My History of Circuit Riding (Part 1)

At the end of March of 2013, the InteRider mailing list was shut down after what must have been over a decade – partially due to lack of traffic but also because of UK budget cuts. The list was initially set up to support a network of consultants who were focused on technology capacity building for NGO’s. It was sad to see the list go and it felt like an end of an era, the last vestige of a time when technology was less accessible and there was a greater need to help progressive organisations understand both its potential and limitations. It got me thinking about how networks like this had nurtured and supported me back when I was first learning about helping activists use technology to further their work.

In the next series of posts, I’m going to look at the history of those networks, what I believe worked and didn’t work, and how we might adapt technology capacity building networks to the ever-shifting landscape of technology and political activism.

Elsewhere on my website is a short piece on the origins of the name of my consultancy, ‘Why it’s Called Fabriders‘. As I mentioned in the piece, I was first introduced to the concept of circuit riding in 1998, when I was handed a job announcement. Circuit riding had emerged in the US in the mid-’90s as a way to give progressive-leaning non-profits, who had been traditionally wary of technology, a leg up in utilising the Internet. The name derives from 19th century preachers in the Western US, who were shared among congregations who couldn’t afford to have their own preacher. Modern Circuit Riders are technology evangelisers, translators connecting geeks to non-geek work and, more than anything else, being mentors. A Circuit Rider is essentially a roving technology consultant with a big difference: instead of being centred around a particular technology, Circuit Riders are focused on an issue. A Circuit Rider’s goal is to help an organisation achieve their mission or win a campaign by using technology, rather than the starting point being the technology itself.

A Circuit Rider circa 1995

The Circuit Rider Circa 1995

The initial Circuit Rider project was run out of the W. Alton Jones foundation, and it focused on non-profits working on toxic emissions issues (A nice chronology by Beth Kanter is here). That pilot project proved successful, and the Rockefeller Technology Project (later known as Tech Rocks) was charged with spreading the concept into other sectors. The job announcement I’d been given was part of that initiative. The Welfare Law Center, the organisation whose job announcement I answered, had been looking for ways to increase the communications capacities of several grassroots organising groups that had been springing up in low-income communities in the wake of the Clinton’s welfare reform agenda, which had devolved welfare from being a federally run programme to being state run. The Welfare Law Center had created a directory of welfare organising groups and were reprinting relevant articles from their newsletters. The Rockefeller Technology Project helped the Center conceive the ‘Low-Income Networking and Communication’s (LINC) Project,’ and established an online directory and a national listserve which organisations could use to communicate about what was working and not working in their own states as they dealt with changing welfare policies. The Circuit Rider’s role was to travel around the US and help these organisations to get online so they could utilise the listserve and increase their own capacity to communicate.

At the time, I was working in New York City during the day with the National Religious Partnership for the Environment while studying anthropology at night at Hunter College. My studies had focused on marginalised communities and how they could organise to shape policies that impacted them. In the US, the debate around welfare recipients had successfully demonised the poor for the benefit of elected officials, and the new policies were only succeeding in driving low-income families even deeper into poverty. So welfare rights organising was something I paid attention to — not to mention that my boyfriend at the time had formed a welfare organising group called ‘Community Voices Heard’ in Harlem with several welfare moms.

After being interviewed by Rob Stuart and Michael Ward from the Rockefeller Technology Project, I got the job and it was just in time for the second ‘Riders Roundup’. I was off to Flint, Michigan to meet several other circuit riders and learn about what worked and what didn’t in my new role. There were only 30 people at this round-up (which would evolve to become today’s Non-Profit Technology Conference, or NTC … but more on that later). There were so many practices I learned at this event that I still use to this day: conducting assessments; creating technology plans to help groups figure out how to move forward, incrementally implementing tech in bite-size chunks that are achievable; focusing groups on their missions and not the technology.

I was very thankful that the Rockefeller Technology Project had convened the Round-up and I expressed my appreciation to Rob Stuart about the timing of the event.  His response was ‘well, thats why we had to do it. Because you were just starting.’  Ofcourse, that isn’t why they had the round-up, but he said it in a way that made me feel like it was more than fate.

There were other amazing people that I met whom I still feel I can call on to this day: Gavin Claubaugh, Sean O’Brien, Denise Joines, Amy Lucky, to name a handful.   All  willing to share expertise. I remember feeling like I had found my tribe, my community.  And every one shared a problem-solving addiction. I came back to NYC feeling poised and ready for the challenge of launching the LINC Project.


The magic of clip art: the first LINC Project Logo

In my next post, I will talk about the growth of the Circuit Rider network and how it helped to develop and sustain the LINC project.