Connect Locally, Empower Globally

Renée Black est assise devant un écran d’ordinateur portatif, alors que son collègue Carey Hoffman regarde par-dessus son épaule.

“You are dealing with cultural differences, language barriers, low bandwidth and technology capacity issues, both in terms of hardware infrastructure and skills. It is definitely a more complex form of volunteering.”

— Renée Black

By Mike Foster

Years of working to empower women in conflict zones inspired alumna Renée Black to give grassroots groups a high-tech edge. In 2011, Black set up PeaceGeeks, a non-profit volunteer organization that teaches technological, communications and management skills to those who promote peace and human rights in developing countries.

Working under the mantra Connect Locally — Empower Globally, Peace Geeks improves lives around the world. In South Sudan, they support the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO), which monitors conflicts and assists with reconciliation in communities affected by violence.

Recently, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees asked PeaceGeeks to build an app to help 620,000 Syrian refugees living in Jordan to navigate their way to the services they need.

Before completing her master’s degree in public and international affairs at uOttawa’s Faculty of Social Sciences in 2009, Black had volunteered with women’s initiatives in Africa. She later interned at the United Nations’ Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York City, assisting with a peacekeeping mission in Burundi.

However, the real driver behind PeaceGeeks came in 2010. Thousands of women from around the world had gathered to mark the tenth anniversary of UN Security Council resolution 1325, on empowering women peace-builders in conflict zones. There was zero media attention and peace groups lacked tools to help them get the word out about their important contributions to peacebuilding.

“I thought that was terrible. Peace Geeks was about trying to do something about that,” says Black. “We are trying to amplify potential.”

Over the past four years, PeaceGeeks volunteers have helped an impressive array of 20 groups and causes in Egypt, Indonesia, Palestine, Liberia, Uganda, Kenya, Nepal and, more recently, South Sudan.

Renée Black est assise devant un ordinateur portatif

Renée Black says PeaceGeeks aims to amplify the potential of grassroots groups that fight for peace and human rights. Photo: Bonnie Findley.

Black explains that, working in partnership with the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO) in South Sudan, PeaceGeeks helped build a website that includes a “crisis-mapping” component that documents verified incidents of violence related to the conflict. CEPO has been lobbying for an arms embargo on South Sudan and details of incidents are crucial to supporting its cause. Black says that, surprisingly, she was recently contacted by the co-chair of the U.S. congressional committee for South Sudan, who wanted to know PeaceGeeks’ opinion on the embargo. However, Black stresses that, as a civil society organization and a charity, PeaceGeeks has to be careful to remain non-political.

Meanwhile, the app designed for use by refugees in Jordan to help them find their way around more than 530 different services offered by 60 different humanitarian organizations is a first for the UNHCR, which is currently considering whether to use it in Lebanon as well. For this project, PeaceGeeks had support from B.C. tech firms Affinity Bridge, The Jibe and Cheeky Monkey Media. All of the work was done over the Internet with PeaceGeeks volunteers in Saudi Arabia, Europe, the U.S. and Canada. Black estimates that the cost of the project would have been around $25,000 were it not for the volunteer labour.

There are now more than 400 skilled professionals — designers, educators, programmers, legal advisers and filmmakers — as well as students, in the PeaceGeeks network, helping grassroots organizations build websites, design logos and receive training. Last year, the Vancouver-based PeaceGeeks completed 14 projects —not bad for a small civil society organization whose staff includes just Black as full-time executive director and four part-time staff.

Black says it can be tricky to manage projects remotely.

“You are dealing with cultural differences, language barriers, low bandwidth and technology capacity issues, both in terms of hardware infrastructure and skills. It is definitely a more complex form of volunteering,” says Black.

PeaceGeeks supported HarassMap, an organization in Egypt that challenged the social acceptability of sexual harassment in that country. In Uganda, it supported the Centre for Women in Governance, which encourages women to become government leaders, as well as another project that monitors gender violence, human trafficking and attacks on those who fight for human rights. In Liberia, it has worked with the Women’s NGO Secretariat of Liberia (WONGOSOL), an umbrella group for more than 105 women’s rights groups, and in Kenya, it helped Young Women Entrepreneurs Kenya, an organization that helped women who were victims of sexual violence during the 2008 election to recover, receive job training and become involved in the political process.

Black says the use of computer technology is central to any organization’s survival in this digital age. However, many grassroots organizations in developing countries have not been able to secure affordable support to boost their visibility online and empower communities with key communications skills, she says.

“PeaceGeeks was created to fill that skills and technology gap,” says Black. “For a lot of these groups, if they don’t have a website, they are invisible to international donors and their chance of getting funding is much lower.”

Earlier this month, Black was in Ottawa at a conference hosted by the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, where the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada announced its new Civil Society Partnership Policy. Black says there is much in the new initiative which could give PeaceGeeks a boost.

“We are effectively a startup. Previously, the funding mechanisms were very difficult to access for small organizations because of the sheer amount of work that had to be put into the application process. Now there’s a commitment to make funding more accessible to smaller organizations,” says Black. “One of our main focuses is to amplify the voices of marginalized grassroots communities. That is one of the top priorities in the Civil Society Partnership Policy.”

Having said that, Black says PeaceGeeks is always looking for funding, partners and a special type of talented volunteer.

“The main motivation for our PeaceGeeks volunteers seems to be that they want to do something that is larger than them. They want to give back because they recognize how lucky they are. PeaceGeeks is about trying to tap into that passion and potential.”

The story of Renée Black and PeaceGeeks is among the new Defy the Conventional stories in our series. Visit Defy the Conventional to read more about exceptional members of the uOttawa community.

Main photo:
Renée Black and PeaceGeeks support staff colleague Carey Hoffman. Photo: Philip Chin.

Un câble USB en forme de colombe.

Renée Black’s PeaceGeeks features in uOttawa’s latest round of Defy the Conventional stories.


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