole. Wonderful. How are people going to use it? You know? They’re not going to stand there. Don’t you know that no one wants to be walking around at night, even if it is lit up? The problem is, I would say, that there are not a whole lot of people in those companies who actually live in the city and have experienced the city for its whole self.
Brogan: Because they live out in the suburbs or just—
Nucera: —Suburbs, or they’re living in East English Village or Indian Village or other places that are really nice. I think that without that knowledge, there’s a big disconnect to what is actually necessary. So sure, people want streetlights. Neighbors have been putting up their own streetlights. But now we have lights that are LED-operated and online, that shut off on their own and conserve energy and maybe shoot out internet. It’s like we laid the foundation for that to happen, and I think some people think these corporations are the ones that are coming in and revitalizing Detroit.
Well, that’s not true at all. It’s been people who have been here for the longest time who have been doing the work and grinding, who have actually opened up the opportunity for them to have this moment. It is so important that they work with the organizers within the city if they want to be successful because I don’t think people are going to know how to actually get their services into some of these neighborhoods if they have no idea who these people are and what they experience.
Brogan: Does it feel weird at all to have maybe helped facilitate or engender some of that gentrification?
Nucera: Um ...
Brogan: Well, if I understand what you’re saying—and gentrification may not even be the right word here—that the work you’ve been doing for more than a decade now has maybe made possible some of these smart-city innovations and such, that may or may not be useful.
Nucera: Yeah, is that true? I think that’s a question.
Brogan: Maybe it’s the wrong question that I’ve asked, though.
Nucera: I think that the work we’ve done and the work a lot of the grass-roots organizations in Detroit have done have kept Detroit alive. I don’t know if they led the way to gentrification, but I know that they kept the city alive for it to even occur, and there’s not a whole lot of credit for that. People forget about the very dark days, and that a lot of the narrative really goes to Mike Duggan or Dan Gilbert, the mayor and a major billionaire developer, that they’re the ones who revitalized Detroit, where they just put in fancy housing that no Detroiters can actually live in.
They’re bringing people into Detroit, but what has kept Detroit alive are those very poor neighborhoods, those grass-roots groups. And whether or not we can shift or change that, it’s always going to live in the same space. The question now is more, how will it interact? How will we interact with each other? What are the community benefits that will happen with this new development? What is the role of these people who kept this soil alive? What is their role going to be in this new development? My job is to ensure that they have a seat at the table and they have the knowledge they need to participate in developing their neighborhoods.
Brogan: Thank you so much for taking the time to share your work with us today.
Nucera: Thanks for wanting to listen.
Brogan: It was a delight.
* * *
Brogan: In this Slate Plus extra, Diana Nucera shares her perspective on why net neutrality matters for Detroit.
Technology is moving super rapidly, and these changes are happening really quickly. You must have to respond to things quite suddenly. I mean, the week that we’re recording this, the FCC has suggested that basically we move to dissolve net neutrality. Can you describe for our listeners what net neutrality involves and why it’s important to you here in Detroit?
Nucera: I’ll try. The net neutrality that the Obama era put together gave us a few things. It gave us privacy as consumers of the internet, which has recently changed in legislation where internet service providers can now share or sell all the data you create on an internet connection, not just your browsing data; anything through your phone connection, anything that you do can be in in corporate hands. That, to me, is a massive breach of privacy, which is really scary. And net neutrality also offers this ability for the internet to be the even playing field in the sense that you pay for a connection and you have access to everything that’s on it.
Without it, ISPs can create a system like cable: you pay for basic cable, you only get so many sites; you pay for more, you get more access to the internet; you pay for more, you get even more access to the internet—which really dissolves the purpose of the internet, which was to connect us and to create this new playing field, both for economics but for social interactions. Without net neutrality, we face this moment where the internet will turn, and it can turn into the way in which television is being run, which to me is extremely scary because I feel like the internet was such an intense human evolution moment where we not only connected with each other but worlds connected, in a sense.
Like, we now know about what’s happening on the other side of the world, and we didn’t have access to that before. And something like Twitter can offer news from a citizen journalist’s perspective rather than depending on other entities that are more corporate to give us our news. The internet sort of decentralized the playing field of capitalism and the world, really, and it’s really at risk. Without net neutrality in place, it can start to look like another consumer model.